A Spring interlude

“An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future.”
Ethel Temby, from her personal history of Yallambie Homestead, 1984

Ethel wrote this in the early ’80s while reflecting on more than two decades of life at Yallambie. In the 30 odd years since, the seasons have come and gone and the years have brought change. Plants and garden beds have been removed and reinstated. Drought has wrecked the garden more than once, only for it to recover and be born anew. Geriatric trees have succumbed to the passage of the time and collapsed to be replanted. Some things don’t change though and one of these is the arrival of the Spring time and the possibilities the season has to offer. I like to think the continuity described by Ethel might be something that had its beginning with R Bakewell and E L Bateman, found recognition in the writings of the Howitts and Louisa Anne Meredith and is a tradition that survives to this present day. As Ethel once said, quoting from Brown in her history:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot.

Fresh buds bloom, showers soften the earth and there is a warmth in the air outside already. It’s been a lovely Spring, don’t you think? Sorry for not writing about it more right now but I’ve got to get outside. Something’s waiting for me.

Trash & Treasure

I’ve heard it said that one man’s treasure can be another man’s trash. As I look around  at our tumble down house built in another time and in answer to the needs of another era, I can say it comes as hardly any surprise. As an idea, it’s scarcely novel.

Photograph taken with the old Kodak during a fishing trip to the Mitta Mitta River in the 1950s.

I remember my father having an old folding Autographic Kodak with a lens that popped out on the end of a bellows and with a little silver pointed scribe which could be used to write directly onto the film. As a child I was fascinated by the mechanics of the object, especially the possibilities of that pencil, but it was only later when I was at art school and getting briefly interested in photography that I thought more about it. With access to a dark room I started wondering what sort of a picture such a camera might be capable of producing in the modern era.

When I asked my father his reply was to the point.

“Oh that. I couldn’t get the film for it anymore so I threw it into the rubbish.”

“What!”

“Oh, never mind that. It was old when I got it. I bought it from a man in a pub you know. By Jove, though,” he paused. He used to talk like that. “Do you think it was hot?”

“No, not really?”

Thus ended in the Pater’s belated realization of his role as a fence, any possibility of a foray into a world of experimental art photography.

My wife’s parents have always had a good appreciation of period style and my father in law in particular has a collection of interesting if now entirely obsolete cameras. At one time he even had his own dark room but, as a freelance commercial artist, that was probably a necessity of business. The reality is, the older they have grown the more modern their tastes have become, a trend in which they are not alone. Just go mid-week to any second hand auction house to see the low prices these sales generate, a by-product of the Marie Kondo led minimalism craze and the dictates of Instagram fashion. It’s a fad but one that overlooks the fact that the old product is generally better made, lasts longer and is sometimes more aesthetically pleasing than a modern day equivalent. Pauline Morrissey calls the trend “fast furniture” and puts it into the same realm as fast food and fast fashion.

Singer of an occasional lunatic tune.

The cuckoo clock that hangs over this table for instance and which offers the occasional lunatic tune on the half hour as I type is one example. It keeps pretty good time and makes more of a contribution to family life here than an equivalent digital device. It was rescued from a rubbish pile one day in need of new bellows and replacement weights. Dusted down and rejuvenated, our feathered friend continues to make a fitting and regular Laurel and Hardy commentary on the unstated, state of the union.

Skipper’s mandala

So it was no surprise after a recent visit to her parents that my wife returned with another discarded object tucked under her arm.

“It’s a mandala,” she said holding up a bent and rusted object for me to inspect. “Apparently my parents got it from Matcham Skipper at Montsalvat back in the day. Mum and Dad threw it away in the garden but it’s going to be bolted onto that wall over there.”

I looked at it with interest. I’d seen similar things before on suburban homes of a certain age. Many have a sort of Brutalist honesty in form and the rust this example had collected in the garden only seemed to add to the shadows cast by the afternoon light onto the indicated wall. It concealed a story of potentialities. Apparently my wife’s grandmother had taken her father out to Justus Jörgensen’s Montsalvat in Eltham when his family re-emigrated from England as £10 Poms after the War. He was only a kid but he already wanted to be an artist. For some reason or other and in spite of her strict Baptist upbringing, Nan took her son over to Montsalvat where Matcham’s sister, Helen gave them a tour of the buildings many of which were still in the construction phase.

“Nan took one look at all those “Bohemians” and their libertine lifestyle and couldn’t get Dad out of there quick enough. She eventually found him an apprenticeship at Colour Gravure but imagine if he had been allowed to stay.”

“Yes, he might have missed out on a spectacular career as a commercial artist where he reached the top of his profession and instead learned how to mix concrete and spit rocks for Justus Jörgensen.”

Building project at Montsalvat c1939-45. (Picture by Albert Tucker, from the Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)
The Great Hall at Montsalvat under construction c1939-45. (Picture by Albert Tucker, from the Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)

The story of Justus Jörgensen’s artists’ colony at Montsalvat is well known. It is Australia’s oldest artist colony and is famous for being constructed by the artists themselves from cast off materials scavenged from places all across Melbourne. It’s a principle that seems to have extended into the production of art as for most of his life Matcham Skipper, 1921-2011, as one of the principle artists in residence at Montsalvat, was a keen advocate of the concept of “art in the found object”.

A young Matcham Skipper photographed at Montsalvat, c1939-45. (Picture by Albert Tucker, from the Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)

One of Justus’ sons, Sigmund Jörgensen who died earlier this year wrote of the Matcham method:

“He loved the stuff and, given the opportunity, would have filled the whole of Montsalvat under metres of his junk. To Matcham, it was inspirational… each piece containing an inspired thought of what he might do with it when he had the time.” (Sigmund Jörgensen, “Montsalvat”, 2014, Allen & Unwin)

Everyone remembers Matcham Skipper today for his exquisitely fine jewellery but that was only one side of what was in essence a multi-faceted career. Sculptor, jeweller, ironworker, photographer and builder of dreams, in his lifetime Matcham Skipper would turn his hand to many things. Mandalas could be described as an eastern sort of cosmic diagram of the infinite world which extends beyond our vision and Skipper borrowed from the concept, using off pressings sourced from the Sidchrome tool works in Heidelberg and incorporating welding skills learned from the Commonwealth Industrial Gas complex in Preston to create strong yet sometimes delicate structures. In the 70s, Skipper mandalas became a bit of a must have for the bare arsed exteriors of many newly minted brick veneers, like the shag pile carpets inside and the flared trousers of their owners outside. For a while they became a much copied static design motif all around town although often it can be said without the mastery of a Skipper original.

“Once, driving him (Matcham) through a Melbourne suburb, I pointed out an ill-formed mandala that had been fixed to a front wall of a cream brick veneer home. I said to Matcham, ‘Well, there is your legacy, the welded mandala.’ Matcham groaned, his great idea prostituted for the almighty dollar.” (Sigmund Jörgensen, ibid)

On location at Montsalvat. A scene from Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013. (Source: Every Cloud Productions).

The annual Montsalvat Arts Festival is happening this weekend but with admission fees and prices charged for individual events across the two days, perhaps the almighty dollar long ago subsumed the guiding principles of what Montsalvat originally stood for, indeed if those principles ever really existed.

The Royal Insurance Building at 414 Collins Street showing its renowned Domestic Tudor facade. “The most perfect Gothic stonework in Melbourne, excepting St Paul’s Cathedral”. It was demolished by Whelan the Wrecker in 1938 and the limestone carved windows became a feature of Montsalvat’s Great Hall.

Many of the architectural elements that were used to build Montsalvat were reputedly sourced from the yard of the demolition company “Whelan the Wrecker”. Whelan’s sign on building sites “Whelan Is Here” followed by “Whelan Was Here” on an empty block became synonymous with a Post War desire for urban renewal and social change in Victoria. Like the buildings it consigned to the scrap heap, the Whelan company in its original form is now long gone but it’s said that during its existence, the company always expressed an appreciation of the heritage of the old buildings it was their task to destroy as evidenced by the select parts of the buildings they salvaged from the wrecking ball. But it is also true that under their watch, much of Melbourne’s 19th century character was sacrificed with hardly a voice heard in protest.

Whelan the Wrecker sending Parer’s Crystal Cafe at 103 Bourke Street, Melbourne into oblivion in 1960.

As reported in Robyn Annear’s fascinating 2005 book, “A City Lost & Found” detailing the history of Whelan the Wrecker in Melbourne, in 1965 Whelan purchased a disused quarry in East Brunswick with a million-and-a-quarter cubic metres of ‘air space’ to fill. It was estimated that the old quarry hole would take Whelan’s 50 years to fill. In less than 10 it was half-full and many of the best buildings in the city had ended up in it. I’ve sometimes wondered what might be found if in years to come an archaeological dig was conducted on the site.

The Great Hall, Montsalvat, April, 1977. (Picture by John T Collins, from the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)
Matcham Skipper in 1964. (Source: picture by Sue Ford, from the collection of Nillumbik Shire Council, Museums Victoria)

It’s said that life imitates art and the idea of recycling has now become far more accepted today than it ever was in the days when Matcham Skipper was alive and punching out his mandalas. Recycling has become a catch cry in the 21st century but with China becoming more selective with the plastics it is willing to accept from Australia to be sent back to us as mass production stamped “Made in China”, we may have to start taking responsibility for our own actions. The collapse of SKM in August with debts of $100 million has sent the state’s recycling system into chaos with some councils reportedly forced to send thousands of tonnes of recycling to land fill.

No one wants to be “that hoarder” who ends up consumed by the detritus of a life out of control, but it’s also true that most of us could do more at patching and repairing than throwing away. For every piece of recycled timber used in a building project, a plantation tree or patch of old growth forest is saved. For every dumpster diver sourcing a culinary feast from a bin outside a supermarket, edible food that would otherwise end up as landfill, (up to 7.3 million tonnes in Australia every year according to a recent report) is a win in the war on waste. Recycling it seems has always been an art form, one that old Matcham was onto a long time before anyone else.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, repeat and reflect.