Tag Archives: Robert Bakewell

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.

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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.

 

“So this is Christmas”

Where were you the day they shot John Lennon? For those younger than a certain age the answer is probably, “A twinkle in my father’s eye,” but for the rest of us it seemed like one of those seminal moments in life when history is written.

I have a memory of that warm December afternoon in Melbourne. School had finished for the summer and I was in the garden at the family home in Rosanna when my father came outside with the news he had just heard broadcast on the radio.

“Hey. You there.”
“What?”
“No, no, no,” he chanted, using a metre borrowed from The Beatles.
“What?”
“That bug. You know, Lennon, the Beatle. They just shot him in New York.”
“What, who?”
“I dunno. Probably some sort of music lover I guess. I heard it on the wireless just now.”

I remember the sense of disbelief. Lennon, the man who wrote the double entendre “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Dead at 40. With a bullet. Forty sounded old.

To put that day into its era and within the context of the Yallambie narrative, the ex-Beatle died 37 years ago this week on December 8th, (a day later in Australia). It was a time when Ethel Temby was still living at Yallambie Homestead and the last of the vacant blocks from the original AV Jennings sub division were fast disappearing into the suburban landscape, giving Santa more work to do it seems with every passing year.

Lennon’s old band mate Paul is in Melbourne to play some shows today and tomorrow and the circumstance got my mind to wandering. When I opened a box at home containing some shiny natural history specimen beetles collected at Yallambie in Christmas times now past, it got it wandering off in a fairly random direction. It’s a direction entirely appropriate for this, the silly season, and a better line to travel than dwelling on an historic, senseless murder. My old dad’s words about bugs seemed to come back like a blast from the past, along with a flood of lines from a poem you may have heard.

When Christmas comes the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle
The first inflammatory breeze’ll
set him buzzing like a diesel.
(Leon Gellert)

So with apologies to lovers of the British ’60s beat who, like me, thought at the start this post was shaping up to be about the walrus, or beetles spelled with an “A”, think again. The question is, just where have all those Christmas Beetles gone?

Jewel Beetles found at Yallambie.

It’s an oft asked question these days. When I was a kid it seemed that Christmas was the time when shining Christmas beetles were a common thing in the garden. Maybe I was just more observant then or maybe it was the plastic toy “Bug Catcher” that arrived from Father Christmas one Christmas morning, but finding anything like a Christmas Beetle now is something of a rarity and the fact is, I haven’t seen an actual Christmas Beetle at Yallambie for several years. The photograph above is of some wood boring, Jewel Beetles which were collected at Yallambie, but I’m afraid they weren’t found in a single day, or in a single year for that matter.

Parure crafted for the Countess of Granville from real scarabs by Phillips of Cockspur Street, London, c1884. (Source: Gray & Davis)

The beauty of Jewel Beetles has long been recognized by jewellery makers who prized them and in the latter half of 19th century incorporated real beetles into everything from hatpins to bracelets, an expression of the Victorian fascination with the natural world, even while their other behaviour did everything to destroy it.

Christmas Beetle (Porter’s)

True Christmas Beetles by comparison are a type of scarab and are a fairly chunky, sometimes large insect that come in a variety of metallic colours. They are quite harmless to touch and if you’ve ever had one to hold it’s something to feel the determination of the little fellow as it pushes through your fingers.

It leaves me wondering, what goes on in a beetle mind as he sits there, snug as a bug in a rug in the palm of your hand. Does he have a name? Something scientific probably. Latin sounding, no doubt. Maybe his friends call him Ringo?

Adult Christmas Beetles feed on eucalyptus leaves and it was claimed in our Colonial past that the quintessential gum tree could sometimes be seen to bend under the sheer weight of the numbers of massed beetles. No more.

Jewel Scarabs from around the world, (National Geographic).

I don’t know if this has a relevance, but it has been reported in Germany that the flying beetle population in Germany has crashed by more than 75% over a 30-year study period. Reasons for this remain uncertain but if the results of the German survey into this phenomenon correlate into a worldwide trend, then we likely have a problem. The German report concludes that, “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”

80% of wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The fact is that only 10% of the world’s insect population have been identified and it is believed that many are going extinct before they can even be named.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), Daguerreotype. (Source: George Eastman House Collection).

Yallambee’s Robert Bakewell, an amateur entomologist of some standing, would have been most disturbed by this statistic, even as his net descended down upon the last Pussycat Swallowtail or his pin pierced an increasingly rare Christmas Beetle.

The search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail.

Comment has already been made in the pages of this blog about the decline in bee populations but apparently the decline is not limited to bees and is linked to a general loss of bio diversity worldwide. The evidence for a beetle decline in parts of Australia is anecdotal but undeniable. Climate change, loss of insect habitats and the use of pesticides have all been suggested as possible causes of this beetle malaise but the general consensus is that it has been a combination of factors without any one single cause. The plastic Bug Catcher of my childhood is in the clear after all.

The Herald Sun reported today that a recent La Trobe University study had found that human disturbance to ecosystems such as clearing forest for farmland has led to profound changes in the diversity of ant species world wide. Professor Heloise Gibb was quoted saying that, “The disappearing ant species are more likely to be predators, increasing the chances that pest populations might explode.”

In the case of the old Christmas Beetle, it’s unclear what if any effect a decline in the population will cause. The belief is that the “dual life history” of the insect is at the heart of the problem. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses, the adults on eucalypt leaves and with both environments in short supply around urban Melbourne these days the decline is understandable. It’s one explanation of why Christmas just isn’t what it used to be, at least for beetles.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne tonight, that other rare Beatle is making his appearance stage left, some might say in the style of “Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell”. The weather has been a trifle inclement of late but here’s hoping there’s still a chance for a fine night, a warm summer, and to the truth of those words:

“…the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle”

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Yallambie Park

Council sign marking the Bakewell era stand of Black Bamboo in Yallambie Municipal Park
Council sign marking the Bakewell era stand of Black Bamboo in Yallambie Municipal Park

I saw a sight you do not often see on Tarcoola Drive this morning. A motorised street sweeper. None too many street trees from which to sweep up the non existant leaves I expect.

You see, trees aren’t much chop with our Council. Within our neighbourhood there are a number of historic colonial era trees. Included in this list there are maybe a half dozen English elms dating from the colonial period and now growing inside private gardens. In Yallambie Park there are none.

20 years ago elm leaf beetle was identified as a developing arboricultural problem within the City of Banyule. Early in 1995 under this cloud, my wife and I attended a Council sponsored, beetle strategy meeting in Albert Jones Reserve, Eaglemont. Suggested treatments that day ranged from canopy sprays, bark banding, soil treatments or, as a last resort, complete removal of affected trees. “What would happen to house prices in Eaglemont if all the elm trees in the suburb’s leafy streets were destroyed?” That was the worrying question on peoples’ lips. A parks and gardens officer from the Council spoke and I remember his words exactly. “Strategic management is the answer. I don’t know whether anybody here knows where the suburb of Yallambie is, but there is a particularly bad outbreak of beetles in parkland on the River there. The Council intends to deal with the problem there as a priority.”

When Council workers arrived in Yallambie in March that year to handle the beetle problem, they did so by cutting down and removing all of the English elms in Yallambie Park. Those trees had stood for over a hundred years. I know this because I counted the rings on the remaining tree stumps.

The Council officer supervising the destruction told me on site during this process that the complete removal of the elm trees in Yallambie park was deemed necessary by the Council so that resources could be better concentrated on saving the street trees of Eaglemont.

There was the problem in a nutshell. Short of my wife and I chaining ourselves to the trees marked for destruction, there was little that could be done to prevent the chain saws once they were started. We did get our faces plastered in the local newspaper in protest however. “Elm Tree Cull Shocks Couple” (The Heidelberger, April 19, 1995) was the somewhat embarrassing headline. The article quoted a council officer as saying that the Council intended to revegetate with indigenous plants after the removal of the exotics. “It is part of our wider objective to return the Plenty River environs to their indigenous state.” (Ibid)

The writer, during felling of elms in Yallambie Park, March 1995
The writer, during felling of elms in Yallambe Park, March 1995

Apparently Council had not read its own Landscape Survey written by Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar in 1985-87. Although there have been other reports written since, all generally overlooked, in my view the McBriar report remains the most comprehensive and observant of these Council sponsored landscape surveys. It is worth quoting briefly and in part from its chapter about Yallambie, if only to draw attention to how this report has been almost totally ignored in the nearly 3 decades since.

YALLAMBIE FLAT
Existing Landscape Character
A dramatic landscape in complete contrast to the precincts further north. A large horseshoe shaped open flat is contained all round with manna gums to the north east; river edge thickets to the east with a lone Roman cypress; river thickets to the south east with suckering false acacia (Robinia pseudo acacia); a thicket of elms (Ulmus procera) and a stand of mixed araucarias, mainly hoop pine (Araucaria bidwillii) to the south west; to the west the old homestead sited on the ridge is partially concealed by the large mixed conifers down the overgrown garden slopes to remnant orchard at the bottom; a line of pin oaks (Quercus palustris) and hawthorns flanking an old track to the north west; and a pair of magnificent English oaks (Quercus robur) to the west.
The scene resembles a derelict common dominated by the magnificence of the conifers and oaks, and the brooding western slope with the dull walls of the old house…

Recommendations:
An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements, eg. orchard, is required.

Development should ensure the retention of the open landscape setting, with views to open water from Yallambie to indigenous woodland on the Eltham side. The Eltham side should be planted out with indigenous woodland species as a dusky woods setting to Yallambie. Preservation of the western escarpment now under private management is critical. The significance of the site should be recognised in its management and planning and the site should be permanently linked with the homestead. Western escarpment property owners should be encouraged to participate in sympathetic management of their properties. Any planting on the escarpment should be as unfussy thickets with the pines protected and dominant. The landscape should be developed to continue the impression of a mature and derelict farm/garden from a past age.

Misty morning with Hoop pine , August, 2014
Misty morning with Hoop pine , August, 2014

In spite of the neglect that Yallambie Park has witnessed over time and which in recent years has become almost systematic, there are several features still to be found if you take your time. Of note are several venerable oaks, some towering araucarias (including the “lone” Hoop pine of the river flat) and several historic Italian cypress. Of the latter, there were once many more. Richard Howitt mentions their existence during his visit to the Bakewell farm in 1842: “I noticed cypresses, R.(obert Bakewell) had raised from seed in abundance.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845).

These cypresses were planted in the early days of the Yallambie Farm as a way of marking boundary points and sight lines for ploughing. At least one of these 150+ year old trees was ring barked within this writer’s memory, evidence of a misplaced environmental vandalism within the community.

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.

Thomas Wragge claimed to be one of the first orchardists in the district and it is said that the quality of his trees was greatly admired, (Avril Payne, 1971 Fine Arts Thesis, possibly quoting Wragge’s grand daughter, Nancy Bush). It is likely however that Thomas was taking credit for the work of the Bakewell brothers who preceded him. Certainly the Bakewells’ vineyard was a very early venture. Raymond Henderson in his book regarding the early viticulture of Port Phillip “From Jolimont to Yering” (Roundabout Publishing, 2006) suggested that the vineyard planted at the Bakewells’ Yallambie was practically one of the first in the Colony and Dr David Dunstan in his AGL Shaw Lecture of 2011 said that “…for the vignerons of 1840 contract work was available in the gardens of the well-to-do. Their first effort was a one acre vineyard just above the confluence of the Plenty River with the Yarra at Yallambie, the property of John and Robert Bakewell.”

Until recent times, on private land at the base of the escarpment above Yallambie Park, there existed a single, extremely old grape vine. It produced a small, red grape in the summer but eventually became very overgrown by garden escapees. In the opinion of John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, this vine dated from the Bakewell era at Yallambie and if so was an important and rare example of a pre Phylloxera viticulture. Perhaps William Howitt saw this vine in 1852 when he capably described the Yallambie farm:

“…the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine.” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858).

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Plantation of Lombardy poplars (and vineyard).
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856.

In the 21st century, alongside a suburban block in Goulburn Grove in the new Cascades subdivision of Yallambie, a hobby vineyard has lately been planted on the sloping electrical easement located there. I wonder if that keen gardener and vigneron realizes the traditions to which he has been adding?

Other surviving elements of the Wragge/Bakewell orchard have gradually been lost through attrition and ongoing Parks mismanagement. An ancient apple tree was very nearly killed one year after Council workers sprayed it with herbicide while treating the rampant blackberry canes that had overgrown it. The old apple tree was completely defoliated in the middle of summer and gave every appearance of being dead until finally struggling back into leaf some 18 months later, by then very much the worse for wear. That apple, several pears and one single, ancient fig are all that remain now of the once extensive Yallambie orchards. The fig tree fell over some years ago and was destined for the Council chipper when I approached the workmen on site assigned the job and suggested that if raising the tree back to a standing position was impractical, what was left of the tree should be left where it had fallen.  Figs are surculose plants and sprout basal growth from their existing root base. Today that sorry tree survives in Yallambie Municipal Park and still produces fruit in summer. Against the odds it endures, a monument to neglect where it was planted probably more than 150 years ago by our early settlers. It is a true Lazarus of the fruiting world, testament that it’s sometimes better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. This is an assertion that has become almost standard practice in Yallambie Park.

When Banyule City Council was created in 1994 from an amalgamation of the old City of Heidelberg and parts of the former Shires of Eltham and Diamond Valley, it was thought that by giving Banyule both banks of the lower reaches of the Plenty River a strategy would be developed to better manage the river environs. In Yallambie, the eastern end of the horseshoe bend has since been allowed to return to an indigenous state and much of the old cultivated river flats and the former prize winning pastures have been planted with Manna gums and native grasses. A sign identifies the site as being an important permanent camp for Aboriginal peoples in precolonial times. Near this sign on the river bank just off the bicycle path, stands diversely a large Italian cypress.

When I came to live in Yallambie two decades ago, some of my new neighbours, many of them old time Yallambie residents, could recall a time when the river banks and the surrounding vicinity of Yallambie Park were “like a botanic gardens”, planted out with fuschias and flowering bulbs. Both the river and the flood plain became degraded as residential development proceeded. A story in the “The Heidelberger” newspaper of 1982 reported local complaints that nothing was being done to prevent the spread of noxious weeds in the Yallambie parklands, (The Heidelberger, May 26, 1982).

Those noxious weeds are today a little better managed than previously but it really comes down to what your definition of a weed is. To some it is the English oaks, Italian cypress, pines, poplars, robinias, olives and fruit trees, growing now alongside the more recent, reintroduced indigenous plantings, that are the weeds. That was the verdict passed on the late and lamented English elms in Yallambie Park when they developed an associated problem. In this new millenium, as the surviving Bakewell and Wragge era trees become more geriatric and general victims of neglect, will this verdict be the fate of all remaining colonial era elements of Yallambie Park?

Homestead, seen through the trees from Yallambie Municipal Park, September, 2014.jpg
Homestead, seen through the trees from Yallambie Municipal Park, September, 2014.jpg