In 1814, Newcastle was “a forlorn cluster of makeshift buildings whose sole purpose was to provide shelter and basic necessities for the inhabitants.” This assessment, by historian Elizabeth Ellis, is uncontroversial. For the 305 white settlers – including 249 convicts – who made their homes in this isolated outpost, perhaps the only solace was to be found in the climate, and the novelty of the local flora and fauna.
Curious Colony: A twenty first century Wunderkammer, at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, is an exhibition that looks back to those early days of settlement, putting works by early colonial artists and craftsmen alongside contemporary pieces. The latter have been chosen, or specially commissioned, to set up visual echoes with the earlier works. The process contains aspects of critique, satire and celebration, but the key idea behind this show is “curiosity” – the wonder and fascination of a new world, the urge to collect specimens, the aesthetic impulse that fashions a new order from the randomness of Nature.
One of the greatest curiosities of this event is that is constructed around a work that is not actually part of the exhibition. The absent nucleus is Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s Collectors’ Chest (c.1818), which is one of the treasures of the State Library of NSW. This extraordinary object is the subject of Elizabeth Ellis’s Rare & Curious, a new book that virtually qualifies as a work of art in its own right. Every aspect of the history of the chest, its construction and decoration, is covered in a brisk but scholarly monograph, accompanied by high quality photographs and illustrations. The book itself is contained within a slipcase made to resemble a cabinet. It’s not often that book designers get their name on the back cover, but Pfisterer + Freeman deserve credit for this unique production.
Unfortunately the Macquarie Chest, which has been in the collection of the State Library since 1989, is too delicate to travel up the Pacific Highway. We can all empathise with that sentiment, but its absence left a hole in the show that needed to be filled.
The ingenious solution was to commission a master craftsman and a group of contemporary artists to create a new cabinet that becomes part of the NRAG collection. When I asked director Ron Ramsey and curator Lisa Slade who came up with this bright idea, they pointed simultaneously to each other. This is worth recording because it is highly uncharacteristic behaviour for directors and curators.
The Newcastle Chest, as it is called, was constructed by cabinetmaker, Scott Mitchell, and incorporates contributions from Lionel Bawden, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Esme Timbery, Louise Weaver and Philip Wolfhagen. The choice of artists could hardly be bettered, and each has risen to the occasion. Wolfhagen has painted three panels, his colleagues have filled drawers and compartments with artful arrangements of butterflies and stick insects; shells arranged into the shapes of slippers and boomerangs; and bright yellow embroidered covers for taxidermied birds. Bawden has adapted his trademark style, carving bunches of coloured pencils into objects that mirror the diverse contents of the Macquarie Chest’s bottom drawer.
Like its predecessor the new chest is an exquisite artifact that produces a thrill of discovery as one examines the contents of each compartment. This takes us back to the most fundamental aspect of any work of art – its ability to stop us in our tracks, to grab our attention and suspend time. As artworks grow more didactic or obscure, they become progressively less interesting to most viewers. Before we can absorb a message we need to be lured and hooked.
This is something the politicians might think about as they intone their charmless, spin-doctored slogans with all the personality of the speaking clock. Every audience wants to be surprised and entertained, and will forgive almost anything for one moment of delight; of spontaneity, naturalness or wit.
The Macquarie Chest was created for purposes of entertainment rather than scientific classification. It harks back to the Wunderkammern or “cabinets of curiosities”, that were found all over Europe from the 15th-18th centuries, from the Age of Discovery to the heyday of the Enlightenment. The contents of the chest – dead birds, insects, shells, dried seaweed – were arranged in ways that would please the eye, according to shape, size and colour. The intention was to highlight the dazzling profusion of Nature’s invention.
One of the mysteries associated with the Macquarie Chest is that it has a close cousin in the Dixson Chest, acquired by the State Library in 1937. It is presumed that the Dixson Chest is a slightly more refined copy of the Macquarie Chest, but it might possibly be the other way around. The Newcastle Chest is both a facsimile of these earlier models, and a postmodern rejoinder that gently mocks the colonial urge to acquire specimens, souvenirs and trophies of the new world.
The relationship between past and present is teased out in the other contributions to this show in a way that breathes life into those early colonial pieces, so often ignored or undervalued. Of the greatest interest are the paintings of Joseph Lycett (1774-1825), a minor artist transported for forgery, who would make a major contribution to the art of the convict era. In Sydney, while working on assignment at the police station, Lycett was caught in another forgery scam and sent to Newcastle, used as a dumping ground for secondary offenders. His talents brought him to the attention of the Commandant, Major James Wallis, who employed him in various commissions. He painted an altarpiece for Wallis’s pet project of a church, and may have helped with the design of the building. He left a handful of important landscapes in oils, and is almost certainly responsible for the panels on the Macquarie Chest.
Lycett will forever be identified with the region, and his Inner view of Newcastle (c.1818) is probably the most popular painting in the collection. Seeing his works exhibited alongside other colonial pictures from the NRAG collection underlines the quality of the gallery’s holdings, and highlights the need for a building that allows sufficient space to do justice these works, in the manner of Ballarat or Bendigo. This is a project that has generated much talk but little progress over the past few years.
Lycett’s most dramatic and memorable painting is Corroboree at Newcastle (c.1818), a twilight scene of the local Awabakal people dancing by the flickering light of a campfire. The figures are so stiff, and the picture has such a sense of abundant fantasy, that it is reminiscent of the Douanier Rousseau. Yet Lycett had actually witnessed these activities, and his painting must be viewed as a form of historical record.
Danie Mellor tries to view the Newcastle settlement from an indigenous perspective in his installation, The Native’s Chest (2010) – a gilded coffin surrounded by stuffed animals. He suggests that the region’s original inhabitants were also seen as exotic specimens and curiosities, with deathly implications.
Louise Weaver takes an equally skeptical approach to the colonial specimen hunters, creating lurid sleeves for stuffed birds that replace the attractions of natural plumage with a form of hyper-decoration. Natural history is overcome by commodity fetishism, stimulated by bright colours.
The saving grace of these and other pieces is their playfulness. The golden coffin and fluoro-covered birds are conspicuous exaggerations, projecting a kind of tawdry glamour on the unhappy reality of Aboriginal dispossession or the devastation wrought by settlers on the environment and native species. The red cedar and rosewood trees that provided timber for colonial furniture are virtually extinct. Many of the birds in the Macquarie Chest are no longer found in the region. The Awabakal no longer stage corroborees in the centre of town. For every form of heroic progress there is an equivalent loss, and curiosity is the impulse that fuels that historical mechanism. First there is wonder, then the urge to possess, and finally the melancholy realisation that we have killed the things we loved.
Curious Colony, Newcastle Region Art Gallery, July 10 – August 29, 2010
Rare & Curious: The Secret History of Governor Macquarie’s Collectors’ Chest
By Elizabeth Ellis, The Miegunyah Press, 275 pp, RRP: $59.99
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 07, 2010