Category Archives: Art & Culture

Mud, mud, glorious mud

At first glance, leafy Eltham with its artist colonies in Melbourne’s north east, far flung and fabled, Timbuktu in Saharan West Africa and Yallambie might not appear to have much in common, but look further. Surprisingly there is one thing seemingly attached to all three, and it’s not the peculiar place that each occupies in our collective imagination.

Mud Brick.

The Great Mosque of Djenné near Timbuktu. (Picture: Joe Benke)

It’s a building construction method that has been used by humans ever since we first realized there was an alternative to sharing our homes with the angry cave bear. At Timbuktu, Mudbrick building has been practiced since Iron Age times where sun-baked earth bricks are called “Ferey”. In other places, Mudbrick is known by a variety of provincial names (Adobe, Banco, Earth Structure, and Clay Lump) and is practiced in a variety of related technical forms (Rammed Earth, Cob, Pisé de terre and Sod).

The Taos Pueblo Native American adobe complex in New Mexico. (Photographed by the writer)
Mudbrick building in Eltham, 1947 with Alastair Knox pictured centre. (Source: alistairknox.org)

In Eltham, Mudbrick building was a construction practice that was adopted widely after 1947 in what was then a still largely rural community. This was partly as a result of post war building shortages, but also in response to a building programme that had been going on at the artist community at Montsalvat since 1934 and a general desire to return to a more primitive building aesthetic. As a material it had indefinable human and emotional qualities and a succession of local builders, starting first with the self-taught Mudbrick pioneer Alistair Knox, quickly made it their own.

Today it is estimated that there are over 1300 mud brick homes in the Shire of Nillumbik alone. Every year our son’s soon to be alma mater, runs a tour of a small selection of some of these houses as a fund raising event to support the very excellent Eltham HS music programme, continuing a tradition that dates back more than 50 years. The 2018 tour takes place this coming Sunday but the ticketed event is already a sell-out, which perhaps proves the enduring community interest in Mudbrick and by extension, the Sustainable House Movement.

Bakewell era stables corner of Tarcoola Drive and Lambruk Court, removed to make way for the Temby Mudbricks. (Source: John Botwood Collection)

In Yallambie, Mudbrick homes on the A V Jennings estate are in reality a rarity, but there are two Mudbricks located in Tarcoola Drive of comment. These houses were built at the start of the 1980s on land that was formerly occupied by the Bakewell era “Yallambee” stables. They were built by the sons of Ethel Temby after their mother had ended her 20 year association with the Wragge era Homestead. Although the Bakewell stables were sadly sacrificed to make way for these buildings, the two homes did incorporate a few selected materials salvaged from the original structure and are in a way a continuation of that spirit of place.

Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
At Bear’s Castle in 1997.

Earth building in the Plenty Valley is a story that can be traced back to the earliest days of settlement. The building of Bear’s Castle at Yan Yean used Cob, a sort of trimmed earth construction method not dissimilar to Mudbrick, and is a rare pre goldrush example of that style of earth building. It is unique in Victoria today and was built in about 1847 although at that time it appears there were other buildings of a similar type in the area. As noted by the architectural historian Miles Lewis in his book “Victorian Primitive”, a Victorian Government Prize essay of 1859 stated that at Yan Yean could be found at that time, “common pise houses about twelve years old, and the conspicuous pise tower known as Bear’s Castle.”

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria, Accession Number 645E-5)

It is unknown whether the Bakewells used earth construction methods in any of their buildings at Yallambee. E L Bateman’s View V of The Station Plenty series seems to hint at bark roofing and vertical slab style construction methods used in the station outbuildings with just a tantalizing hint of a “Three Little Pigs” thatched roof on the horizon, so that is not to say that other styles of primitive building were not followed in the landscape beyond the picture. Lewis states in the opening of the introduction to his book that:

“A colony is a sort of cultural laboratory. Customs and crafts which have developed in their homeland over hundreds of years are translated abruptly into totally new conditions.”
(Lewis: Victorian Primitive, Greenhouse Publications, 1977)

He goes on to on to say that slab construction in Victoria was “related to traditional English precedents” but that bark roofing was “an unequivocally local response to the presence of suitable barking trees” at Port Phillip while in regard to earth building, “in Australia mud brick quickly became acclimatised.”

In its simplest form then, all primitive building techniques make use of local resources and require only the labour of preparing and erecting the building material, whether that be mud brick, split timber or otherwise, a consideration that must have been of considerable appeal to the early settlers of the Port Phillip District.

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (Source: City of Melbourne Collection )

The very first European building in what was to eventually become the Colony of Victoria was a blockhouse built on Churchill Island in Westernport Bay by Lieutenant James Grant during a visit in 1801 which used an early form of common horizontal slab construction. Thirty years on, the very first shelters built by the party left behind by John Batman at Indented Head after his initial contact with the Kulin Nation were of Sod.

Sod or “Turve” construction was a popular method of housing in the “Bearbrass” settlement of 1830s Melbourne. The first two buildings in Melbourne were a hut and a storehouse of this style and in 1836 the “Sydney Gazette” reported that two of Melbourne’s three public houses were formed of turf sods. Early writers make numerous references to the resulting ramshackle appearance this material gave to the new town.

“…Melbourne which at present consists entirely of turf and weather-boarded huts, a very primitive looking place.”
(James Willis, Plenty River squatter, Diary, 2 May, 1837)

Sod buildings were constructed by cutting patches of turf into rectangles with a hatchet or plough and then piling the material up into walls. The resulting structures, although easy to create, required continual maintenance and were therefore not surprisingly easily vulnerable to rain damage.

Mudbrick or “Clay Lump” was the alternative and became more popular in Victoria as the century progressed. In Mudbrick building, bricks are made by mixing earth with water to make the mud, adding straw or other fibres as a binding agent, then placing the mixture into moulds and allowing the resulting blocks to dry in the sun. It all sounds terribly easy, which is probably the reason for the enduring popularity of the process.

Although questioning his sources, Miles Lewis quotes from a description of this method of construction as applied locally during the first years of settlement at Melbourne:

“It will not always occur that the young beginner will have either the time or the money at his disposal for burning bricks – if he has, he is well off. Sun-dried bricks, if mixed with chopped straw, and carefully made, are an excellent substitute for the burned brick, and as they may be made very large, say, nine inches wide and eighteen-and-a-half inches long, they are very quickly laid. In Victoria there is, in general, a scarcity of lime; it can always be had in Melbourne though but seldom in the country a mortar made of sandy clay or loam must, therefore, be substituted for it.”

At Yallambee the Bakewells had the cash resources to pick and choose from available building resources. Their prefabs were neat weather boarded buildings but these structures also incorporated soft fired bricks in various ways. The bricks used by the Bakewells were reportedly slop sided, narrow profile handmade bricks that had been brought out as ballast on the early clipper ships to Port Phillip. By contrast, when Thomas Wragge came to build the present homestead around 1872, the bricks used for that stucco style Italianate construction were fired on site from locally sourced clay.

Thomas Wragge’s stucco style Italianate Yallambie Homestead was constructed with hand made bricks fired on the property. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)

It took until the second half of the 20th century before the Temby boys made their attempts to return Yallambie to a more archaic style of building. The resulting houses they built today stand as a curiosity among the A V Jennings brick veneers of the Yallambie estate.

The stone built, oold Bakewell era stables, c1900, (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

The Age reported this week that one result of the continuing property boom is that the quarries that have supplied the clay and shale used in creating Melbourne’s distinctive red bricks, are fast being exhausted. Clay and clay shale demand in Victoria is expected to grow by 33 per cent to 1.6 million tonnes in 2050. The construction house market is not only depleting clay and clay shale supplies, but also the amount of land from which it can be extracted. Mudbrick houses as a building type however are  by definition, naturally sustainable. They make use of the earth from the ground on which they stand and incorporate low energy, natural materials with a preference for recycled timbers and natural stones. The Temby houses in Tarcoola Drive are no exception and use assorted stone sourced from the Bakewell stables with joinery and additional slop sided burnt bricks derived from the same source. These Yallambie houses were designed to sit into the natural contours of the land at the top of the Plenty River escarpment and are surrounded by the native gardens that were planted by Ethel during her tenure at the Homestead. Both Mudbricks passed from Temby ownership two decades ago but the larger of the two is now up for sale with an auction scheduled later this month, a consolation for those bound to miss this weekend’s 2018 Eltham Mudbrick Tour.

Mudbrick house at entrance to Yallambie Park, a long way from Glenauburn, October, 2018.
The renowned psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares whose house, Aldermaston Manor, is a Yallambie landmark.

In the best Ainslee Meares’ tradition, a well-respected psychiatrist whose Buddhist beliefs are much evident in the garden, lived at this house until recently. I’d have to agree with the spiel on the agent’s website which uses phrases including, “rustic charm”, “country style” and “warm earthy feel” but the same listing also manages to confuse the location of the property as being next to Glenauburn Park in Lower Plenty instead of Yallambie Park, in Yallambie, so make of that what you will. Perhaps they were confused by finding a Mudbrick house up for sale in Yallambie at all and thought it better to place it on the road to Eltham. It says something when even the real estate agents can’t separate Yallambie from Timbuktu.

Advertisements

The dashing Mr Gilbert

“He [George Gilbert] teaches drawing and professes to be an artist. He is a man of the most active mind… and disposition I know. He is always involved in trying mechanical experiments but unfortunately never perfects anything… he is a very intelligent person and will talk from morning to night always in a fluent and agreeable manner. He appears to have studied every subject started, or at all events plunges into the midst of it and dives to the bottom of it in a very short time.” (John Cotton, Port Phillip pastoralist, describing G A Gilbert September, 1848)

Some people listening to the claims of his capabilities or of his scale of competency might have thought him a bit of an artist, but not of a type more usually found holding onto the end of a bristle brush, palette in hand and starving in a garret. There is no doubting that G A Gilbert had both the energy and the industry to match his various claims, or that as Edmund “Garryowen” Finn put it, he enjoyed “a plausible gentlemanly manner,” but when it came to the visual arts the record was more clear. George Alexander Gilbert, teacher, publisher, librarian, gentleman pastoralist, gold commissioner, mesmerist sensation and confirmed dilettante was the walking embodiment of that old adage, “Every artist was first an amateur.”

George Gilbert was a young man of about 25 years when he emigrated to Port Phillip with his much older wife and the children from her first marriage. The son of an English landscape painter, George was himself an artist of some minor talent who had determined to look for opportunities in the new agricultural enterprise that was right then emerging at the bottom end of the world. George’s wife, Anne has been described as “one of the more exotic of the early colonists”, (Serville: Port Phillip Gentlemen) and had previously moved freely in literary circles and the London avant-garde. She was the widow of Sir John Byerley and this connection allowed the Gilberts to immediately join the cultured set of Melbourne upon their arrival at Port Phillip in 1841.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

With his winning ways and refined manner George Gilbert soon befriended some of the leading men in the settlement including Dr Godfrey Howitt, Superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe and the Oxford-educated clergyman turned squatter, Joseph Docker for whom he began acting as agent. Gilbert’s own property ambitions quickly followed suit and these included the lease on a farm on the Plenty River of which he wrote in March, 1843:

“I have taken up a farm of 200 acres 10 miles from town where I intend to train and cultivate the trees while mi cara sposa intends to train the idea [in her school] so between the intellectual and more solid requirements of this life, we hope to secure a home here by paying our rent until we can obtain apartments in that house where everything is ‘a la discretion’.

Bakewell era survey map of “Yallambee”.

The described distance of 10 miles from town begs the question, just where was this Plenty River farm? Could it have been the Bakewells’ 200 acre “Capital Compact Farm” 11 miles from town and advertised for lease that very same month? The distance of 10 miles would put the location at a guess at the lower end of the Plenty and it is an intriguing idea that, based solely on this point, Gilbert and the Bakewell brothers may very possibly have been near neighbours at this early date. Further to this, the Bakewell survey map of “Yallambee, The Property of Messrs. J. and R. Bakewell”, produced about a decade later, surprisingly places a “school” house on the south east border of their estate, somewhere near where the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads stands today. It’s a small thing but one is left to wonder at the sort of students that might have been available at that time, the nature of the school, or indeed, the unlikely identity of its teacher.

Detail from the c1850 Bakewell survey map showing the presence of a “school” near the present day corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads.
Thomas Wills “Lucerne”, photographed by Colin Caldwell before demolition c1960, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

As a gentleman farmer, George Gilbert appears to have enjoyed only limited success at Port Phillip. Like many settlers of the early 1840s he became insolvent and with his pastoral ambitions now largely forgotten, the fact is that it is as an artist of the Port Phillip District landscape that he would later be best remembered. It was probably around this period that Gilbert produced drawings of Joseph Hawdon’s Banyule and Thomas Wills Lucerne, both early and prominent properties of the Heidelberg district, and also the now well-known pastel of John and Robert Bakewells’ Station Plenty, (Yallambee) an art work which has been reproduced on numerous occasions within these pages.

Banyule House, Heidelberg. The residence of Joseph Haw[don Esq.]
Artwork c1849 from the “Bakewell Collection of drawings by G A Gilbert”.
(Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/172769
 La Trobe University’s founding professor in Art History, Lucy Ellem has suggested that The Station Plenty pastel comes from an English tradition of estate portraiture, quoting from Daniels that “flourishing plantations, pasture and tillage displayed the economic, social and patriotic virtues of progressive estate management.”

Following this English aesthetic, Gilbert has in the Plenty Station picture composed his view of the Bakewell farm in a frame of trees in imitation of an English picturesque landscape. The little prefabricated house has its back turned on its Australian bush land setting while the garden of Robert Bakewell is shown in its early infancy. A ploughman speedily turns over the virgin soils of the Plenty River flats, vines grow in rows and hay stacks float with a ghostly, ethereal quality at top of the ridge, evidence of the bounty being harvested from this new land. Smoke from a chimney on the cottage indicates the settled lives of the Quaker brothers who live here, the enclosures of fences and paths imposing an order seemingly at odds with the wild land beyond view.

The Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee by George Alexander Gilbert. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/294649

With the end of Gilbert’s brief farming endeavours on the Plenty, the erstwhile artist threw himself into a variety of other pursuits. He was a member of the Horticultural Society, the Society of Saint George, the Melbourne Hospital and Melbourne Debating Society committees and served for a time as Secretary of the Medical Board of Port Phillip. In addition to these endeavours, Gilbert was also the Secretary of Melbourne’s Mechanics Institute for six years from 1844, an institution which boasted the membership of some of the leading and most influential figures of Port Phillip Society at that time, including Dr Godfrey Howitt and Howitt’s Bakewell brothers in law. At the MMI Gilbert taught art and acted as a secretary, librarian and museum curator and by the time he moved on in 1850, he had overseen its teething pains and “helped establish it as an important and enduring cultural organisation in the colony.” (Bowman)

Sixth-plate Daguerreotype of the Bakewell brothers'”Yallambee” from the State Library of Victoria Collection.

Gilbert’s biographer, Margaret Bowman, who recorded the above line and who wrote the definitive history of the artist, “Cultured Colonists” and upon whose research a large part of this article is based, wrote that his contemporaries found Gilbert a talkative although sometimes tiresome fellow and that he seemed to know “something about everything” while at the same time “not being entirely successful at anything.” (Bowman: Cultured Colonists, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014) It is true that Gilbert was apparently “personable, intelligent and good hearted” (ibid) but it was also said that he appeared sometimes to present better than he performed. He is known to have dabbled in Daguerreotype photography and entomology, both subjects that were of interest to the Bakewells and their circle, but in Gilbert’s case, it seems these interests did not extend beyond early experiment and examination.

Back Creek, Bendigo by S.T. Gill 1860, (Source: State Library of NSW Collection).
Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA “Bendigo Mac”

With the discovery of gold in 1851 Gilbert was appointed by the newly created Lieutenant Governor, Charles Joseph La Trobe, as an Assistant Gold Commissioner at the Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Forest Creek (Castlemaine) gold fields where he served, funnily enough, alongside this writer’s own Great Grand Uncle, the Police Magistrate, Lachlan “Bendigo Mac” McLachlan. By the end of Gilbert’s gold fields appointment which ended in clouded circumstances a year later, the marriage of George and Anne Gilbert had broken down and in 1857 George returned to England, sans “mi cara sposa”. This was the same year that John and Robert Bakewell also returned “home” but it is unknown if these movements were in any way related.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

A group of Gilbert drawings, some of which were almost certainly commissions, did find their way into the possession of John Bakewell and together with the E L Bateman Plenty Station drawings and a number of Eugene von Guerard presentation drawings, they formed a collection which remained by descent with the family of John Bakewell until 1935. In that year the Gilbert drawings were purchased by the State Library of Victoria following a Centenary of Melbourne exhibition with the Bateman and von Guerard pictures going to the NGV a little later, in 1959. Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, which had remained in the family of Dr Godfrey Howitt, was gifted to the State Library in 1967 to complete the picture.

Photograph from the Bishop Strachan School Museum and Archives, Toronto and reproduced in Margaret Bowman’s 2014 book, “Cultured Colonists”. George is the moustachioed man slightly to the middle right of the picture.

George Alexander Gilbert appears to have returned to Australia briefly at the start of the 1860s before finally vanishing from the colonial record in Victoria. Sometime before 1863 he resurfaced in Canada with a new “wife” where he lived in style in Toronto, teaching art “to fashionable young ladies and aspiring young men.” In Toronto he was described as being “very free with his money of which he must have had plenty at that time.” Where this wherewithal had come from is unclear but by this time the “dashing Mr Gilbert” was in his early 50s and described as “impressive, tall and fair with curled grey whiskers and moustache, always well dressed and a fluent talker.” His former life in Australia seems to have been all but forgotten but after nearly a decade in Canada, he was on the move again finding another new life and another new “wife”, this time in the United States and it was there that he died in Hartford, Conneticut in December, 1877.

George Alexander Gilbert, 1869. Detail.

G A Gilbert wore many hats in his career, sometimes the cap fitting, at other times not. He reinvented himself more than once and on more than one continent in what was really a full and eventful life. In an attempt to put a perspective on his life, Margaret Bowman best summed him up with a characterization, “An artist after all,” words which she used as the title of the second to last chapter of her book. In that chapter, Bowman said that Gilbert’s output was, “historically important as a record of Early European settlement, of a land in transition, seen through English eyes.” She concludes with, “(he) not only contributed to the development of the visual arts in the colonies, but also left a substantial Victorian legacy of delightful and historically important artworks.”

“Melbourne from the south side of the Yarra.” The annotation across the lower margin identifies several landmarks including the Bakewell Wool Stores in Market Street, just above the Falls.
Artwork c1845 from the “Bakewell Collection of drawings by G A Gilbert”.
(Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/172766

As a representation of this “Victorian legacy”, a proportion of Gilbert’s artwork left Australia in the 19th century along with other more significant work by E L Bateman and von Guerard, only to return to Australia in the 20th century to form important collections at the State Library of Victoria and National Gallery of Victoria.

Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, used on a promotional page for a Heidelberg Historical Society exhibition running at their museum in Jika Street until 25 November.

John Bakewell could not have known at the time that his patronage and collecting interests in Australia would one day form the basis of a serious starting point in the understanding of Australian colonial art history, but today his collection constitutes a rich resource for the annalists. Writing in an earlier 1995 paper, Lucy Ellem described the art aesthetic that established itself during the first wave of European settlement in Australia and in particular the way in which it applies to the Plenty River landscape.

Anderson’s Mill on the Plenty by George Alexander Gilbert. Artwork c1849 from the “Bakewell Collection of drawings by G A Gilbert”. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/172755

“An examination of written and pictorial responses to the Australian landscape of the Plenty Valley made by European visitors and settlers suggest that its transformation from its ‘natural’ state came about not simply because of practical agrarian or farming needs, nor because of nostalgia for a distant homeland, although these factors were both important, but because of a conscious aesthetic, a way of perceiving the landscape in accordance with the English aesthetic categories of the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque.” (Ellem: Picturesque and Panoramic)

The “Beautiful”, the “Sublime” and the “Picturesque” were all European concepts of the 18th century which came to be applied to the wild Australian landscape in the 19th. Writing specifically of the Bakewells’ Station Plenty, Lucy states that “the Bakewell brothers, rank among Victoria’s earliest and most important pioneers”, and while the Gilbert pictures might not necessarily stack up as great art, Lucy remarks that Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, together with the numerous other pictorial and written records of the Bakewell property, finds a place within the narrative of this aesthetic. Indeed, in Gilbert’s case it could be said there’s more to the story. If at heart every artist really is first an amateur, then George Gilbert was an amateur but an amateur and a gentleman of the first order.

Through a Bakewell glass, darkly

Genealogy is one of those things that is met with either interest or disdain, depending on your viewpoint. As far back as Genesis it has been a closely considered subject and, although it sometimes seems to me that we can’t see the wood for the family trees, from my experience it’s a matter which would appear to be dependent entirely on whose relative it is under general scrutiny.

“You’ll find nothing in there but fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy,” I tell my wife if she gives me half a chance to steer the subject, but somehow that’s a claim that never seems to have the intended effect. Her eyes take on that glassy, faraway look and it’s about this time that she finds something of particular interest to look at up on the ceiling.

Fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy? (Source: Gold Museum Collection)

Be that as it may, the pursuit of history sometimes invokes a mention of genealogy and, in the last post, I used the Bakewell connection to the wife of John James Audubon to introduce in brief outline the story of that famed painter of America’s birds.

Lucy Audubon from a miniature by Frederick Cruickshank, c1831.

Lucy Audubon, née Bakewell, was a second cousin of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, but that was not the only familial connection of note in what is really a most intriguing family tree, even for the unrelated. In Henderson’s pedigree can be found, amongst others, a Bakewell Yale professor, a Bakewell Chief Justice, a Bakewell geological scientist and a Bakewell practitioner of early lunacy treatments. Alongside these however and of particular note perhaps, was Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange (1725-95), the noted agriculturalist and stock breeder and considered by many to be the father of modern agricultural practices. The uncle of that Robert Bakewell was the great-great grandfather of the Yallambee Bakewells.

Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange from a painting by John Boultbee.

Before too long then it appears as though we’ve got Bakewells coming out of our Yallambie ears, but perhaps that’s just getting a little bit ahead of our story. The nearest relative of especial note related to the John and Robert B of Yallambee was it turns out, Benjamin Bakewell, a flint glass maker of Pittsburgh and a first cousin once removed of the Yallambee Bakewells and an uncle of Lucy Audubon.

Benjamin Bakewell, glassmaker of Pittsburgh, USA.

The name of Benjamin Bakewell is noted by those who make a serious study of the history of glass making and his factory under numerous partnerships was producing glassware of the highest standards for three quarters of a century. Described as “a man of wide-ranging intellect who found creative expression and financial success in the manufacture of glass”, Benjamin Bakewell’s factory “produced objects that reflected the highest quality of craftsmanship and decoration achieved in Nineteenth Century American glass”, (Frick Art & Historical Center).

Benjamin Bakewell emigrated to America from Derby in 1794 and embarked on a series of business pursuits which included a brewery, run in partnership with his brother William (the father of Lucy Audubon), and an import/export business trading in American commodities to Europe in Bakewell’s own fleet of ships. In 1808 Benjamin took a failing glass making factory in Pittsburgh and redeveloped it as Bakewell & Ensell, the first glass factory to make fully cut glass in America and by the 1820s it was recognized as one of that country’s premier glass establishments.

Bakewell sulphide portrait decanter of Benjamin Franklin, c1826-35 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikipedia)

“In the history of Nineteenth Century American decorative arts, Benjamin Bakewell stands out as an exemplar of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial initiative. His enterprise, founded in 1808, had a vital role in establishing Pittsburgh as a major center of glassmaking in the Nineteenth Century.” (ibid)

Whether free-blown, mold-blown or pressed glass, Bakewell glass revealed an innovative approach to design and decoration using a variety of decorative techniques which included wheel cutting, engraving and cameo-incrustation. When the Bakewell factory finally closed in 1882 it had by then become the longest running flint glassworks in continuous operation in the United States, with successive generations of Bakewells having added to the legacy.

Benjamin Bakewell Jr (left), grandson of his namesake, c1852. (Source: Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience from the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center).

Following Benjamin Bakewell’s initial enterprise for business, subsequent generations of Bakewells all made their mark. Thomas Bakewell’s application of chemistry and Benjamin Bakewell Jr’s talent for innovation, added to the mechanical expertise of John Palmer Bakewell and the practical and steady hand of Benjamin Bakewell Campbell, created a factory which influenced the cultural and industrial landscape of the United States throughout the 19th century in an exemplary marriage of the decorative arts and industrial processes.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

How much if anything Yallambee’s John and Robert B knew about the glass making efforts of their American cousins will probably never be known but I refer to the story here to add to my earlier contention that the wider Bakewell family is full of such stories of innovation and entrepreneurship.

After John and Robert departed Yallambee in 1857, Yallambie was leased, then purchased by Thomas Wragge who in about 1872 built the present Homestead, (managing to change the spelling to its more common form along the way).

Thomas Wragge photographed in the 1880s. (Source: Bill Bush collection).

The first prefabricated Yallambee had impressed Richard Howitt who wrote in 1842 that with its “French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors.” (Howitt: Impressions of Australia Felix)

The new house that Wragge built by contrast featured “a large, arched window of figured glass at the top of the stairs” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales) and an acid etched, glass overhead fan light and side lights at the front door, a remaining fragment of which was found under the floor when the boards were disturbed in modern times.

Group on the front step at Yallambie Homestead, c1895. Harry Wragge is the boy standing apart on the left. The highly reflective glass in the sidelight behind his shoulder suggests acid etching. Jessie Wragge and her mother Sarah Anne are the two women at right. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

When Thomas Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie and her husband Walter Murdoch remodelled Yallambie, possibly starting in about 1919 and continuing on until 1923, this etched glass at the front was removed and replaced with a lead light design that was also to be repeated elsewhere in the house. As a part of this process the front door was cut down and the fan light removed to accommodate a large lead light window within the upper door panel. This was the arrangement that remained in place until the end of the 20th century.

The Temby front hall,1984. (Source: Calder collection)
The three stages of development when reinstating the front entrance. The hallway stripped. The hallway plastered. The hallway glazed.
Acid etched glass at Yallambie, March, 2018.

At the start of the new millennium a long process commenced to rebuild the front entrance into a resemblance of the original 19th century configuration. Original acid etched glass side lights were sourced from a house that had been demolished in Albert Park and the very personable Paul Storm, Australia’s only remaining practitioner of the highly skilled and dangerous art of acid etching on glass, was commissioned to create a new fan light to suit. It featured a “Golden Fleece” motif in a sort of latter day nod to old Tom’s original ambition.

Bathroom window and lead light, December, 2017.

Stylistically appropriate, the large front door panel found its way, with modifications, into the lower sash of a double hung bathroom window in the Edwardian extension of the house. An upper sash was also created to match and incorporated a purpose made, square cut, clear “picture” window for observing the moon at night from the bath tub, a curious but stated minimum requirement for the window from the glass designer’s wife.

Lead lighting –  I’ve always admired the skill of one of our friends who, over time,  has produced countless complex and colourful works of art in his own home and was all too ready to help with the end result in this case. Armed with this certitude and a few Youtube tutorials to suit, this amateur quickly found that, while there may be a bit of a knack to cutting glass, the main challenge confronting the novice lead lighter is the amount of time needed to do even a small leadlight project properly. With a monthly blog to write up, it’s not as though any of us has time on our hands these days is it?

Former side lights used in a 4 panel door plus newly made top light, December, 2017.

In time the leadlight side lights from the front found their own good way into a new but typically still unpainted four panel door and a matching overhead vestibule window was created to suit. The small panel shown above the Edwardian style door in the photograph here represents hours of patient work and more than a little broken and wasted glass. Even so there remains a mistake in the final design. I didn’t spot it until I’d finished but I’m not about to remake it. Give the man (or woman) a cigar who can spot the difference.

Sarah Annie Wragge at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bush collection).

According to Winty Calder, Thomas Wragge may have purchased porcelain door trim for Yallambie Homestead at the Royal Derby China factory during a trip to England and some of these items may have been subsequently removed prior to the A V Jennings sale when fittings were allegedly used by the agent’s so called “caretaker” to generate beer money at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Glass door furniture and lead light.

Whatever the truth, in later times several door fittings have been replaced with original glass or porcelain fittings scrounged obsessively from demolition yards and junk shops on a beer budget.

The Ascension Windows triptych at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg.
Inscription reads,”In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.”

The period following the end of the Edwardian era was a time of great change and upheaval in Australian society. At Yallambie a generational change had occured. As previously recounted in the pages of this blog, the Wragge family commissioned a magnificent triptych chancel window at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg showing Christ ascending with Mary and John on the side panels. Meanwhile, Thomas Wragge’s “arched window of figured glass”, over the stairs at Yallambie disappeared from living memory during Sarah Annie’s renovations when the original staircase, a “wide curved central stairway”, (Calder) was remodelled.

Stained glass installed into the dining room.

In another nod to the past, an old stained and leaded glass window has now been positioned in a window at the back of the stairs as a sort of surrogate reinterpretation of that first idea. Purchased in another dusty junk shop in SA, reputedly sourced from a defunct school of architecture in NSW, and brought to Victoria on the roof of our car, the window is possibly an early Australian example of the glass painters’ art.

Preparing the stained glass for transport, February, 1999.

You might wonder at so much attention seeming to be wasted on detail while so many parts of an old building are crumbling around the occupants’ ears. You might think it’s a story filled suspiciously with glasses of a rose colour but when it comes down to it, we all want to make a mark as we sail through on our allotted span. Maybe that means the changes made to a pile of bricks and mortar sometimes called home. Or maybe it’s the untangling of a genealogical record for the sake of an imagined posterity. Or maybe it’s simply a few words recorded in an obscure blog read by someone, somewhere, some time while looking through a glass, darkly.

 

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.

You oughta be in pictures

Did you ever spend your time at school, when you should have been paying attention, drawing pictures of little stick men in the margins of your geography book designed to spring to life when you flicked back the edges of the pages? The equivalent today I suspect of surreptitiously watching episodes of Family Guy on an iPhone under the edges of a school table.

The art of the moving picture was widely practised in Australia from the earliest days of cinema. In the early 20th century, Australian film in some respects rivalled the embryonic industry on the West Coast of the United States, very apt for a newly Federated Australia. In the century before, Australians had thought of themselves as Englishmen living abroad and spoke of going “home” to Great Britain. By Federation we were thinking of ourselves as first and foremost true blue “Aussies” but with our own special place within an Empire on which the sun never set. Historical drama with a local content was popular in Australia from the outset and the world’s first narrative feature film is believed to have been the 1906 “The Story of the Kelly Gang” which, pertinent to this story, was filmed at locations around the Heidelberg district, many of which would have been familiar to the residents of Yallambie at that time.

Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845.

These included the property Charterisville, leased at that time as a dairy farm by the family of the producer’s wife and located today in Burke Rd North, Ivanhoe; the Rosanna Station railway siding, where scenes of Kelly’s “last stand” at Glenrowan were filmed; and at nearby locations in both Eltham and Greensborough, where additional scenes were made.

Kelly's last stand from the 1906 film, "The Story of the Kelly Gang".
Kelly’s last stand from the 1906 film, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”.

The film was a great success and made a fortune for its backers, sparking the outlaw as a subject of film genre and popular culture with the iron clad bushranger being subsequently portrayed on screen by a diverse range of alleged actors from the Australian Rules footballer Bob Chitty to Mick Jagger of rock and roll fame. In the words of the real Kelly as he faced the scaffold in 1880, “Such is life.”

The precise story of early film making in Australia is probably lost to history like the cellulose nitrate film stock on which it was recorded. It is known that Kooringarama Films shot a silent short feature in and around Eltham in 1928 called “Borrowed Plumes”. Kooringarama Films was an amateur company and followed up the following year with four reel, one hour feature, also shot in Eltham, called “As Ye Sow” which was shown to audiences in local halls around Melbourne with an incidental musical accompaniment delivered on a hand cranked gramophone.

Still from the short feature, "Borrowed Plumes" filmed in Eltham in 1928.
Still from the short feature, “Borrowed Plumes” filmed in Eltham in 1928.

Three decades later Tim Burstall, an Eltham resident whose wife taught French at Eltham High School, made his first short feature “The Prize”. It was shot using an old clockwork camera of the type used in battle in the first world war mounted on a 1930s tripod from an Antarctic expedition. It portrayed a boy wandering through the bush in search of a lost goat and most of the locations used were in the vicinity of Eltham. The film won a bronze medal at the Venice Film Festival of 1960 with Burstall later going on to play a principle and “Purple” part in the reinvention of the Australian film industry in the 1970s.

Screen still of Heidelberg Park restyled as Somerset County Fairgrounds, from 2006 film, Charlotte's Web, (Nickelodeon Movies).
Screen still of Heidelberg Park restyled as Somerset County Fairgrounds, from 2006 film, Charlotte’s Web, (Nickelodeon Movies).

Locations in and around the Heidelberg district continue to be used today in both film and television. The 2006 Nickelodeon production “Charlotte’s Web”, used locations around Heidelberg Park which was transformed for the purpose of the screen to resemble a fair ground in the mid-west of the United States. Similarly, the final episode of Series II of the “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” saw the artist colony “Montsalvat” in Eltham portrayed as a property in the so called “Australian Alps”. In the event and after the addition of a few dodgy special effects, that hang out looked oddly enough more like a castle hideaway in the Swiss Alps. A sort of Monsalvat on the Matterhorn.

Montsalvat in Eltham as seen in Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013, (Every Cloud Productions).
Montsalvat in Eltham as seen in Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013, (Every Cloud Productions).

The process is not without the potential for problems all the same with the owners of a home featured in the 2013 movie “The Conjuring” reportedly suing Warner Bros for an unspecified amount over trespassers coming up to their home as a result of the film’s popularity.

Screen still of Banyule Homestead from Episode 3 of The Ex-PM, (CJZ, ABC TV).
Screen still of Banyule Homestead from Episode 3 of The Ex-PM, (CJZ, ABC TV).

Most recently in Heidelberg, Banyule Homestead has been seen in great detail on the small screen in Shaun Micallef’s amusing “The Ex-PM”, (which also features scenes shot in the surrounding area including one from the opening episode shot on Greensborough Rd, Watsonia), while Napier Waller’s Fairy Hills property continues to be portrayed as the Ballarat home and surgery of the titular character in the returning series, “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”. As ownership of Banyule Homestead changed hands a few months ago and the Waller home enjoys a peculiar rates agreement with local Council, perhaps the publicity isn’t seen as a problem at those properties.

Everyone with a camcorder or even an iPhone can be a film maker of sorts these days although, previously, home movies were limited to the lens sharpness and the sometime dubious technical skills of those fortunate enough to own 16mm or 8mm movie cameras. Yallambie itself was captured on film in a fascinating and previously discussed flick of this sort in the late 1950s, before the subdivision of the estate and while it was still operating as a farm. The 20 minutes of silent, 16mm colour moving picture was shot by Peter Basset-Smith, a professional film maker and friend of the of the last descendants of Thomas Wragge to live at Yallambie.

Bassett-Smith’s film stands alone today as a fascinating tribute to that now vanished era. A few years ago a former singing chum of my wife contacted us out of the blue with news that she had embarked on a career herself in film making. In fact, she was in the process of co-producing a low budget horror film with her son for which development was well underway. She too had been to Montsalvat to enquire about using that property as a location but was disappointed to learn that the fee asked by the trustees was almost more than her whole production budget.

“Hmmm, a horror story you say? I know just the place. It’s not quite Montsalvat or the Matterhorn but will suit your needs.”

So it was that the production crew came to Yallambie as our guests and spent a couple of days on location in the our garden shooting scenes for the movie “Killervision”, (21 Black Entertainment, 2014). It was great fun to be an observer of the process and I soon perceived the possibilities of the creative, almost addictive buzz that is a part of the film making business.

Character brandishing a piece of 4 by 2 in the garden at Yallambie, (Killervision film still).
Character brandishing a piece of 4 by 2 in the garden at Yallambie, (Killervision film still).

Some of the action filmed at Yallambie required one of the actors to run through the garden screaming at the top of his lungs brandishing an ugly piece of 4 by 2, (in reality a lump of balsa wood). I wondered, probably too late, what the neighbours might think about this blood curdling racket and was rather perturbed at one point to hear police sirens in the distance. When those sirens came nearer and were obviously proceeding down Yallambie Rd I started to feel really concerned. I was standing next to a car at the time belonging to a member of the film crew and could see a set of (prosthetic) severed fingers oozing fake blood which had been left on the dash board. ‘How would I explain this to the cops?’ Thankfully it was a false alarm as the sirens proceeded further afield. Maybe the hamburgers from Maccas on Lower Plenty Rd were in danger of getting cold on their way back to the station.

On the soccer ground in Yallambie Park, (Killervision film still).
On the soccer ground in Yallambie Park, (Killervision film still).

The movie, “Killervision” was eventually finished and sold to an international film distributor. The credit cards used were balanced and the actors were paid. We received a complimentary DVD copy of the movie and it was with amusement that I saw while viewing it later that the exterior of the Homestead appears very briefly and out of focus on screen where it is described as being a facility for the mentally disturbed.

Fictitious university prospectus featuring Homestead, (Killervision film still).
Fictitious university prospectus featuring Homestead, (Killervision film still).

In a world being rapidly changed by the advent of new technologies, the art of the moving picture is no exception. Local cinemas were once to be found in many suburban venues around Melbourne but the multiplex venue has largely seen their demise. The Were Street, or Rotex Cinema in Montmorency with its purple curtains was one that I remember as a lad but there were earlier venues in both Burgundy St, Heidelberg and Upper Heidelberg Rd, Ivanhoe. A changing industry almost saw the death of the Australian film industry and certainly the closure of most independent suburban cinemas but a modern Renaissance, supported in large measure by Federal Government tax breaks, has seen the trend reversed. Hugo Weaving who has appeared in many Australian films of this later era as well as several international blockbusters was quoted from ABC television last week, saying that:

“This is a golden era of film-making in this country, we just don’t know that. I’ve been saying that for ages. I think our films are getting better and better, we [Australians] are just not going to see them.” (One Plus One, ABC TV)

Ol’ Elrond himself believes that the problem is basically selling the idea of Australia to a local market:

“We have an industry which is so slanted towards American films that it’s very, very hard for Australian films to get a look in.”

Ol' Elrond himself.
Ol’ Elrond himself.

It’s known as the “cultural cringe” and the problem is not a new one. The film makers involved in the “The Story of the Kelly Gang” in 1906 only realized the contribution to cinematic history they had made long after the fact, when it seems several of them jockeyed for credit of the initial concept.

On release of the 1959 Hollywood movie “On The Beach”, an American film that was shot in and around Melbourne about a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust, Ava Gardner is supposed to have said that Melbourne was “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.”

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on location for the 1959 film "On the Beach", (Stanley Kramer Productions).
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner filming the end of the world in Melbourne.

The story is almost certainly apocryphal. The quote appears to have been written by a Sydney journalist struggling to make deadline but it does illustrate all the same a very real and enduring inferiority complex that has always been a part of our way of looking at ourselves in this country. Meanwhile the Australian film industry continues to acquit itself on the global stage and not just with the export of Australian acting talent overseas. It has been said that to be born an Australian is to win the prize in the lottery of life. They call this the Lucky Country. It’s a pity we haven’t quite noticed it.

The_Story_of_the_Kelly_Gang_Poster

Wunderkammer

butterfly collectorThey say butterflies are free.

That is unless you were a butterfly flitting around the garden at “Yallambee” in the mid-19th century. For then you would likely have found Robert Bakewell’s net landing over your head and a pin stuck rudely through your body onto a mounting card.

Robert Bakewell of “Yallambee” was an entomologist. He was, to coin a phrase, a bug catcher and by all reports, a catcher of some distinction. During his life time in Australia he developed a vast and important assortment of butterflies, moths and insects. Upon his return with his brother John to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell continued to add to this collection, purchasing and adding the M. de Laferte set to his own in 1860 when he was made a member of the French Entomological Society.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).
Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).

Upon his death on Christmas Eve in Nottingham in 1867, some of Robert’s specimens were left to his brother in law in Melbourne, Dr Godfrey Howitt, but the great majority of his collection was left to the British Museum. It’s still there. The register of the insect collections in the Natural History Museum in London records that 515 Buprestids and 2430 Llamellicorns were acquired from the collection of one, Robert Bakewell.

The Castaways of Gilligan's Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.
The Castaways of Gilligan’s Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.

The concept of collecting and classifying the natural world was a Victorian passion, often pursued by gentlemen in the privacy of their home libraries in an era when the definition of the sciences was still being determined.

Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.
Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.

The process involved naming and by implication, ownership of the natural world. This was an essential concept in the new world of the early Australian colonies where so much was alien and, under the terra nullius doctrine, supposedly without previous proprietorship.

The origins of this practice can be found right there at the start when the gentleman naturalist, Joseph Banks, hitched a ride on Cook’s first voyage of discovery. Somehow within the cramped confines of the HM Bark Endeavour of 1768, room was found for 20 strong wooden chests with hinged lids and locks in which were packed “all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing… many bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes to preserve animals in spirits”. With all those bugs on board, there would seem later hardly room left over for the ship’s crew. Maybe, not even a cook.

Perhaps history’s most infamous collecting voyage however followed 20 years later when the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied, aggrieved at their alleged treatment by the ship’s master, William Bligh, but also peeved by the molly coddling needed by the bread fruit specimens the ship was transporting. One of the first things the mutineers did after putting Bligh over the side at the end of a plank was to follow him up with the despised potted plants themselves.

Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.
Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.

French voyages to the South Seas, aimed specifically at broadening scientific understanding of the world followed, amassing thousands of plant and animal specimens for transport to the museums of France (and the garden of Napoleon’s main muse, Josephine) along the way.

The British nation by contrast came to the antipodes for the duration. As settlers they found an alien world where everything appeared to be at sixes and sevens. The trees dropped their leaves in the summer, animals hopped around on their hind legs and marvellous furry creatures sported bills like ducks.

Lachlan Macquarie, 5th governor of New South Wales and considered by some to be “The Father of Australia”, (quite fitting to this story as his family had connections to Moffat McLachlan) gathered a truly remarkable collectors’ chest during his command of the New South Wales colony . Such cabinets of curiosities, although not serious scientific items, followed a tradition of wunderkammer or collector’s cabinets designed to appeal to the cognoscenti and scientifically minded gentlemen of the day. Macquarie’s was constructed for the governor around the year 1818 and was crammed chock a block with Australian seaweeds and shells, preserved butterflies, insects, stuffed birds and was decorated with painted panels of scenes of the early colonial landscape.

Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector's Chest, SL of NSW.
Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector’s Chest, SL of NSW.

The cabinet went back with Macquarie to Scotland in 1821, along with his pet cow, and it stayed there for the best part of two centuries. Today it forms part of the Mitchell Library Collection here in Australia, along with a second chest of apparently identical origin — a sort of collection of collections, within a collection, you might say. No one knows what happened to the cow.

Macquarie Collector's Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.
Macquarie Collector’s Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.

Such artefacts from the mysterious Great Southern Land held great wonder for the stay at homes of the old world. The writer and artist and life-long friend of Edward La Trobe Bateman, Louisa Anne Meredith visited Yallambie in 1856 and wrote about it with purple prose:

…What treasures we carried back with us to Melbourne, after that merry luncheon in the cottage room, with its windows curtained by fuschias and passion flowers! (Over the Straits, p184, Meredith, 1861)

Louisa was first drawn to the idea of emigrating by the presence of Australian natural history specimens in her earlier Birmingham home. These included a case of stuffed birds and wild flowers, the skin of a Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine) and, most unusual of all, a cochlear or whale’s ear drum which sat on the chimney piece of her “painting room”, confounding visitors as to its purpose. These items had been sent to her from Van Dieman’s Land by her cousin, Charles Meredith and the fascination must have been compelling for when he visited England in 1838, she married him. The whale’s ear drum now resides in the Glamorgan War Memorial Community Centre history collection in Swansea, Tasmania, the crucial role it played half a world away in the union of one of that states best known pioneer families, probably now all but largely forgotten.

Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.
Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.

Long before the Harry Potter movie franchise made specimens under glass the new chic, my wife and I kept our own natural history collection at Yallambie. Visiting the beach usually meant coming home with a bucket load of shells, stones or seaweed. Or usually a combination of all three.

Late 19th century, cased shell display made by the wife of the head keeper at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, SA.
Late 19th century, cased shell display at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse Museum, SA.

Remembering where the specimens originated or the correct classification sometimes proves a problem but my wife has books devoted to the subjects which she has been perusing since she was three years old. Her great uncle George kept pickled rattle snakes in jars from his time spent in North America and these proved a fascination for my little Wednesday Adams. Great uncle Georgey Porgy has a lot to answer for. My contributions are small beer by comparison. One stone, cut and polished along one edge, came from the floor of a banga banga or water cave on the phosphate island, Ocean Island, picked up during a visit I once made there while chasing a bit of forgotten family history. That difficult to access island was named Ocean by the first Europeans who sighted it from the British transport SS Ocean returning via the Pacific from the first abortive settlement to Port Phillip of 1803. If they had only stopped and asked the locals, they would have found the island already had a name — Banaba. Every object has a story.

Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed by the writer's grandfather between the wars.
Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed between the wars, (collection of the writer’s grandfather).

By contrast, Tommy Wragge’s devotion to the natural world was limited mainly to the coinage he could make from the four footed variety he kept at the bottom of his Yallambie paddocks. There were a couple of deer heads listed in the inventory made of the contents of the homestead after his death in 1910. They were described as “moth eaten”.

Years ago we attended a country clearing sale and somehow or other found ourselves driving home afterwards with an old mounted deer head parked on the back seat of the car. I can still remember driving down the Hume Hwy towards Melbourne and being passed by a tour bus. I looked across as it went by to see what seemed like a whole bus load of Japanese tourists looking down at us with cameras out from their vantage point. Glancing over my shoulder at the back seat I could see what had no doubt drawn their fascination. Our child in a baby capsule on one side of the back seat, on the other side, a Basil Fawlty moose head, belted up and antlers all askew.

What did we want it for? We really didn’t know once we got “Dougal the Deer”, as he quickly became known, to home sweet home. Eventually he went on the wall of the dining room where a Wragge specimen was said to once reside. By the time our son started going to primary school however, “Dougal” had become notorious. Sometimes all it took was a visit by a mother with her child under the watchful eye of Dougal for us never to see them again.

"Oh dear," said the the deer. "I can't feel my legs."
“Oh dear,” said the the deer. “I can’t feel my legs.”

Poor old Dougal. He was quite possibly a happy deer roaming through the gloaming before finding himself short one noggin one afternoon in the now forgotten past eventually to find himself lodged on a wall at Yallambie in the 21st century. It is this fact that must leave a cautionary note to this tale of collecting mania for the very act of collecting carries with it an inherent danger of destroying some part of the natural world that it seeks to record. How many people gasped in disbelief this year when a well-known, former Australian Test cricketer was shown on the front pages of the newspapers, photographed alongside a dead elephant shot on safari in Africa?

The wife of the greatest painter of North American bird life, John James Audubon, was born Lucy Bakewell to the Derbyshire branch of the family of John and Robert Bakewell of Yallambie. Like other members of that extensive family she was a Quaker and was taught an appreciation of the natural world from an early age. She met and married John James in America after emigrating there at a young age and with her background and education she proved herself to be a great assistance to her husband in his artistic endeavours.

Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.
Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.

John James Audobon shot the birds that he painted for his magnum opus, “The Birds of America”, mounting them in realistic poses on boards before sketching them. “The Birds of America” is probably the greatest book of ornithological illustration ever created and that is now ever likely to be created, for many of the birds depicted in its elephant size plates are now extinct.

The Austrian painter Eugene von Guerard developed a reputation as the foremost painter of landscapes in the Australian colonies in the 1850s and 60s. His painting “The Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne” was painted in 1862 and shows a pastoral scene somewhere in the vicinity of the Plenty Valley.

Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862.
Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862, SLV.

According to Lucy Ellem, founding professor of Art History at Latrobe University and today an Honorary Research Associate, this painting may have been produced after a visit to the Bakewells’ “Yallambee”. Writing about Richard Howitt’s earlier (and previously quoted) description of “Yallambee”, Lucy identifies this painting and compares it to Howitt’s description, stating the elegant notion that:

“…in 1862, and perhaps also on a visit to the Bakewell homestead since he was staying with their brother-in-law, Dr Godfrey Howitt in that same year, one of Australia’s leading colonial artists , Eugene von Guerard, would record the landscape of this vicinity in a work which expresses Howitt’s sense of the dreary, unending woodlands.” (The Cultural Landscape of the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 1, Lucy Ellem, 1995)

“The Plenty Ranges” is an oil sketch but possibly von Guerard’s most famous painting was the large and highly detailed “Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges” which was painted in 1857. As Tim Bonyhady explained in “The Colonial Earth”, it sat in a shop window at the top of Collins Street East near the home of Dr Godfrey Howitt for nearly two years, drawing admiring spectators and made the artist and the subject matter famous throughout the Colony.

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.
Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.

Previously the “Ferntree Gully” of the painting had been known locally as Dobson’s Gully but such was the painting’s renown that the area became firmly set in the popular imagination as “Ferntree”. Admiring tourists were drawn to visit the place of von Guerard’s painting, among the first being the artist’s friend, Julie Vieusseux who went there on New Year’s Day, 1858.Tragedy followed when Vieusseux’s 8 year old son went missing in the bush. A fourteen day search failed to find him, his bones being found on the mountain two years later.

One of the keenest searchers for the lost boy was Alfred Howitt who as previously discussed had earlier visited the Bakewell brothers at Yallambie. Howitt wrote excitedly to his sister Mary Howitt (former fiancé of E La Trobe Bateman), giving her his impressions of the fern trees:

“…among their roots runs the coolest, clearest stream you can imagine and on each side an almost impenetrable musk scrub covers the side of the range. It would be almost impossible to give you an idea of the strange effects of light and shade in the gully. The fern trees seem to form a living grotto. Their rough mossy stems are the columns, their arching fronds are the roof…”

From being a wilderness where a child could be lost in the bush with fatal consequences, Ferntree Gully became a Mecca for Melbourne day trippers, enthralled by the natural beauty of the area. The inevitable consequence was destruction of the environment.

The Wood-Splitters' Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865
The Wood-Splitters’ Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865

With every frond removed from the Gully to decorate the Melbourne parlours of visiting tourists and every fern leaf taken to be pressed into Victorian scrap books, the Gully was that much diminished. Visit Ferntree Gully today, the Melbourne suburb on the Burwood Hwy at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, and from the highway you would be hard pressed to find a world recognizable to von Guerard.

Douglas Adams perhaps best summed up the process of loving an environment to death with his farcical description of the fabulous fictional world of Bethselamin in his improbable, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

“A fabulously beautiful planet, Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your bodyweight when you leave: so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.”

marvin

I’m Bat(e)man

If you are familiar with Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, the NGV in St Kilda Rd, you might be forgiven for thinking for a moment that a Minotaur could be lurking somewhere deep within its vaults. It is a labyrinth of a building, home for much of the Gallery’s (estimated) more than 70,000 works of art.

Of course, only a fraction of this huge collection can be displayed at any one time within the bluestone, prison like walls of the St Kilda Rd building, a building once described appropriately enough as a “perfect place for a hanging”.

A Royal Worcester Aesthetic teapot channeling the spirit of E La Trobe Bateman, maybe.
A Royal Worcester Aesthetic teapot channeling the spirit of E La Trobe Bateman, maybe.

One of the items formerly on display in the NGV’s European ceramics collection was the so called “Aesthetic Teapot”, a marvellous little pot manufactured by the Royal Worcester Company in the second half of the 19th century. The teapot is a no show these days so maybe it has been withdrawn from the public eye for use in the Gallery Director’s morning cuppa. Who can say? The “Aesthetic Teapot” was modelled after the character “Patience” from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera of the same name but to my mind, “Patience” as portrayed by the Worcester porcelain factory, always reminded me of the recorded photographic likeness of another Aesthetic character of the 19th century, Edward La Trobe Bateman.

Signed photograph of Edward La Trobe Bateman.
Signed photograph of Edward La Trobe Bateman.

Mr Bateman was a multi-talented 19th century artist and garden designer who might loosely be described as a member of the Aesthetic movement although his origins are arguably to be found in the earlier activities of their precursors, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The PRB as it styled itself was an influential reformist English art movement which vouchsafed a return to the purity of the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe. The Brotherhood started as a sort of “Dead Poets Society” of the Arts in 1848, a year of political upheavals across Europe known as the “Year of Revolution”. This month the National Gallery of Victoria has a great little hanging happening which they have dubbed “Medieval Moderns”. It draws from a diverse range of Pre-Raphaelite work, mainly from the Gallery’s own collection, to tell the story of the Brotherhood and of the part in it played by some of their followers. The yarn as presented by the NGV runs with a singularly Australian bent and it is a bend that bends with a surprising angle on Yallambie.

Taking pride of place just to the left of the exhibition entrance as you access “Medieval Moderns” are three drawings by the old teapot himself, the artist E La Trobe Bateman. They are from a set of at least 12 that he produced in the 1850s of the Bakewell brothers’ “Floraville”, AKA “Yallambee” or “The Plenty Station”.

Alisa Bunbury writes in the “Medieval Moderns” exhibition catalogue that Bateman’s drawings depict the Bakewells’ Yallambee “in exquisite detail and from numerous viewpoints the buildings and, more particularly, the much-praised garden which had been established (some of which still survives)”. I wonder if the Parks and Gardens Department at Banyule Council are listening.

The NGV Bateman drawings are not on permanent display and I presume are usually kept guarded by the Minotaur somewhere deep inside the NGV vaults. You can request to see them privately however and they are serious enough to be trotted out now and again for use at temporary exhibitions with previous shows both at the St Kilda Rd and Federation Square galleries.

The Victorian Government Botanist, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller once described Bateman as a “splendid artist”. The “Station Plenty” pictures drawn by Bateman are executed with a meticulous hand and are so finely finished that today it has possible to create a reasonable 19th century plant list of Yallambie from their resource.

Edward La Trobe Bateman, NLNZ
Edward La Trobe Bateman, NLNZ

Edward La Trobe Bateman was born in Yorkshire in 1816 and was a cousin of the Superintendent of Port Phillip and first Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria, Charles Joseph La Trobe. Bateman’s work first popped up in the PRB year, 1848 with the publication of a set of chromolithographed flowers. Slightly older than the seven original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Bateman was known by them as “the illuminator”. He worked with PRB leading light, John Everett Millais on the interior decoration of a house in Leeds and both men produced illustrations for a small, privately circulated magazine. Bateman was also an intimate friend of key PRB figure, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and lived with him at Highgate in 1852. Bateman’s concern for the truthful depiction of nature as urged by the preeminent art critic of the era and PRB supporter, John Ruskin and so evident in the Yallambee set, became a crucial element in the thinking of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Bateman came to Australia in 1852 in the company of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner and another PRB sympathiser, Bernhard Smith. Ostensibly this trip was in order for these men to try their luck on the newly established Victorian goldfields but in Bateman’s case his motives were of a more personal nature and primarily connected with the Howitt family. Bateman was unofficially engaged to Anna Mary Howitt, the daughter of the writers, William and Mary Howitt. William was in Victoria to lead an exhibition to the gold fields, hoping perhaps to find a fortune but more especially to furnish material for a book he planned to write.

Phoebe Howitt, ne Bakewell — electroplate medallion by Thomas Woolner, 1853 (Medieval Moderns, NGV)
Phoebe Howitt, ne Bakewell — electroplate medallion by Thomas Woolner, 1853 (Medieval Moderns, NGV)

On arriving in Victoria, Bateman stayed at the Collins Street East home of William’s brother, Dr Godfrey Howitt, a meeting place of the infant colony’s smarty pants set.

Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.
Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.

Soon after he packed his brushes up with a pick and shovel and headed to the diggings where he fell in with his prospective father in law’s expedition before falling out with the old boy himself. It had been anticipated that Bateman’s brush would supply the illustrations for William’s book when written but in mid-1853 the relationship between Bateman and William Howitt broke down. It wasn’t quite the stuff of pistols at dawn but it must have been something more than a storm in the Bateman teapot. The engagement between Anna Howitt and Bateman was broken and William returned to England in 1854 where he published “Land, Labour and Gold” but without the intended illustrations. “Land, Labour and Gold” contains a wealth of detail about life in the early colony including a (previously quoted) detailed description of the Bakewells’ “Yallambee” property. The one thing that is missing from the narrative however is Bateman himself who was certainly a member of the party for much of the expedition but who is mentioned maybe 10 times in a two volume set numbering something over 800 pages.

William’s son Charlton, writing of the goldfields expedition, described the odd figure of Bateman in company with his father on the trail:

“…the governor often walks first in his broad hat and wide trousers; often the Painter walks beside him in his glazed cap, blue jumper and leather overalls which come up his thighs and with a courier pouch at his side for his sketching things, but just as often he is stalking ahead of everybody for he has a very long pair of legs and they seem to carry him involuntarily.”

The Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne, from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, "Patience".
The Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, “Patience”.

Bateman stayed on in Australia after William Howitt’s return to England and it was after this that he produced the Yallambie drawings that are now part of the NGV collection. The Bakewells’ became life-long friends of Bateman and probably commissioned the drawings from him to provide a permanent record of their property at a time when their return to Britain was being contemplated. The “Yallambee” drawings were complete by 1856 when they were available in London for a review by a writer in “The Athenaeum” who, while writing anonymously, would most likely have been Bateman’s former fiancée, Anna Howitt, writing presumably without the knowledge of her father. Anna had written for “The Athenaeum” previously and the style of the article suggests a feminine hand of the Victorian era and the prose a previous knowledge of Bateman’s career:

We have been much pleased this week by some drawings of Australian scenes, the work of Mr Bateman, a gentleman who formerly assisted Mr Owen Jones in some of his miraculous and laborious books. The tepid air that bathes the gum-tree forests has not relaxed the hand of this skilful draughtsman, nor has it lost a whit of its old accuracy and ‘cunning’. The pencil drawings are merely scenes on a farm on the Plenty River, the property of Messrs Bakewell. Early settlers in Victoria. The views are taken at different points — here the stately cattle feeding, there the river sleeping and the reeds whispering to it their silly secrets.

In No. 1 there is a stream, dark, calm, unruffled, and sullen, — trees leaning about in a rude, helpless way; some leafless, others in the full flush of leaf. In the distance are out-buildings, with every plank hinted, and the very nail heads implied, if not delineated, with photographic skill and care.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground.

No. 2 is a growing wonder, with elaborate neat fences, slopes of hill and dale, full of swelling wealth, as if mother Nature was baring her breasts to her suckling children. The leaves, grass, and trees are admirably expressed with sharp ciphers of black lead. Pre-eminent among them, and especially characteristic of the gold and copper country, is the stringy bark tree, with its ragged cordage hanging about it like shattered rigging round a mast.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.

No. 3 is remarkable for its dark, ghostly cypresses, solid cones of black shade, silent and watchful as sentinels. The leaves of the plants, fingered or fan-like, are given to botanical truth.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856

No. 4 is the house, a homely English cottage, with its broad brim of a verandah, latticed with flowers and encumbered with sweets, — the broad level lawn, calm and sunny as a good man’s conscience, is bordered by bushy plants and flowering aloes.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden.

No. 5 is a dark, cool pool, criss-crossed by trees, that watch it as lovers do a woman’s eye.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence.

No. 6 is a cave, that, used for a garden-house, is hollowed out under the brow of the hill.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IX by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Gardening shed.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IX by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Gardening shed.

No. 7 is a garden-walk, after the old loved English model, — just such as line round the rector’s garden, where peaches bask their velvets on the warm south wall, or the snug rich corner of the cathedral close, where the leathery medlars ripe and rot. There are huge bushes some ten feet high, and reeds with each square flat leaf snapped at an angle.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IV by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. New Zealand flax in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IV by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. New Zealand flax in foreground.

No. 8 is a flight of wooden steps leading from one garden to another. The dry arrow-headed palm boughs and the great cypress trees, so sad and solemn — so like huge hearse-plumes — are admirably drawn.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Cypress and steps.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Cypress and steps.

No. 9 is another view of the pool, where some black Narcissus may have drowned himself or his gins.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.

No. 10 is the verandah and sheltering trees;

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view II by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Detailed view of house and verandah.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view II by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Detailed view of house and verandah.

No. 11 the river, with its wild and grassy banks; and

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of hut with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of hut with creek in foreground.

No. 12 is the house, with the cattle feeding in battalions, and the pigeons in a white cloud wheeling round the stable roofs.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.

We envy Mr Bateman his skill in delineation, his knowledge and his patience. His sharp, clever, precise touch, neither dry nor mechanical, evinces mechanical talent of a high order, — the distances and the selection indicate a higher power: — together and combined they promise an artist of rare ability, — one whose pencil may stick at nothing, — who, starting from the ability to render all he sees, will rise to the ability — if he has not already done so — of representing all he wishes to see, — of selecting from, or recombining, of sorting, chastening, heightening and refining Nature. (“The Athenaeum”, London, No. 1523, 1857)

As numbered in “The Athenaeum” article and ordered above based upon the interpretation by Anne Neale in her doctorate “Illuminating Nature”, Bateman’s pictures were probably intended to be hung in sequence around three walls of a room with an effect something like a guided tour, with NGV View V and View I (Anna Howitt’s No. 1 and No. 12) the bookends to the sequence. However, as noted by Neale in a previous NGV exhibition, (“This Wondrous Land” 2011), the numbering used by the writer in “The Athenaeum” article does not match the current NGV catalogue descriptions. “The Athenaeum” summary having been written in 1857 it can however be more or less assumed to be the more correct sequence of the artist’s intended order although Dr Neale suggests intriguingly that it could mean that the two sequences actually represent the overlapping parts of a larger and now certainly lost set.

E La Trobe Bateman remained in Australia until 1869, producing sketches and paintings, botanical illustrations and illuminated bindings, graphic and textile designs, garden designs and architectural plans. His was a remarkable talent that has left a significant mark on the history of Yallambie.

A trail of passion flowers, E La Trobe Bateman, watercolour, NGV
A trail of passion flowers, E La Trobe Bateman, watercolour, NGV
Passion flower, Yallambie, May, 2015.
Passion flower, Yallambie, May, 2015.

Bateman may be best described today as an Aesthetic. As an interesting end note, some years ago we heard from a descendant of a man by the name of John Morris, reputedly a gardener for the Bakewells. Morris was a Ticket of Leave convict who had been sponsored by Bateman to work at the Plenty Station, which he did so happily for 20 years, marrying and producing five children along the way. One can only wonder if this John Morris was in any way related to the family of the famous William Morris, one of the founders of Aestheticism, and himself a keen gardener.

Bateman decamped Australia at the end of 1869 after injuring his drawing hand in a buggy accident, taking virtually all of his drawings with him on departure. The “Yallambee” drawings remained by descent with the Bakewell family in England until 1935 when they passed to Alice Miller and John Compton Miller from whom they were purchased for the NGV by the Felton Bequest in 1959. Bateman spent the rest of his life as a landscape gardener to the Marquess of Bute at Rothesay in Scotland where he died in 1897 aged 82, a well brewed teapot.

im bateman meme

Art for art’s sake

The teacher was attempting to instruct his class in Year 11 physics. After a lengthy divagation on the theory of Newton’s laws of relative motion, I thought I had a handle on it. “Sir, that’s like when you’re lying down in the fields, looking up at the sky and watching the clouds drifting by overhead,” I said. “When you do that you get the feeling that you’re moving and it is the clouds that are standing still.”

The teacher paused from his discourse for a moment and looked at me pointedly. “And do you do a lot of this lying around in the fields looking up at the sky, Mister?”

It made sense to me at the time but was apparently too left field for schoolboy scholarship. Needless to say I didn’t go on from there to forge a career in the sciences but commercial art, with its apparent opportunity for creative expression, appealed to a young man with his head firmly stuck in the clouds. As a graphic artist I had plenty of opportunity to draw and paint and for a time I derived a good deal of job satisfaction from my profession. But that’s where the story ends I’m afraid. As a graphic designer these days I find myself like most people in the digital age, parked in front of a computer and wondering about whatever happened along the way to creativity in the 21st century.

A desire for aesthetic expression is a part of what makes us human and from the dawn of time that expression has found voice in the decoration of the places where we live. The earliest cave dwellers decorated their rock walls with images of those things that were important to them in their Stone Age lives.

Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.
Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.

At Chauvet Cave in France, early humans of the Aurignacian era, 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, painted hundreds of extraordinary images of animals, many of which are now extinct. In classical times, Roman artisans decorated the walls of every day dwellings with murals, examples of which were uncovered and so can be seen today at the ruined city of Pompeii.

Take a leap forward to the modern world when the Victorians built houses in the classical manner in a style dubbed “Italianate”. They decorated these buildings with stencils and murals and heavily patterned or embossed wallpapers all of which were linked to a new materialism that surfaced in the 19th century. The Scottish designer and a pivotal figure in the Aesthetic Movement, Christopher Dresser, wrote that by the application of decorative art, “a very barn may become a palace.” To the later Victorians, highly developed ornamentation became an art form and this was worthy of their great endeavour.

It is clear that this was the style chosen to ornament Yallambie Homestead in the second half of 19th century. Meagre decoration and furnishing in a home were thought to be akin to poverty and Thomas Wragge would therefore have been keen to mark his successes as a wealthy pastoralist by the correct decoration of his Melbourne home. Enough discarded wall paper has been found under the floors at Yallambie to give some impression of the mode of décor chosen by Thomas Wragge and his family. The surviving interior surfaces of the house Wardlow in Parkville (the outside of which is used as a location in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) are an example of what possibly might once have been found on the walls at Yallambie in the post 1880s, although at a guess the earlier 1870 decorations when the house was new might have been simply painted.

Warlow House, Parkville, 2005.
Warlow House, Parkville, 2005.

When I discovered these fragmentary wall papers under the floor a decade ago (along with the previously mentioned Day Book and a few mummified moggy cats), a friend said to me enthusiastically, “That’s great, now you know the style of decoration you will need to follow in order to recreate the interior at Yallambie.”

Sanitary style wallpapers from upstairs sub floor area, Yallambie.
Sanitary style wallpapers from upstairs sub floor area, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of former upstairs billiards room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of former upstairs billiards room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room, Yallambie.
Art Nouveau wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of music room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of music room, Yallambie.

Frankly the idea of following such a course of action filled my wife and myself with horror. As that other famous exponent of Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde reportedly said on his death bed, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Not being prepared to share with the Irish playwright the fate of the “ex-parrot” just yet we decided instead on a series of painted surfaces with just a passing nod to what had gone before in the form of a few individually hand painted surfaces.

Even in the 19th century, writers made a mockery of Victorian decorative values and of the drawing rooms of the colonial nouveau riche in particular. Richard Twopeny in “Town Life in Australia” (Elliot Stock, London, 1883) wrote satirically of the Australian squattocracy which for him was defined by a character he dubbed “Muttonwool”, a person probably not so very dissimilar to Mr T. Wragge, Esq. himself:

“…it is time we should go through Muttonwool’s house room by room. On entering the drawing-room the first thing that strikes is the carpet, with a stiff set pattern large enough to knock you down, and of a rich gaudy colour. You raise your eyes — find opposite them the regulation white mantelpiece, more or less carved…”

At Yallambie, two of the marble fire surrounds in the principle rooms had been removed and a third modified during Sarah Annie Murdoch’s 1923 renovations of the homestead. In that decade, she and her husband, Wallace Murdoch, were intent on creating a post- Edwardian style interior within the Victorian house that Sarah Annie’s father had built. Although at odds with the building, the ideas chosen did have some merit and were you might say the Murdochs’ contribution to the precept of the Chauvet Cave principle. Rooms were enlarged, plumbing installed and a red pine panelled and timber beamed ceiling introduced into a front room that became the new dining room.

Music room at the end of the Temby occupation of Yallambie, 1984.
Music room at the end of the Temby occupation of Yallambie, 1984.
Music room during reinstatement of window panels, October, 2011.
Music room during reinstatement of window panels, October, 2011.

Over the last decade, the Edwardian mantle pieces from the Murdoch era have been replaced and the earlier marble fire surrounds repaired in a style more befitting a mid-Victorian building. These included a chimney piece installed into the music/drawing room. It was reconstructed on a limited budget, not so much a shoe string, more a shoe thread from pieces found in demolition yards. The same source supplied discarded slate and marble that were recycled to tile the ground floor halls with a black and white diamond pattern, a design motif that is typically Victorian and which I am told is rooted in Freemasonry symbolism of the dark and light or of the yin and yang. This tiling project alone took 18 months to complete. Each piece of stone was cut individually and laid with mortar, a task which I suppose qualifies this amateur as some sort Mason himself now, but without the obligatory handshaking.

Front hall at Yallambie.
Front hall at Yallambie.

The Melbourne merchant and decorator William Henry Rocke described a more tasteful mid Victorian drawing room in a booklet he published in 1874: “Once the walls were hung with fluted silk, of a French grey tint, but now they are simply painted that colour and relieved by oblong panels of gold beading, which is also carried along the line where the walls and ceiling meet… A few intertwined sprays of delicate Australian blossoms, hand painted, form the central ornament of each panel.” (Remarks on House Furnishing and House Decoration, W H Rocke, Melbourne, 1874)

Painted plaster in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Painted plaster in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.

This was the inspiration for the approach that was eventually chosen. The painted surfaces at Mt Rothwell Homestead near Geelong and the slightly later but utterly remarkable interior of Villa Alba in Kew are grand and significant survivors of this approach to interior decoration.

Painted surface at Villa Alba, Kew.
Painted surface at Villa Alba, Kew.

The Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward La Trobe Bateman, who visited Yallambee in the 1850s and who produced a series of drawings to record the property, worked in a number of creative disciplines and he was admired for his contemporary coloured stencil decorations on board walls and ceilings and for flowers painted over fireplaces in at least two properties.

Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890.
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1880s.

Whether any of the Wragges met Bateman is unrecorded but the daughters of Thomas Wragge are known to have hand decorated several doors at Yallambie in the 1890s with designs based on plants found in the garden.

Wragge painted door, Yallambie.

Wragge painted study door, Yallambie.
Wragge painted door panels, Yallambie.

Three of these doors have survived with their decoration to the present day and follow a tradition of painted doors in Victorian houses that can be found elsewhere at properties in the state like the aforementioned Mt Rothwell and at Reedy Creek Homestead near Broadford, amongst others.

Painted door in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Painted door in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Papered 4-panel drawing room door at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Papered 4-panel drawing room door at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Dining room door and surround at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Dining room door and surround at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Bedroom door painted by the writer's wife in 2000.
Bedroom door painted by the writer’s wife in 2000.

In the spirit of this tradition, my wife, herself a fine artist, painted a couple of interior doors at Yallambie. She also painted the panels under each of the seven windows of the music room and gilded the cornices and architraves.

Details of motifs painted onto the panels in the music room.
Details of motifs painted onto the panels in the music room.
Panel detail.
Panel detail.
Painted ceiling frieze, February, 2014.
Painted ceiling frieze, February, 2014.

A ceiling in another room which had been covered with lining papers in the past, presumably to hide the various imperfections in the Marianas Trench style, lathe and plaster surfaces, was found to have a ghostly outline of a painted frieze around the deep cornices when the papers were removed. This became the basis for a design that my wife has gradually been repainting overhead from a precarious height.

Over 70% of all accidents happen within the home. A makeshift painter's scaffold at Yallambie photographed alongside Wragge painted, 4 panel door, June, 2012.
Over 70% of all accidents happen within the home. A makeshift painter’s scaffold at Yallambie photographed alongside a Wragge painted, 4 panel door, June, 2012.

When it came to painting a ceiling rose however, unlike Michelangelo, she painted the plaster at table height before we lifted the rose delicately to its present location 13 feet above the surface of the floor. A gilded and pressed metal centre rose completed the effect.

Gilt metal and painted plaster ceiling rose.
Gilt metal and painted plaster ceiling rose.

Gilded cornices were described at Yallambie in an inventory made of the house in 1910 after the death of Thomas Wragge. The metal was presumably destroyed during the 1923 renovations as several pieces have been found discarded in an old rubbish pit. Replacement gilt metal has been cheaply sourced at demolition yards and reinstated at several locations in the house, wherever practicable.

Painted gilt metal curtain pelmet, May, 2015
Painted gilt metal curtain pelmet, May, 2015

Why go to such efforts with a house that has been variously described by Winty Calder as a “white elephant”? It is the same urge that drove those cavemen to go “Ugh,” and decorate the walls of Chauvet cave and the artisans at Pompeii to decorate the walls of Roman villas even as Vesuvius murmured their impending doom. Yallambie Homestead was purchased 20 years ago for what seems today  the price of a town house or a teepee, or maybe only a part thereof. Almost everything that has been done since that time has been done DIY on a limited budget although it is a disturbing thought that parts of the building continue to deteriorate faster than they can be properly maintained. However, if things cannot be done by our own hand, they tend not to get done at all. Although solidly constructed, Yallambie is a building that has become fragile with age but necessity is the mother of invention and it is surprising what can be achieved by a couple of artists left purely to their own devices.

Interior of Napier Waller's house in Fairy Hill, Ivanhoe.
Interior of Napier Waller’s house in Fairy Hill, Ivanhoe.

A versatile artist who left a legacy in the City of Banyule was Napier Waller, the 20th century Australian muralist, mosaicist and painter of stained glass. Waller lost an arm in the Great War but later trained himself to work with his non preferred left which shows that disability is not necessarily an impediment to artistic expression. One of Waller’s later designs was installed as a moving war memorial at St John’s Church of England in Heidelberg, alongside the Wragge Ascension Windows triptych described previously. Waller’s home and studio was located in Fairy Hills, Ivanhoe not far from the house that Nancy and Cliff Bush built for themselves when they left Yallambie. (It can be seen as the location of the doctor’s house in the “Dr Blake Mysteries”). Since his death in 1972, Waller’s house has been preserved as a sort of memorial to his memory with many of the artist’s preliminary drawings, sketches and full cartoons remaining inside the house. The overall effect is “mysterious and church like” in the words of one visitor, with one large design for a mosaic from the University of Western Australia dominating the interior. Art lives on at Waller’s house long after the inspiration that created it has returned to the cosmic dust.

One of the great conundrums has always been, just what constitutes art? Pablo Picasso said that, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Last week a painting by the famed Spanish modern master went under the hammer at Christie’s auction house for a record price of some 227 million Australian dollars. Picasso’s Cubist painting “The Women of Algiers”, itself a reworking of a subject tackled a hundred years earlier by Delacroix, is rather a snazzy picture I think and I certainly wouldn’t mind taking the auctioneer’s hammer for a moment and nailing it to our own wall. (Fox News didn’t think so however. Bizarrely, when reporting on the sale, Fox felt obliged to blur out the so called “breasts” of Picasso’s abstract).

Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso.
Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso.

But $200,000,000? Really? What painting is worth the GDP of some Pacific island nations within our region? Either art is priceless, and therefore by definition worth nothing, or it is worth a fair price and that’s not the sort of money that regularly changes hands for some fine art these days.

In his film, “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble”, the art critic and film maker Ben Lewis revealed how the contemporary art market deliberately inflates the prices paid for certain modern artists at auction in order to maximise prices for pieces by the same artists when sold privately. It is a business practice that would not be tolerated inside other industries.

Today there are practically no large scale paintings by Picasso remaining in private hands so it could be argued that 200 million big ones is a fair price to pay for “Women of Algiers”. I dunno. Maybe after all these years I still have my head stuck in the clouds but I suspect  that there are in private hands today an awful lot of smaller scale Picasso prints and drawings whose value has just sky rocketed. And what price should we put on Melbourne’s own Picasso, “Weeping Woman”, infamously stolen from the NGV in 1986 by the self-styled but to this day unidentified “Australian Cultural Terrorists”? My teenage son, looking over my shoulder while I write this post, claims he could make us a “Weeping Woman” with crayons if we gave him half a chance. I’d never heard of Picasso having a “Crayon Period” but then you never know. Picasso was a remarkably prolific artist.

The NGV’s “Weeping Woman” was held to ransom for a while after the theft with a demand for an increased public funding of the arts. The story reads to me something suspiciously like a piece of performance art. Burnt matches were delivered to the authorities with the ransom notes. Legend has it that as the police net closed in, the typewriter used to write the ransom notes met a watery grave in the Yarra off Princes Bridge. It’s probably still down there, the rusted keys of the typewriter mixed with all those keys from the lovers locks thrown from the Southbank footbridge. Killjoy Council workers began removing the locks from this impromptu art installation this week.

In a sleight of hand, last week’s Federal Budget removed about $105 million from the Australia Council for the Arts, the body previously charged with funding arts projects in Australia, and placed the spondoolies into the hands of the Minister of the Arts. There is a theory behind the action of course because the money will go towards funding a new programme called “Excellence in the Arts” but it’s a move that would have the Australian Cultural Terrorists fuming if they were still around.

“Weeping Woman” was eventually returned to the gallery unharmed, more famous and probably more valuable than ever before, but without any of the unlikely ransom demands for arts funding met. The crime has never been solved but the process left then gallery director, Patrick McCaughey’s bow tie in a twist for more than a little while. In the final analysis the lack of a pecuniary outcome was apt. After all it’s well known that art is priceless. Well, isn’t it?

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso.
Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso.