Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Highlights from the NGV

Founded in 1861, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is the oldest public art gallery in Australia. Its first home was the State Library, where it resided for more than 100 years, before moving to its current, stylish home on St Kilda Road, in 1968.

Foundation funds, and works, were contributed by Melbourne's newly wealthy, of which the city had plenty in the post gold rush boom. This enabled the gallery's curators to establish a formidable collection of early Australian art, which formed the backbone of the original collection. 

International artworks would be added in the 20th century. 

Alfred Fenton, a wealthy local businessman, left a sizable inheritance (the 'Fenton Bequest') to the gallery when he died in 1904, which was used to expand the collection. With the acquisition of European and American works, modern and classical, the gallery soon established a reputation of having one of the finest collections in the Southern Hemisphere.

Oddly, the NGV currently does not have a published catalogue for its permanent collection. So the following is a personal selection of favourite works from our fine gallery. The order of the listed items reflects is in no real order, but reflects my own path one afternoon, wandering from room to room...


David Hockney

David Hockney was a British painter who came to prominence in, and helped to personify, the turbulent art scene of the early 1960s. Openly gay, at a time when this was still illegal in many Western countries, Hockney used his art to comment on sexual identity, and to analyse traditional ideas of love and relationships. 

This piece from 1963 offers a critical view of the standard idea of marriage. The man - usually taken to be a self portrait - sits alongside his otherworldly wife, who Hockney based on an Egyptian statue he saw at the British museum. This unlikely pairing reflects the artists belief that traditional marriage was, or could be, ridiculous, a concept backed up by the paintings many unusual touches. The unique shape of the frame, the unexplained numbers attached to the couple, and the man's missing legs all contribute to the air of absurdity that surrounds the scene. 

Marriage was, very obviously, not for this artist.


Pablo Picasso

No review of the NGV would be complete without touching on this work by Picasso, a man who stands tall over the art of the early twentieth century. However, I have written about this work, and its spectacular theft, more extensively already. Check it out here.


Mark Rothko

Abstract painting appeared in the early 20th century, as contemporary artists chafed at the restrictions imposed on them by having to depict objects (people, landscapes etc). What the abstractionists wanted to provide was not a copy of reality in paint, but a gateway to a world of pure emotion.

The 'objects' had to go.

In this vein came New York artist Mark Rothko, who confirmed in an interview in the 1950's: 'It was with the utmost reluctance that I found that the figure could not serve my purposes.' This piece, from 1958, is representative of his work, and also of the high ambitions he set for his output. Likening painting to a religious experience, Rothko sought to provide this for his audience as well. To heighten the mood, his works are on a large scale, and show little to no trace of the artist's hand. They are simply large, floating slabs of colour, designed to draw you in, and carry you away.


Claude Monet

Impressionism arose in Paris in the 1870s, as artists experimented by moving away from defined boundaries and unbroken lines. They departed from these stable foundations in an attempt to create a more vivid depiction of the world around them, a subjective snapshot of their own, individual experience.

Foremost among this movement was Claude Monet, a gentle man whose bright, shimmering landscapes are among the most discussed of all artworks. Was  he simply a clever populist, painting pretty pictures that could be appreciated by the masses? Or did his hazy, layered paintings hint at something deeper?

This painting, from 1878, captures his technique while still under development. The small farm village of Vetheuil, where Monet lived for four years, is depicted in a largely conventional way, while the interplay of light on the water gives a hint of how his technique would develop.


Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet's place in art history was secured by his most famous painting; Luncheon on the Grass (1863), where a naked woman casually picnics with two clothed men, and so scandalises polite Parisian society. This reaction was not unexpected. The artist had designed the painting with the intention of causing an uproar, displeased with the hypocrisy he detected in how the female form was utlilised in art (ok in religious paintings, obscene in every other context).

And this was merely one, from a list of outrages the painter conceived in his heyday.

In later life, Manet's passions cooled and he moved to the countryside, seeking a simpler life. His later works demonstrate a mastery of technique, which had been sometimes obscured by the provocative subject matter of his youth. The house depicted above is his house, and the rustic charms of a humble life in the country are warmly displayed. Sadly, this pleasant period did not last very long; Manet died from gangrene the following year.


Camille Pissarro

Born in 1830, Camille Pissarro's long career encompassed a variety of artistic periods and styles. A friend of Monet, in the 1870's Pisarro was also among the leading Impressionists but, by the following decade, began to feel that the approach was exhausted.

His subsequent work, broadly categorised as Post Impressionist, harvested ideas from different artistic schools, reflecting the artist's lifelong interest in innovation. Boulevarde Monmarte captures another fascination; that of the rapidly modernising city of Paris.

Paris had been remade in the second half of the 19th century, with new buildings and wider streets replacing their medieval predecessors. One of these new boulevardes was the street Pissarro lived on in Monmarte, and the artist set about recording the changing view through his apartment window in a series of 14 paintings.


Artist unknown

Until 2006, this was the NGV's prize possession; a rare, early van Gogh, one of only two works by the artist in a public gallery in Australia. Purchased from a travelling art show in 1939, for 2000 pounds, this portrait of an unknown European man reached a peak valuation of $20 million dollars. 

And then... the NGV loaned it to The Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, for an international van Gogh exhibition.

Frank Whitford, reviewing the exhibition in the Sunday Times, stated: 'This picture cannot be by van Gogh. The brushwork is assured and conventional. It's of a size van Gogh never used. Finally, suspiciously, nobody has any idea where the picture was before it came on the market in 1928.'

Other reviewers concurred and, after initially defending the authenticity of the work, the NGV directors submitted the portrait to the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Their analysis took two years but, finally, they reached the same conclusion. Head of a Man, while not a forgery, was the work of an unknown contemporary, rather than van Gogh himself. 

But before this news had been fully absorbed, another dramatic twist unfolded.

Lawyers representing the estate of Richard Semmel, a German Jew and onetime wealthy industrialist, came forward to claim that the painting had been owned by Semmel and taken from him by the Nazi's. His heirs now wished to claim it and have it returned to them.

Once the veracity of this claim had been established, the NGV offered to return the painting. But while ownership of the piece shifted, the Semmel family were then happy to leave it on indefinite loan with the NGV. It is still on display now; while no longer the most valuable item in the gallery, it has become, perhaps, the one with the most fascinating backstory.


Auguste Rodin

Rodin's 'The Thinker' is the artist's most famous work, and one of the most well known created by... well, anyone. It is a figure from popular culture as much as from art, recognisable, at least on some level, by nearly everyone. Started when Rodin was still largely unknown, the sculpture was commissioned by the French Government to form part of the entryway for a new museum of decorative art.

This bronze casting, the first of several, was to serve as a model for larger versions to come, and shows evidence that Rodin was still fine tuning his design. The figure here wears a cap, which is absent from all subsequent versions, and the finished work (now on display at the Rodin museum in Paris). Gifted by Rodin to his friend and patron Constantine Alexander Ionides, the item was acquired by the NGV in 1921.



When the irascible J.M.W.Turner, often considered England's finest painter, died, he left his entire body of work to the English nation. He had only one condition; that his work be kept as one body, and displayed together. So, it is fortunate (for us) that Turner's heirs ignored this request and, undoubtedly motivated by the proximity of large quantities cash, split off portions of his portfolio for sale. 

This work, one of two Turner's at the NGV, is reflective of the artist's later career, where the importance of form has been overwhelmed by an urge to stir the emotions. Depicting a waterfall at Schauffhausen in Northern Switzerland, a spot Turner visited many times, the object here is to convey the misty power of the river wild, rather than to show what it may actually look like. 

These later works of Turner's were derided in their day - too abstract and obtuse - but today they convey a simple theme that cuts across the generations; the awesome might of nature, and our meek place before it.


John Constable

Turner's great rival as a landscape painter was John Constable, a man who he differed from in every meaningful way. Where Turner was loud and boisterous, Constable was quiet and insular; where Turner traveled widely and set many of his famous paintings in Europe, Constable lived his whole life in Sussex, and set most of his works in the fields where he grew up; and where Turner showed the unpredictable might of nature, and its often destructive consequences, Constable showed a natural world tamed by man, and put to work to serve our ends.

This painting is typical of Constable's work generally, in that it shows an everyday scene from the rural paradise in the artists mind; a lock keeper allows a boat to pass along a canal, part of the regular clockwork of the countryside. More distinctive of his later works are the storm clouds in the background. By 1826 the Industrial Revolution was upending every facet of British life, and Constable rightly felt the pleasant orderliness of life on the farm was under threat. But, on this day, the storms are still some way off, and everyone is content with their place in the sun.

REMBRANDT (c. 1660)

Studio of Rembrandt

With his upturned collar, dark eyes, and peakless cap, Dutch master Rembrandt cuts a surprisingly dashing figure in paint. At the time this work was produced, he was also the most famous artist in Europe, and ran a large studio in Amsterdam where he taught students, between compositions.

One of the exercises Rembrandt used on his students was to have them copy his own works, mimicking the technique he had perfected himself. This piece, originally taken to be a self portrait, was determined in the 1970s to be one of these; one of about 90 portraits of Rembrandt completed by one of his students, with (perhaps) a few touches added by the man himself.

These student copies were of a high quality (many of Rembrandt's pupils became distinguished artists in their own right), and Rembrandt was not above signing them and selling them as his own, if he were sufficiently pleased with the outcome.

BEAR JUG (c. 1740)

Unknown artist

This cute stoneware jug has a suprisingly bloody history. In 18th century Europe, bear baiting was a popular past time, and bears were common sights in public, as well as objects of popular fascination. A whole range of bear themed wares was produced, everything from jugs, to vases, to plates, to statues. Bears were big business, and the suffering of the animals was entirely unconsidered.

This item was produced in Nottinghamshire, at the time the centre of English pottery. By coincidence, both bear baiting and English potting declined at the same time; in the 19th century the cruelty of bear baiting was finally accepted, and the practice banned. Meanwhile, domestic taste moved from English made goods to cheaper, more exotic items from continental Europe.


Artist unknown

Merevale Abbey in Warwickshire was built in 1148, a time when Gothic design was popular across Europe. A key feature of Gothic Cathedrals was their elaborate stained glass windows, of which Merevale was well decorated. And while the abbey was only small, it played its part in British history; Edward III was born there in 1312.

The Abbey was decommissioned by Henry VIII in 1538, and shortly fell into ruin. The above example of a stained glass window was salvaged from the site, and depicts the 14th century lord, John de Hardreshull, and his wife. It was common at this time for important  persons to add a panel of themselves to the local church, and so the stained glass became a kind of historical document, recording important events.


Artist unknown

A finial is a small, ornate roof decoration, often sitting atop a pinnacle, or at the topmost part of a roof. In Thailand, it is thought that they provide protection, and are also placed above doorways, to safeguard people as they enter and exit a building.

This ornate finial depicts the mythical 'Makara', a creature with the head of a lion, the horns of a deer, and the body of a serpent. The good luck the Makara brings is based on a traditional belief of the Khmer people, from the Asian mainland.

GUARDIAN SPIRIT (c. 700 - 800)

Artist unknown

Looking like a slimmed down version of the Cheshire Cat, this earthenware figure from 8th century China is probably a depiction of  a lion. The Asiatic lion was once common throughout South East Asia (the species is long extinct), and its image was used in China as a status symbol; the mark of the wealthy and powerful.

This lion served a specific purpose, in that it was entombed with its owner as a 'guardian spirit', to watch over the deceased in the afterlife. Chinese nobles from this period were buried with many such icons, along with clothes, jewels, and effigies of their friends and family. The guardian lions were usually paired - representative of yin and yang - so that they too would not get lonely during the long stretch of eternity.


Artist unknown

Similar in concept, although differing in detail, to the Chinese guardian lion is this hollow ceramic figure from the Nayarit region, in Western Mexico. The people that left this figure behind are not well known to history; thought to have flourished around three thousand years ago, they left very little evidence of their civilisation, habits, or fate. Even the three thousand year timeframe is in dispute.

But one tangible feature of their culture has been uncovered. They had a very distinctive burial method, which involved digging a hole about twenty metres deep, straight down, and then branching a few burial chambers off at the bottom. These 'shaft tombs' are unique to the region, and many examples have been examined.

Similar to the contemporary Chinese, and many other cultures, the Nayarit people filled their vertical tombs with figures, valuables and icons, to keep the departed safe in the afterlife. This figure is thought to be representative of masculinity, and so probably came from the tomb of a powerful king, or lord. The large feet, and tiny arms, are designed to help the item balanced upright.


Artist unknown

Built on the shores of the Mediterranean, in present day Tunisia, the ancient city of Carthage was the the centre of a thriving empire. At its peak, around 250 BC, the Carthaginians ruled a large swathe of North Africa, stretching around to encompass the southern part of Spain. The cultural achievements of Carthage rivaled that of ancient Rome; with well developed Government and public service, famous philosophers and warriors, and a flourishing art scene.

But the Carthaginian's success would lead them into conflict with the Romans, and the latter would eventually overwhelm their smaller rival. Carthage was sacked in 146 BC, and then rebuilt as a Roman colony. This mosaic, made of many differently coloured stones, was typical of the decoration found in a grand Roman residence, and dates from 400 AD, when Carthage was just another city in the Roman empire. 


Orrefors Glassworks

Founded in 1898, the Swedish Orrefors Glassworks company originally produced commercial and industrial items like window panes and bottles. But after the First World War, the company changed hands and expanded into domestic items; glasses, bowls and vases, of ever more complex design.

Influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, in the 1920's and 30's the company conceived innovative methods to produce highly stylised glassware. Their signature designs trapped air, and sometimes liquid, between layers of glass, to stunning effect. Orrefors continues to operate today, and its classic design items are now highly prized, and very valuable, collectors pieces.


Fernando and Humberto Cambana

The Cambana brothers hail from Sao Paulo, and have parlayed an architectural background into a career that combines conventional design with artistic flair. Their best known works use everyday objects to construct highly stylised versions of... other everyday objects, especially furniture. 

Chief among these are a series of chairs made from unlikely building blocks; parasols, and dolls, and rubber bands, and, in the above example, a bunch of fluffy toys. The toys are mostly taken from vending machines, and the idea is as old as the found art of Marcel Duchamp; take a cheap, common item, re-purpose it in an artistic way, and instantly create something of exponentially greater value.


While the brothers chairs are intended to be used as furniture, their relative scarcity, and the uniqueness of each item, has made them enormously valuable. This is a recent acquisition by the NGV, purchased earlier in 2015, reflecting the Camabana's cultural currency.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Trades Hall Robbery Shoot Out

Opening in 1859, the Victorian Trades Hall on Lygon Street is one of the oldest organised labour buildings in the world. Its construction was funded by local tradesman, flush with success from their campaign for an 8 hour day in 1856, and keen to further organise their lobbying efforts. The Victorian branch of the Labour Party was founded there, and a number of Victorian unions are still based in the building.

The Trades Hall circa 1890.

Present day.

The hall also used to be awash with cash.

Most of the unions operating from the building also used the facilities to collect their dues, which were then stored on site before being banked. As Melbourne expanded rapidly, and the trade labour unions thrived, the sums of money collected by the unions were vast; at times in the tens of thousands of pounds. 

It was also a poorly kept secret that this money was not heavily secured, being kept in bags in an empty room on the top floor.

'The Argus'; October 2, 1915.

In the small hours of October 2, 1915, police Constable William Warren was on patrol in Carlton. The streets were quiet at that late hour, and the location, a block from Melbourne's police headquarters on Russell Street, were not usually a crime hotspot. But around 2.15am, as Warren walked past the darkened Trades Hall, he could hear a strange tapping sound, coming from inside the building.

While Warren tried to decide what to do, he was joined by Inspector Joseph McKenna, also on patrol. And McKenna felt he knew instantly what the noise was: a team of men trying to crack a safe (there had been a minor safe burglary at the hall a few weeks before). A third policeman, Douglas McGrath, joined the group and McKenna left them on the scene, while he dashed back to headquarters for reinforcements.

McKenna returned in a few minutes with several more officers, and the police group entered the building.

Police Constable David McGrath.

The building was dark and the police moved cautiously, fanning out across the main staircase that lead to the upper floors. McGrath, an experienced officer with a cool head, took the lead. What happened next was to be much debated.

As the police moved deeper into the hall, they could hear movement in the dark and so challenged anyone there to identify themselves. They were then fired upon, unprovoked, and so defended themselves with their service revolvers. The hall roared with the sound of a sudden gun battle, shots on both sides blazing in the dark, a chaotic and frightening moment.

Finally, the police managed to subdue the assailants and apprehend them. There were three burglars, all of them well known to the authorities; John Jackson, Alexander Ward and Richard Buckley, the last an associate of notorious local gangster Squizzy Taylor.

There was also a tragic discovery in the aftermath of the shootout. Constable McGrath, 42 years old and a happily married family man, was found dead, shot by one of the gang.

The local press reports the story.
The case against the accused appeared open and shut; the men admitted that they were after the union dues thought to be stored at the hall (in the end only 30 pounds was in the building), and had been planning the break in for some weeks. But attributing blame for McGrath's death proved more difficult.

Jackson admitted shooting McGrath, but denied that he intended to kill him. Instead, he said that he ran into McGrath in a corridor and:

But the jury was either not convinced, or considered this explanation irrelevant.

Jackson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He was hung at the Melbourne Gaol, a short distance from the crime scene, the following year. His accomplices, Ward and Buckley, were absolved of blame for the killing and served five and six years in prison for robbery, respectively.

And there the matter may have rested.

But from the time the crime took place, there has been speculation that something else was afoot that night. More specifically, that what the three culprits were at the Trades Hall to steal was not cash, but secret union documents, of interest to Melbourne's criminal underground.

The rumour has long been that Squizzy Taylor, and his friend and occasional business partner John Wren, were behind the break in. Both had corrupt dealings with local unions - fixing prices, exchanging contracts for kick backs etc - and had heard that the unions were also dealing with other criminal figures, without their knowledge. 

So, in this version of the story, they decide to arrange a break in to find out who these other players are, from the unions records, and then use the promise of cash on the site to entice a few blokes to carry it out for them. The burglars can keep the money, as long as they hand over the unions books.

This speculation was given full vein in author Frank Hardy's classic local novel 'Power Without Glory,' where character John West (based on Wren) arranges a break in as described above. For this, and many other assertions, Wren would sue Hardy for libel, but the case was ultimately thrown out.

For his part, Wren always denied any involvement with the crime.

Bullet holes, still visible in the Trade Hall wall.

But whatever the ultimate truth behind what happened, this remains a tragic story; two men's lives lost, all for the sake of thirty pounds. Some of the bullet holes from the shootout are still visible in the Trades Hall walls, to serve as a reminder.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

How The Yarra Changed Its Course

The Yarra has always been the gateway to Melbourne.

Before the arrival of European settlers, our coastline was a windswept, swampy place, a haven for birds but little else. Westerners arriving by ship had no hesitation in bypassing this unpromising area and heading upriver.

These early colonials found their progress halted by a small waterfall (roughly where Elizabeth Street is today), adjacent to a lush valley between two small hills. The Yarra had delivered them to what they were looking for; a good place to found a village.

A map of the Yarra from 1864, much as the first Europeans found it.

The rivermouth today; note the change in course.
But while the Yarra linked the new settlement to the sea, it came with its own set of problems.

It was a shallow river, and prone to flood. And its final stretch was narrow, and winding, and difficult for large ships to navigate. Once the city began to flourish - on the back of the gold rush, followed by an agricultural boom - the local authorities turned their attention to solving these problems.

Enter John Coode.

John Coode.

Born in Cornwall in 1816, John Coode studied civil engineering at Plymouth University, before starting a career in the public service. Specialising in harbour design, Coode established his reputation in the Colonial service, with major overhauls of the ports at Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Table Bay (South Africa).

Diligent and hard working, and undaunted by large projects, he was considered to be one of the foremost engineers of his day.

Digging 'Coode's Channel', 1880.
In 1878, the Melbourne Harbour Trust retained Coode to review Melbourne's port facilities, and their integration with the Yarra. Thorough as ever, Coode spent a year researching a voluminous report that contained a raft of recommendations.

Chief among them; that the Yarra should be dredged, and widened, and its erratic path to the sea straightened by construction of an artificial channel, cutting off the corner at Fisherman's Bend. This would redirect the river's watercourse significantly; instead of heading north from Hobson's Bay, and then meandering south-east, it would now curve directly east and head straight for the city. The benefits of the proposal were obvious: the deeper, wider river would be easier to navigate, and the more direct route would save shipping time.

In 1880 the state Government accepted Coode's proposals, along with another recommendation to build a new wharf at the west end of the city (what would become Victoria Harbour). An army of unemployed labourers, supplied by the economic downturn of the 1880s, was assembled and set to work.

Fisherman's Bend, shortly after the canal's opening.
This mammoth project, one of Melbourne largest, would take six years to complete.

But, finally, in 1886 the walls holding the river back were removed, and the newly dug channel was flooded. Officially known as 'Coode's Canal', all of the promised benefits were shortly realised and the project hailed as a great success.

There was also an unintended consequence.

While the bulk of the Yarra followed its new, artificial channel, a small volume of water continued to flow down the original course. This effectively created a new island, shortly dubbed 'Coodes' Island' after its unwitting creator.

A basic graphic showing new and old Yarra, and Coode Island.

A vacant Coode Island is visible at the top of this image.
An empty plot of land close to, but separate from, the city, Coode Island enjoyed a short, colourful history.

After its creation, it sat vacant for two decades, before being put to use as a quarantine station for animals arriving from overseas. By 1915 it was in use as a sanitorium, providing care for people suffering from contagious diseases, plague and tuberculosis among them.

It also served as home for at least some of Melbourne's itinerant population, as homeless people erected huts and shanties on disused parts of the island.

A test aircraft outside the Larkin hanger on Coode island
In 1927 the Larkin Aircraft Company took over the lease, and erected a large complex that included a factory and an airstrip. Plane design and test flights were conducted from there from the 1920s through to World War II.

After the war, Larkins closed their local operations and the island was taken over by several petrochemical companies. Major industrial plant was constructed, and hazardous materials produced and stored.

By this time, the old Yarra had disappeared for good. The flow of water down the original riverbed had slowly diminished over the years, and much of the river had either evaporated, or been filled in. By the 1960s it was gone altogether.

The former island is now another industrial park on the northern riverbank, one of many operated by the Port Authority.

The name Coode Island still appears on some maps though, including Google Maps, and so serves as a final reminder of the time the the Yarra changed its course.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Suburbs That Changed Their Names

In some ways, Melbourne is a chameleon city.

Consider the following; it has had a number of names (starting with 'Bearbrass'), has evolved through a number of distinct eras (illegal farming outpost, sub colony of Sydney, gold rush boom town, 'Marvelous Melbourne' in the 1880s), and has had its geography almost totally altered (Batman's Hill, the South Melbourne Swamp and the Elizabeth St Waterfall were all prominent features, now consigned to history).

Even the street names that break our city into its famous grid are enigmatic; start on Elgin Street in Carlton and head east and you will shortly find yourself on Johnson Street, then Studley Park Road, without taking any corners.

Another way that our city reveals its shifting nature is in the names the suburbs. Many of these have changed over the years, and some more than once. The following list is a selection of these (Know another? Drop me a line...).


Current Name: Burwood

Like so many people in the story of Melbourne, John O'Shanassy stopped here on his way to Sydney, where he was headed to make his fortune, and never left. The story goes that the devout Irishman had a chance meeting with Melbourne's first Catholic Priest, Rev. Patrick Geoghan, who convinced him to stay on.

Which worked out well for O'Shanassy, who started a profitable drapery business on Collins Street and then moved into politics. Twice Victoria's Premier, O'Shanassy's second term in office in 1858 coincided with the development of this suburb in Victoria's east, whose name is thought to be a tribute. 

But subsequent arrivals from England chafed at living in an area with an Irish name (similar to 'Irishtown', below). A campaign was eventually organised to change the suburb's name, and the local council opted for 'Burwood', taking the name of prominant local settler Sir James Palmer's estate. Burwood was formally applied to the suburb in 1879.


View of Melbourne from the base of Emerald Hill, 1858.
Current Name: South Melbourne
Immediately behind the south bank of the Yarra, the first European settlers of Melbourne were struck with a remarkable sight. Rising from the broken, swampy ground that stretched towards the coast was a lush green hill; a volcanic outcrop, covered in thick foliage. 

While the damp land around the river's edge was mostly unsuitable for settlement, the hill itself was considered a prime location. The site was surveyed and subdivided in 1852. and so became one of Melbourne's first suburbs. The name Emerald Hill was a riff on a description by a local journalist, Edmund Finn, who in 1845 described the area in the 'Port Phillip Herald':

Green as the freshest shamrock, encircled by shining lagoons and the shining sea.

The name Emerald Hill was used in the promotional material when the land was sold. As the area boomed in the 1870s, the local council adopted the name 'South Melbourne', feeling that this was more befitting their growing stature.


Current Name: North Melbourne

Born in Suffolk in 1806 to a seafaring family, Charles Hotham joined the Navy when he was only 12, serving as a cabin boy in the Caribbean. A decorated, globe trotting career followed; Hotham rose rapidly through the ranks and commanded ships in South America, and a fleet in Africa. But this stern, authoritarian man was not universally popular.

Hotham's political enemies had him removed from the armed service, and posted to out of the way Victoria as Lieutenant Governor in 1853 (expanded to full Governor the following year). Initially a popular figure in Melbourne, Hotham's aggressive response to the Eureka Stockade lead to a collapse in his support. He tendered his resignation in early 1855 and was waiting to be replaced when he died in office, on December 17.

To commemorate Victoria's first full Governor, a new suburb north of the city was named after Hotham in 1859. The area flourished and quickly became one of Melbourne's most distinguished suburbs. Wishing to highlight its connection to the city proper, the local council decided to change the name to North Melbourne in 1887.


H.L.Wood's General Store, High Street, Preston
Current name: Preston

Never a formal name for this area, this inner northern suburb was known for a time as 'Irishtown' as the first settlers to the area were from the Emerald Isle. Chief among these was Samuel Jeffrey, a labourer who established a farm on 40 acres in 1846. Jeffrey's farm and family prospered; he was soon able to expand his holdings, establish other businesses, and had 7 children with his wife, Eliza.

But subsequent arrivals were not happy to be living in 'Irishtown.'

Among these were the Wood family; English Baptists who established the first general store and post office in the early 1850's. The Woods, and other English settlers, took to calling their little township 'Preston', after a village in Southern England where many of them had holidayed. The name Preston was formally adopted in 1856.

Samuel Jeffrey lived on his property until his death in 1891. To the end, he listed his address as 'Irishtown.'. 


Liardet's Beach in the early 1840s.
Current Name: Port Melbourne

Born in England in 1799, Wilbraham Liardet set sail for Sydney with his large family (including 9 children) in 1839. He hoped to make his fortune in the booming colony at Botany Bay but, en route, the Liardet's docked in Melbourne for three weeks. Wilbraham was immediately entranced with the local climate and scenery, and changed his plans on the spot. 

Deciding to settle in Melbourne instead, the Liardet's took up residence in a few tents, which they pitched on the largely unoccupied beach just south of the city. Wilbraham was an energetic man, and he shortly constructed a crude jetty from the beach, where mail could be landed from passing ships. For a fee, he would then ferry the mail by horse into the city, where it was distributed.

This small business proved lucrative, and by 1841 Wilbraham had built a more substantive jetty - which allowed goods to be landed - a house for his family, and a hotel; 'The Brighton Pier Hotel.' He had also become a well known figure about early Melbourne; friendly, colourful, and known for his artwork as well as his business endeavours. 

Then known as Sandridge, Wilbraham favoured the name 'Brighton' for the beach area where he lived. But for a time, locals knew called it by a name associated with the man himself, 'Liardet's Beach.'

See also: SANDRIDGE.

The proposed Rosstown Sugar Works
Current Name: Carnegie

William Murray Ross was an English born entrepreneur, who made a fortune in manufacturing in the early days of Melbourne. He is best remembered for 'Rosstown'; an ambitious project he conceived in 1875 in the south eastern suburbs of the city.

Ross proposed creating a new industry, and town, from scratch; sugar beets, then unknown in Melbourne, to be grown in large quantities and processed in an enormous factory he would construct. To service the factory, Ross also intended to build a planned community for his workers, and two high speed rail lines connecting both town and factory with the city.

But only one of these projects panned out. As Melbourne continued to expand rapidly, Ross' housing development sold well. But the people buying the land were not sugar beet millers; the local beet industry never took off, and the factory was started, but never completed. Meanwhile the state government, wary about privately owned rail infrastructure, delayed the railway line approvals in Parliament. Ross eventually had problems with his creditors and had to abandon the mill and the railway, and sell his interest in the land.

The suburb kept his name though, until 1909. 

And then the local council, trying to curry favour with American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and secure a loan from his foundation to build a library, changed the suburbs name to 'Carnegie.' This unlikely move had an even more unlikely coda; the council's effort to gain funds was unsuccessful, but the suburb kept the name Carnegie anyway.


Current name: Port Melbourne

William Wedge Darke was an English born surveyor who worked with Robert Hoddle in early Melbourne. The two men clashed frequently and Hoddle, as Chief Surveyor, insisted that Darke be employed only on a contract basis, rather than as a full time employee.

Something of an eccentric, Darke lived in a wooden caravan he had imported from Sydney, which the locals dubbed 'Darke's Ark.' To limit his dealings with his subordinate, Hoddle sent Darke out to survey the Port Melbourne area. Darke parked his caravan on the beach south of Melbourne in 1838, and worked independently form there.

Darke was reportedly the first person to cut a track through the tea tree scrub to the south beach, and he hoisted a sign post on a barrel to mark the path back to the colony. The sign was positioned on a sandy ridge, the highest ground around, and this primitive landmark gave the area its first name: 'Sandridge.' 

The name was changed to Port Melbourne in 1884 by the local council.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Evan Dando at The Hi Fi

The Lemonheads in 1987.
Formed by a group of high school friends in Boston in 1986, pop group the Lemonheads came to prominence on the indy scene of the early nineties. Their breakthrough album of 1992, It's a Shame About Ray, was a critical and commercial success, and one of the defining records of the era, its popularity bolstered by a rocking cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson.

Evan Dando, 1992. Note the 'Smudge' tshirt.
Similarly, Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando seemed like the quintessential 90s rockstar; sensitive, laconic, scruffy, and largely unchanged by success. Dando was the one constant in the band as it developed, with other musicians coming and going regularly. He also had a well known drug problem, another 90s cliche, right from the group's early days.

But his sweet voice and facility with wistful lyrics always shone through, whatever turbulence had occurred in the background.

Fast forward ten years...

By the early 2000s, The Lemonheads were defunct (splitting in 1997)  and Dando was performing as a solo artist.

But his recorded output since the band had ended consisted of only one live album, 2001's Live at the Brattle Theatre, which served to showcase an artist resting on former glory; his set list made up of old Lemonheads songs and covers. In the intervening years, Dando's drug and alcohol problems had worsened and the artists behaviour had become increasingly eccentric and unpredictable. He sometimes appeared disorientated in interviews, and struggled to finish his sets when onstage.

Then, things seemed to take a turn for the better.

In 2003, Dando finally recorded his first solo album of new material, Baby I'm Bored. This was accompanied by a much publicised detox and changes to a healthier lifestyle. The new, improved Dando would support his album with a world tour, a showcase for his reinvigorated talent, body and mind.

This, at least, was the plan...

Evan Dando and Nic Dalton
Evan Dando had a long history with Australia. 

In the early 90's, before he made it big, he had travelled around the country, and had fallen in with a couple of like minded local musicians, Tom Morgan and Nic Dalton. Morgan and Dalton, best known locally as part of the band 'Smudge', had helped write the songs that became It's a Shame About Ray. Dalton would subsequently join the Lemonheads and serve as one of their many guitarists, playing and touring for two and a half years to 1996.

Once he left the band, Dalton then moved from playing to production, founding the successful local indy label Half-a-Cow records.

So when Dando needed musicians for a backing band for his solo tour, he turned to his old friend and colleague Dalton, asking him to play base. Dalton agreed, and he became part of what appeared, on paper, to be something of an alt-rock supergroup; alongside Dando and Dalton were former Dinosaur jr drummer George Berz, and You Am I guitarist Davey Lane.

Two shows were set for Melbourne, in the first week of August, 2003.

Sadly, it soon became apparent that Dando's new, cleaner lifestyle was just talk.

Dando at The Prince, August 2003.
Sporting a beard, a beanie, a trenchcoat and heavy, lidded eyes, Dando's first show at The Prince was an embarrassment in nearly every way. The singer, clearly not entirely with it, began his set by mocking the venue:

'This place used to rule! Now it sucks. God bless gentrification, right?'

Things went downhill from there.

Standing on the corner of the stage, Dalton plucked at his base, looking mightily unimpressed. He would leave the band immediately after the show, his participation in the tour over.

Although whether he was fired, as originally announced, or left disgusted with Dando's behaviour, has never been established (a website with Dalton's name attached currently indicates that he left the band because he was unwell).

Whatever the explanation, with a gig the following night Dando was now without a base player. Whether due to drugs, or bravado, or his lackadaisical nature, the singer simply decided to soldier on without one.

August 2, 2003 then. Evan Dando at The Hi Fi Bar. One of the most notorious gigs in the city's long musical history.

The mystery girl, onstage with Evan Dando at the Hi Fi.
The night started unremarkably enough; the set opening with Dando onstage, by himself, singing a Lemonheads number, The Outdoor Type.

Things became strange as his band joined him for the set proper. Accompanying the rest of the group onstage was an unknown young girl, who joined Dando at the microphone.

As a remarkable coda to the story, the embarrassed young girl on stage, holding up the words to songs that Dando had forgotten, was later found to be Missy Higgins. Higgins, a Lemonheads fan but then totally unknown, had talked her way into the sound check in the hope of catching a glimpse of Dando.

After this mess of a show and tour, Dando continued on much as he had before. He has detoxed and cleaned up a number of times, and has relapsed an equal number. He still tours Australia regularly, with the gigs running the full spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But nothing has topped his efforts at the Hi Fi Bar, in 2003.

Recalling his infamous effort during an interview in 2006, Dando seemed characteristically non-plussed:

As fitting a summation as any.