Artist Colony: State Library of New South Wales, Exhibition Galleries, 1 Mar 2014 – 11 May 2014
After a few weeks offline writing, I was back on the airwaves this morning with Tim Higgins on 2SER. A big thank you to Nicole Cama for stepping in over the last few weeks. Nicole is one of the many people who volunteer in support of the Dictionary and it’s what makes the Dictionary such a successful public history project.
A new exhibition, Artist Colony: Drawing Sydney’s Nature, has just opened at the State Library of New South Wales and it’s one that all Sydney history buffs should go and see.
One hundred rare natural history drawings dating from the 1790s, all drawn in Sydney, are on display. Many of them have never been displayed before and for some of these pictures it’s the first time they have been back in Sydney since they were painted all those years ago.
The central part of the exhibition is drawn from a collection of 745 exquisite drawings acquired by the State Library back in 2011. The collection of six volumes of watercolours had been collated in the 1790s for Alymer Bourke Lambert, one of Britain’s leading natural historians. After his death, the watercolours passed on to the 13th Earl of Derby and there they remained in the family library until they were acquired by the State Library.
Three of the volumes were known of, but rarely viewed, but the other three volumes had never been seen or described before. This is exciting stuff for historians and botanists! Since 2011 the library has been conserving the images and researching the background of the pictures – the artists, when and where they were produced. And now 100 of these very special images are on display for the public.
One of the revelations in this collection is the importance of early watercolours for conveying information and knowledge. Back then the first fleet officers couldn’t take a photo of the amazing and completely bizarre flora and fauna they were encountering on their iPhone. If they could have, they would have taken a photo and posted it on instagram. Instead they did the 18th century equivalent – a watercolour – and sent it back to Britain. These watercolours were then copied and shared among social circles, ending up in collections, libraries and museums. Some great examples of multiple images and copies are on display.
Another exciting aspect of the collection is that some of the watercolours are annotated and have recorded on them Sydney language words for the animals, birds and flowers. A rare thing.
And an extraordinary development is that this collection of watercolours sheds new light on others in the State Library’s collection. Curators now believe that nine images previously attributed to another artist might have actually be executed by William Dawes.
William Dawes is a fascinating man and an important cross-cultural player in the early colony. He was a marine officer with the first fleet, but was also an astronomer who established an observatory down at Dawes Point or Tar-ra. He forged friendships with some of the Gadigal people and learnt snippets of the Sydney language during his three years in the colony. You can read more about how the watercolours might be connected to Dawes in this recent Sydney Morning Herald article, First Fleet Drawings Study May Add Artist to William Dawes’ Talents
A whole swathe of these beautiful and historically significant watercolours have been digitised by the State Library so that you can enjoy them, wherever you are. The Dictionary of Sydney staff and volunteers will be working to incorporate some of them into the Dictionary’s extraordinary content. But to get the full impact of these historical documents and botanical wonders, head along to the State Library. There are also a few first fleet diaries on display, which you can peer at and read.
The exhibition is on until 11 May 2014 and is free; just like the Dictionary of Sydney!
Hat, Gay Mardi Gras, 1984. 1984 By William Yang. Contributed by National Library of Australia nla.pic-vn3097670
This year is the 36th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras. The annual parade on 1 March marks the end of a month-long festival of events that many Sydneysiders today take for granted. But as Nicole and Tim discussed this morning, the parade has had a turbulent history.
Over the years the parade has gone through a lot to become the exciting, famous and well-loved event it is today. It survived thanks to the determination of the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer inhabitants, who perceived its significance very early on.
The first mardis gras parade in Sydney started as part of a worldwide International Gay Solidarity day to commemorate the Stonewall riots, a series of violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place at Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969.
Crowds gathered at Taylor Square in the evening of the 24 June, 1978. As the parade moved down Oxford Street toward Hyde Park, police intervened, confiscating the lead truck and arresting the driver. This angered the crowd who then marched up William St to Darlinghurst where they clashed with police reinforcements who had blocked the road.
The Australian reported around 1,000 people singing and dancing down Oxford Street until they met with police. Then the mardi gras became ‘a two-hour spree of screaming, bashing and arrests‘ with police violently arresting 53 people.
The heavy handed approach by the police sparked nationwide protests and demonstrations in the months that followed. Forced to act, the New South Wales Government repealed the Summary Offences Act a year later, removing restrictions on citizens wanting to assemble in a public space. It took a further six years before an act of parliament was passed decriminalising male homosexual acts for those above the age of 18.
Outside the Hordern Pavilion on the morning after the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras party, 1992. 1995 By Wajon, Scott. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales
Discriminatory and homophobic attitudes surrounded the parade in the early years but that gradually started to change in the early 1990s, as it became the largest celebration of its kind in the world.
The parade started to be seen for its tourism value for the city with newspapers quoting academics who had calculated that the Mardi Gras was attracting millions of dollars of income from overseas visitors. Eventually, it also became an important facet of Sydney’s cultural life.
You can read more about the history of the mardis gras in Garry Wotherspoon’s essay for the Dictionary, Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Or you can listen to Diane Minnis, who attended the very first parade and described what happened on that historic night, in a moment of ‘mass defiance’.
Many thanks to Nicole Cama for standing in for Lisa while she is away working hard on her book. Tune in again next week for more Sydney stories with the Dictionary of Sydney on 2SER Breakfast with Tim Higgins, on 107.9 FM.
Cook and crewmen: detail of Captain Cook window at Cranbrook, Bellevue Hill. 1982 By Douglass Baglin. Contributed by Private collection (By kind permission of the Baglin estate)
I’m not sure you could say we are romantics here at the Dictionary but we were taken by the story of Elizabeth Cook, shared by our guest historian, Nicole Cama, on 2SER Breakfast with Tim Higgins this morning. Elizabeth’s story is largely unknown, having been eclipsed by the voyages and deeds of her world famous husband whose public persona has been memorialised beyond mention.
Cook’s history is woven tightly into the story of Sydney and the Australian nation. The Dictionary has two images of stained glass windows featuring Cook by the artist Douglass Baglin – one in the Sydney Town Hall and another at Cranbrook in Bellevue Hill. These windows show us the extent to which Cook’s story has been mythologised – stained glass windows being a more familiar domain for saints and deities.
Cook died on Valentines Day 1779 – 235 years ago. Elizabeth, at home in England, was reportedly working on a waistcoat for Cook – using material he had gathered from his previous voyage to Tahiti – when she heard this sad news. In her grief she set the work aside and never completed it.
Very little is known about Elizabeth. She died at 94, outliving her husband and all of their six children, who themselves died without children. Some of her mementos of Cook are in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.
Any chance to know Cook the private man, and the story of his life with his wife Elizabeth, have been lost down the years. Elizabeth burned all of his letters, which must have been numerous considering how long he was away at sea. They were married for 17 years and she lived another 56 years after his death, wearing black for the rest of her life.
Next time you pass by Cook’s statue in Hyde Park – which itself has an interesting history – spare a thought for Elizabeth and the constant reminder she must have had of the loss of her husband each year as Valentines Day came around again.
Join Nicole and Tim again next at 8:20am on 2SER Breakfast for another great Sydney story.
Chinese fruit and vegetable hawker c1895. Contributed by National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24615958
This morning on 2SER Breakfast, historian Nicole Cama joined Tim for the Dictionary’s weekly segment on all things Sydney. Being Chinese New Year, Nicole delved in to the history of Chinatown, once described as an ‘acre of mystery’.
Perhaps the first surprising fact to those of us who have grown up visiting Chinatown, is that it wasn’t always called ‘Chinatown’ and it hasn’t always been in Dixon Street!
The first concentration of Chinese residences and shops were actually in The Rocks. That was because during the 1850s, Chinese men would arrive and buy supplies in The Rocks for their journey inland to the goldfields.
By the 1870s, Chinese traders had moved to Campbell and Goulburn Streets. Eventually though, their focus turned to Haymarket because of the presence of fruit and vegetable market buildings before finally settling in Dixon Street, where it remains today.
Chinese hawkers, common around the streets of Sydney, were viewed with a level of mistrust by locals who saw them as alien and threatening. For an already suspicious public, sensationalised reports of squalid opium and gambling dens did little to improve Chinatown’s image. One report had the dramatic headline, ‘Police Declare War on Sydney’s Chinatown’.
For the more adventurous, Chinatown was a place of mystery. One contemporary account from 1923, written under the alias ‘a Sydney girl’, describes:
“Slippers made of plaited straw, slippers made of felt, high slippers, low slippers, slippers old and new – so Chinatown shuffles. Life moves leisurely here - nods behind dark counters, glides like shadows in a phantom show in still darker and more remote interiors…Orientals, old, young, middle-aged, mysteriously come and go, out of everywhere into nowhere. Up and down passages that are labyrinthian they appear and fade with a facility that baffles the Western mind.”
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Sydneysiders decided to be adventurous and sample some of the food offerings that Chinatown had to offer. Which is amusing considering how fundamental Chinese cuisine is to life in Sydney today. An article in the Sunday Herald from 1949 noted the importance of this cultural centre in Sydney as a marker of the city’s sophistication, saying the Chinese are “a quiet-living, hard-working people, but in Chinatown they meet to dine and dance and play.”
Sun Tiy Sang Gardener c1920.From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, A453003/PXA 978, 529
You can read Shirley Fitzgerald’s account of Chinese in Sydney here and follow Nicole’s links to these newspaper reports:
- Sydney Silhouettes, 24 November, 1923, The Brisbane Courier (Qld, 1864-1933), p 18
- SYDNEY’S CHINATOWN, 20 February 1923, Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA, 1916-1938), p 9
- SYDNEY CHINATOWN, 11 August 1930, Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld, 1885- 954), p 6
- CHINATOWN, 29 May, 1949, The Sunday Herald Supplement (Sydney, NSW, 1949-1953), p 1
Don’t forget to tune in to 107.9 again next Wednesday morning at 8:20 for more Sydney history from the Dictionary with Nicole and Tim.