Vale Banyule

The Australian writer and historian Don Watson once posed the tempting question, “What will history make of us should there be any historians left to write it?”

The news last week that the State Government had decided on Corridor A as the chosen route for the North East Link freeway leaves a devastating conflict of emotions for nearby communities. There is the feeling of relief that the alternative B, C and D roads will now, at least not for the time being, be built, but this is coupled with a general feeling of dismay at the destruction Corridor A is likely to wreak.

Corridor A when built will largely cut an underground path under Viewbank and Rosanna, with road interchanges located at Bulleen and Lower Plenty Roads, but it will be the surface road parallel with Greensborough Road along the Western boundary of Yallambie with Macleod and in Watsonia in the north, together with the associated road interchanges at either end that will have the most obvious visual impact. At least 75 homes are expected be lost to the plan and it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with the local area just where these are likely to be.

The government spent $100 million to write a study of their four, so called alternative routes which included the utter surprise of their Corridor B proposal through the heart of Yallambie, but in the end the extra corridors were a smoke screen, an attempt to muddy the water surrounding a proposal to build Corridor A which, because it was expected to be cheaper, was always going to be the favoured option.

Melbourne’s road network with missing links from Vicroads publication “Linking Melbourne”, February, 1994.

Corridor A has been talked about ever since something like it was first proposed in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. It wasn’t built because enough people could see back then that it was a bad idea. So what has changed? A decade ago the proposal was still on the table and costed at $6 billion, but last week’s announcement rings in now at over $16 billion. The real question then is, just how much is this thing going to cost eventually, and I don’t just mean in dollar terms.

Perhaps the NELA aren’t aware of some of the worry and the sleepless nights that they have given Yallambie and Lower Plenty residents since the first suggestion of Corridor B was disclosed in August. Perhaps they don’t care. This sort of cavalier attitude is nothing new, as the recent to-ing and fro-ing over the abandoned East West Link proposal is evidence, but fifty years ago the following story illustrates perhaps just how strongly passions can run on such matters.

In the mid 1960s, at a time before the first spade had been turned on Melbourne’s freeway network, a plan was developed by Doncaster and Templestowe City Council in conjunction with the Country Roads Board to widen Templestowe Rd in Templestowe at the Thompsons Road intersection. The plan when first discussed involved realigning Templestowe Rd at its closest approach to the Yarra River with Parker St in the east, through the heart of the Templestowe township.

Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe. (Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society)

But there was a problem. Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel, a local landmark of some renown, stood right in the path of the new road.

An early view of the Upper Yarra Hotel before the addition of the west wing.

The Upper Yarra Hotel was a much loved building. James Finn had opened his hotel as a beer shop on the Templestowe corner in 1866, near what is now a vanished river crossing, and over the years various additions had been made to it which had combined to create a strange amalgamation of architectural styles. The idiosyncratic compact construction of the original building seemed to stand at odds with the later, two-storey block fronted section but somehow they combined almost by accident to form a building of considerable rambling charm.

The Upper Yarra was delicenced in the early 1920s but as it aged and became more dilapidated the rustic appeal of its setting became a favoured subject for local artists. The various parts of the hotel itself were painted a rusty red colour in an attempt to bring unity to its conflicting parts and as the paint peeled the overpainted words “Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel” stood out like a ghostly commentary as to the building’s former life, an old world garden and a cobbled stable yard behind the hotel completing the overall effect of a genteel rural decay.

Finn’s Hotel photographed towards the end of its life by John T Collins in 1963. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The grown up grandchildren of James Finn were still living somewhat reclusive lives at the old hotel in the mid 1960s when the Council came a knockin’. Doncaster and Templestowe City Council had purchased the land on which the Upper Yarra Hotel stood from the executors of the estate of the son of James Finn and the Council were trying to force his grandchildren from the building which the surviving generation still occupied. The Council met with some militant but probably understandable opposition from the residents who objected to being moved away from the building their family had occupied for over a hundred years. One contemporary newspaper report described how a party of journalists was chased away from the hotel environs one evening in 1967 by an aging Finn brother wielding a big stick, smashing up a photographer’s car in the process in the mistaken belief that the newspaper party were officers from the Housing Commission come to enforce an eviction order.

Finn’s Hotel seen from near the corner of Templestowe and Thompsons Rd, Templestowe. (Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society)

In the end the Council got their way of course and the Finns removed themselves voluntarily from the building on the 28th May, 1967. On the night of departure however a mysterious fire broke out in the old weatherboarded building, quickly reducing it to a pile of cinder and rubble in spite of the best efforts of the Country Fire Authority to combat the blaze.

The end of Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel on the night of 28 May, 1967 as reported in “The Sun” news pictorial the next day.
Newspaper clipping from the front page of the Doncaster and Outer Circle Mirror, 27 September, 1967.

It was a tragic loss to history for the area. The Council had been discussing the possibility of moving the hotel out of the path of the imagined road realignment in a manner that they would later employ to save another historic Doncaster building, Schramm’s Cottage, in the 1970s. The fire put an end to any further discussion, Ad infinitim.

Eventually the Council accepted a cheque of $365.95 as compensation for the loss of the building, but the money was not really the point. The final irony in the telling of this story is that when the realignment of Templestowe Rd eventually took place, a decision was made to straighten the route to meet with Foote St parallel to Parker Street, which is the situation as it exists today. If Finn’s Hotel had been standing and not by then a pile of ashes, it would have been in the clear.

Today a so called “History Pavilion” on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe marks the site of the former Upper Yarra Hotel, with photographs plastered around the interior detailing the (now mostly vanished) history of the area. It is a strangely sad, not often visited tribute.

“History Pavillion,” at Templestowe on the site of the Upper Yarra Hotel, November, 2017. The bricks used in the cairn were salvaged from the ruins of the hotel after the fire.

So how does this story affect the reality of the Corridor A proposal for North East Link? The above tale is an example that road plans are not set in stone until such time as they are actually set in concrete, whether they be tunnels or tarmac and you don’t have to burn down a building to find this out. Melbourne University transport lecturer John Stone was quoted in a newspaper story about State Government transport spin doctoring in The Age last month saying that, “Communities are presented with Maggie Thatcher’s old line – ‘There is no alternative’ – and often there is. But under the current system, the community can only be heard if they can create enough political will to be heard.”

Opponents of North East Link Corridor A have called a public meeting today on a rainy afternoon at Koonung Creek Reserve, Balwyn North and the AGM of the Friends of Banyule is scheduled for Thursday night at the old Shire offices in Beverley Rd, Heidelberg where there will be no prizes offered for guessing what will be the main item on the agenda that night. The opposition to Corridor A in these neighbourhoods is understandable but by any reckoning, the real opposition to the route should be coming from groups here in the north. Corridor A will be a surface road when it passes through Greensborough, Watsonia and Yallambie/Macleod and two of the three major new road interchanges will be situated here. The lack of opposition here however is the result of the earlier sleight of hand exercise conducted by NELA when they divided community opposition with the suggested alternative Corridors, B, C and D. That’s what the State Government got for spending a $100 million to investigate the alternative corridors, although they said at the time the money was to be used to cover the cost of “geotechnical investigations, design, environmental and social studies”. The cold, hard reality is that Corridor A will have a devastating effect on the City of Banyule, dividing the municipality in two in a north south direction along Greensborough Rd while doing little to relieve the very real traffic problems in the area. Vale to the City of Banyule.

Like the Finns at the old Upper Yarra Hotel, the lives knocked about by these road proposals are real people with real homes, each with their own story to tell and each with a sense of community and belonging. $16 billion and counting sounds to me like an awful lot of money to be spending on building a road, a road that won’t even do what it is intended to do, that is complete the missing link in Melbourne’s Ring Road system. Look at a map of the proposed route of Corridor A and you will see that the Corridor A route does not contribute to a ring at all but is a dent in the road plan, driving ring bound traffic back towards the city before asking it to fan out again in an easterly direction.

Melbourne’s road network with proposed North East Links from RA, September, 2017. Corridor A is the shorter, therefore theoretically cheaper dotted line to the left at Bulleen.

So when is a ring not a ring? When it is a link in the eyes of the North East Link Authority. The building of Corridor A will not remove the need to build a completed ring through Eltham in years to come. The thing is, by then the State will be so bankrupt that this will never happen, no matter what needs might then be presented. By that time too with the advent of AVs (autonomous vehicles), cars as we know them now might be a thing of the past, which poses some interesting speculation in answer to Don Watson’s original conundrum.

 

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Withers’ Way

They called him “The Orderly Colonel”.

It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.

Heidelberg Historical Society marker in Summit Drive, Eaglemont.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845. (Heidelberg Historical Society picture)

Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.

Portrait of the Heidelberg School artist, Walter Withers, 1854 – 1914. Source: Wikipedia

In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).

When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.

Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894.

In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.

Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.

Wragge painted four panel door at Yallambie.

Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.

“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

The stableyard at Yallambie, c1900 by Sarah Annie Wragge showing the Bakewell era stables on the left and stableyard wall, both now demolished. Laundry building at right. I’m thinking maybe Annie couldn’t paint horses? (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890. Source: Bill Bush collection

The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.

Southernwood, Walt Withers’ former home on Bolton St, Eltham and the site of a major road reconstruction, November, 2017.
Walt Withers old studio at Southernwood as it appeared during a sale of the home in 2011. Source: Domain
The rail tunnel built under Darebin St, Heidelberg in 1901 and currently in the process of being rebuilt with duplicated line, November, 2017.

The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.

Tranquil Winter, Walt Withers, 1895. The house on the ridge is still standing today in Walker Court, Viewbank. This masterpiece was singled out for praise at the time by the eminent British critic, R.A. M. Stevenson, but today is not on general display. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.

Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg (sic), 1907, Walt Withers. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/3251/

In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.

Looking north east along Main Rd from the corner of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, from a screen still of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. The trees on the side of the road pictured here are a feature of Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic).

The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.

A much later picture of the Golf Club Hotel, AKA, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950 but clearly showing the service wing set a right angles to the main buillding.

From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.

John Irwin balancing on Mick Noonan’s motor bike, outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1950. This is perhaps the only known photograph that offers a glimpse of the eastern approach to the old Lower Plenty Road Bridge past the PBH, the direction chosen by Withers in “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic). Source: the John Irwin family collection

It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.

It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1928. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. Although this picture is looking in the opposite direction to Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic) many of the details painted by the artist are discernable here.

In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.

Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.

“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)

The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Thumbnail of “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, Walt Withers. Source: Geelong Gallery
Looking towards Lower Plenty in the 1920s from a viewpoint similar to “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” but much closer to the bridge.

Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel and the western abutments of the Lower Plenty Road Bridge, c1927. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club.
Drawing of Rose Chapel, (St Katherine’s) at St Helena by Victor Cobb, 1935. Withers was buried here in 1914. The building was burned almost to the ground in a bush fire in 1957 but rebuilt. It is interesting to note that the reverse side of this original drawing bears the artist’s inscription describing it as a drawing of “Rose Chapel, St Helena, Eltham”, evidence of how place names like Heidelberg and Eltham were generic district terms used loosely by artists. Private collection

Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.

Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.

His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.

Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:

“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”

The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.

Army cadets at Camp Q, Watsonia, (Yallambie), 1944. Source:  Australian War Memorial

At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by E L Bateman 1853-1856. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.

Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.

Does anybody care?

His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.