Category Archives: Cultural

Trash & Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

“What!”

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

“No, not really?”

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

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

Singer of an occasional lunatic tune.

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

Skipper’s mandala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reduce, reuse, recycle, repeat and reflect.

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A stitch in time saves what?

There is no doubt that the lives of each and every one of us are the result of chance and random DNA.

Family legend has it that in her long ago courting days, a Great Grandmother with a fair splash of my wife’s genetic deoxyribonucleic acid brought a prospective beau home to meet the parents. Seeking to make a favourable impression on the young Scot, she wore her best dress, even removing her embroidered silk pinafore for what she perceived was likely to be the most advantageous sartorial effect while serving the young man his tea.

Poor Great Grandmama. Her efforts were all in vain as they had quite the opposite of the intended effect. So the story goes, they didn’t see that boy for the dust as he strode out the door that day and headed for the hills. In the best traditions of Scottish courtship, the prospective boyfriend is said to have feared that such a woman, dressed in all her finery without even seeing a need to protect her outfit with an apron, could never be supported in marriage by a man the likes of him. His amours were soon forgotten and Great Grandmother went on to meet and marry another fellow, my wife’s future Great Grandfather, presumably a man who could afford to supply her with more than one dress. Thus was a family formed.

19th century hand embroidered parlor apron

But what if Great Grandmother had kept her hand embroidered silk apron safely pinned around her slim waist on that day? Our births and our histories are all the results of such random events.

Anecdotal though the story possibly is, it does illustrate the importance that was placed in times past on economy in the home and of the merits placed upon good housekeeping. Great Grandmamma lived at a time not very far removed from the Wragge girls at Yallambie and the world she knew and its restrictions I suspect would not have been all that dissimilar.

Victorian era embroidered velvet cushion cover

Sewing was almost exclusively the domain of women in the 19th century and an occupation generally looked upon with indulgence by the male of the species, at least at those times when he thought about it at all. Needlework and the art of embroidery were viewed as necessary attributes of any genteel young lady and were a reflection on the leisure time available to such individuals and the creative efforts needed for these ladies to perfect their skills.

Aesthetic style era unmounted cushion design

Most upper to middle class ladies of the 19th century therefore spent at least some of their days working at their sewing box. The introduction to one contemporary sewing tome, ‘The Ladies’ Work-Table Book’, states pointedly if condescendingly that, “No one can look UPON THE NEEDLE without emotion; it is a constant companion throughout the pilgrimage of life.”

Hand beaded and machine embroidered purses with a contemporary book, “Dainty Work for Pleasure and Profit” offering advice and sewing instructions to young ladies

The reality was, women’s domestic handiwork was more often than not the only way a woman could reveal an otherwise hidden artistic nature. Tatted doilies, macramé mats, crocheted antimacassars and beaded and embroidered cushions were produced in great numbers by ladies from patterns sourced in popular embroidery manuals, as well as from a growing number of weekly women’s magazines.

Louisa Anne Meredith, (Source: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

One exception to the generally domestic nature of this rule was that doyen of the arts, Louisa Anne Meredith, who as previously recounted in these pages, visited the Bakewells at Yallambee in 1856. She is known to have been a keen if somewhat inexpert worker of embroidery before her arrival in Australia who could, nevertheless, draw on a wide range of her travel experiences and her considerable skills in draughtsmanship to produce original designs in sewing of great Antipodean charm.

Writing of her journey to Australia in one of her published books, she described the days she spent sewing during the voyage:

“I passed every day on deck, busy with that most pleasant of all ‘fancy work’, wool embroidery; and to it I owe my exemption from much of the overpowering ennui so general on a long voyage. To study is, I think, impossible, and I very soon disposed of all the light reading to be found on board, when compelled by illness or bad weather to remain below. But my work-basket and frame were my daily companions, and I was often told how enviable was my happiness in having something to employ me.” (‘Notes and Sketches of New South Wales’, by Mrs Charles Meredith)

19th century lambrequin at Yallambie

Several examples of Louisa’s later Australian themed needlework are believed to have survived, including flower pictures and a lambrequin, a sort of piece of decorative drapery designed to hang across the length of a mantelpiece. The lambrequin as a piece of sewing was at one time the height of fashion in the Victorian home and was most usually created by the hand of the lady of the house as a statement of her skill and good taste. As a furnishing, it was a device used to bring attention to the fireplace, the focal point of any room, and to the clutter of bric-a-brac inevitably displayed there. A similar if less creatively executed lambrequin exists today as a decorative motif over the Marquina dining room fire surround at Yallambie, although as a dust trap, it is usually rolled away and brought out only on occasion.

Embroidered gents smokers’ caps
19th century crazy patchwork tea cosy

Other types of sewn items include cushions and tapestries, smoking caps and aprons, and a single tatty if well used crazy patchwork tea cosy. Unfortunately none of these items come with a Wragge family provenance, but they can make an interesting resource for review all the same.

One of the few artefacts at Yallambie that does have a Wragge family provenance is a beaded and embroidered gout stool. The velvet is faded and the upholstery dented, but the beading is intact and probably unaltered from the time a young Annie Wragge first sewed it into place probably in or about 1890. To my eye it seems a funny shaped object. A bit like a model of the slippery dip at Luna Park, but whether or not it was ever used by a member of the Wragge family for the purpose for which it was designed – resting up a gouty limb I mean, not sliding down the slippery dip – remains unrecorded.

Late 19th century gout stool stitched by Annie Murdoch ne Wragge at Yallambie

People it seems are generally too busy today to be bothered with the sort of creative endeavours our great grandparents were familiar with. The model aeroplanes I built as a child from scratch from balsa wood and varnished tissue paper can now be purchased ready made from any model shop and the vast array of sewn items made by women in earlier times are largely obsolete.

Hand knitted woolen child’s cardigan

My late mother was a keen and expert knitter and when I was a child, socks, scarfs and jumpers came off her woollen needles with regularity and in profusion throughout the winter. The first Geelong football Guernsey I ever owned came from those knitting needles and while I might have thought at the time that the outfit didn’t quite measure up against the VFL approved jumpers of my opponents on the Primary School footy field, there is no doubting the love and the care that went into its creation. Under her instruction I even learned to knit myself after a fashion although I would never have admitted to my friends to being occupied with such a sissy occupation. The pure wool jumper I laboriously completed I probably passed off in the school yard as one of Mum’s.

Most of the clothes I wear these days are sourced from second hand stores, so I guess in my own way I’m doing my bit for the planet and at least I can be sure of wearing outfits not likely to be repeated elsewhere on the streets of Yallambie. My wife and I have been avid Op shoppers from way back but in this fast paced, Marie Kondo led, modern world , it seems such ideas are yet in a minority. It’s said that David Beckham never wears the same set of underpants twice before throwing them away but in a society where it is easier to buy new clothes than go to the trouble of washing the old ones, something has got to give. Inevitably David Beckham’s old underpants are going to end up in land fill and as some people will tell you, given the size of those underpants that’s going to be a lot of land to fill.