Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fire from the Sky

September 28, 1969: Two months after NASA landed a manned spaceship on the moon, an extraterrestrial visitor returned the favour; a chunk of ancient rock streaked high above Victoria. Coming to ground near Murchison, in the states north, the meteorite was to prove more than just an exciting light show.

Once parts of the meteorite were recovered, scientists were amazed to discover that the rock contained amino acids, organic molecules that are the building blocks of our DNA. Previously, amino acids had only ever been known on earth, and it had been thought that the conditions outside of our atmosphere would be too harsh for them to form, or survive.

The discovery raised a tantalising possibility: could life have actually evolved somewhere other than Earth, then hitched a ride here on a meteorite?

Headline in The Argus

On September 28, 1969, residents across Victoria were startled when their Sunday afternoon was rocked by a blazing fireball that erupted above them. Witnesses across the state reported loud explosions, crackling sounds, smoke and a strange smell, like methylated spirits, as a meteorite left a flaming trail across the sky:

Weighing approximately 100kg, the meteorite finally disintegrated above Murchison, a small town in the Goulburn Valley, about 160km north of Melbourne. Breaking up into about 2 000 chunks, some weighing as much as 5kg, the fiery debris rained down over the town and the surrounding farmland.
Curious locals immediately began recovering meteorite fragments, and either keeping them as souvenirs, or turning them in to the local authorities.

Samples were sent to Melbourne University for analysis, and for comparison to some samples of moon rock, which had also recently arrived:

The preliminary results showed that the rock was at least 4.5 billion years old, and so was likely older than the earth itself. Professor Lovering's guess that it was a carbonaceous chrondite was proved correct, and so made the find particularly rare.

And there the matter may have rested.

A Murchison Meteorite fragment at the Melbourne Museum.
But the scientific community was rocked in 1970 when a team at NASA, studying rocks from the meteorite, announced the presence of 74 different amino acids in their samples. The majority were exotic molecules not found on earth but, remarkably, 6 were common amino acids known from organic chemistry.

These were the first organic molecules ever discovered on an extraterrestrial body.

And that these molecules were found in a rock older than the Earth, and that they had somehow survived in the vacuum of space for many millions of years, turned theories of life's evolution on our planet on their head.

The origin of life on earth was (and still is) a mystery. While some aspects of life on our planet are well understood, there is still no consensus on how it came to originate in the first place. Chief among these mysteries; the earth was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago, and the earliest signs of life that have been detected - microscopic fossils from bacteria - about 4.2 billions year ago, when the planet would still have been cooling and largely inhospitable.

How then did life take hold so quickly?

The Murchison Meteorite provided the pathway to a new theory; that organic molecules arrived on earth from space, and then adapted to conditions here. As distinguished a scientist as Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, was an enthusiastic proponent of this theory, in light of the Murchison Meteorite findings.

A microscopic fossil from mars, or just a squiggley thing?
The debate continues to this day.

The organic chemistry found on the Murchison meteorite has been detected in many other celestial bodies; subsequent meteorites and asteroids and even on Halley's Comet. Our solar system, it seems, is awash in complex organic molecules.

Which doesn't provide an answer to the question, where did Earth's organic chemistry originate? Both sides of the argument have their supporters among the scientific community, although the majority opinion still favours that the compounds that exist in our DNA were formed independently on earth.

The argument was enlivened in 1996 when NASA announced that meteorite fragments it recovered from Antarctica in 1984 had originated on Mars, and contained evidence of fossilised bacteria (pictured above). They subsequently backed away from this claim, but whether these rocks contain fossils, or just exotic mineral deposits, is still a matter of dispute.

Analysis of both the Martian and Murchison meteorites continues.

Murchison today.
But whether this problem is ever satisfactorily solved, it is remarkable to think that the entire debate was kicked off in sleepy Murchison, population 600.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Williamstown Racecourse

Williamstown is one of the oldest suburbs of Melbourne.

Situated at the Western mouth of the Yarra river, the town arose naturally after the founding of the city, as it proved a good location for a port. With the river impassable to large cargo ships (discussed further here), Point Gellibrand was quickly established as the disembarkation point for goods headed for Melbourne.

Founded in November 1835, a few months after the city itself, and named after King William IV, Williamstown thrived as Melbourne expanded. Like much of the city, this growth increased exponentially during the Gold Rush of the 1850s.

One tangible indicator of this expansion was the founding of  the Williamstown Racecourse.

Williamstown Racecourse, shortly after its founding.
In 1857, local enthusiasts formed the Williamstown Racing Association, and began looking for a place to build a track. The local council denied their initial request for lands close to the township, but they were able to secure an open clearing on the waterfront, adjacent to Koroit Creek (then in Wyndham Shire). Construction of the track began in 1858, and the first race meeting was held on Boxing Day in 1859.

Aerial view of the racetrack
Location of track on current map.
Reached by a small causeway crossing the creek, the track's location offered a sweeping view across the bay. The simple wooden grandstand was augmented by decorative Canary Date Palm trees, and Norfolk pines ringed the far side of the course. It was a simple, but handsome, layout, and the track grew quickly in popularity.

The Boxing Day races became an annual event, and the racing program would expand into the racing season proper. In 1885, the Williamson Racecourse Railway Station was opened, to allow punters easy access to the course. Originally the end of a small side spur from the Geelong line, this track would eventually be expanded through to Altona (where it still runs today, as the Werribee line).

In 1887 a new public grandstand was built, and the following year the Williamstown Cup was first held, which soon became one of the most prestigious events in the local racing calendar. By the 1890s ,Williamstown Racecourse was as well established as Flemington or Caulfield.

Phar Lap wins at Williamstown, 1931.
The course's place in local racing history was secured on 25 August, 1931, when local legend Phar Lap won the Underwood Stakes. The Age gives a sense of the day:

But despite its popularity, the outbreak of World War II would eventually put paid to racing in Williamstown.

The final race meeting was held 10 February, 1940. Shortly after this, the Government took over the track, as they also did Caulfield and the MCG, and put it to use as an Army camp. Throughout the war it was used as a training facility, and barracks.

After the war, the Williamstown Racing Club intended to start holding meets again, but were delayed by the poor condition the course had fallen into. The club worked to rectify this, and pencilled in the 1947 racing season to resume competition.

Then, fate intervened:

Fire destroys the Williamstown Racecourse Grandstand.
Around 5pm on January 29, 1947, smoke was seen coming from the roof of the public grandstand. Fanned by a strong wind, the stand was soon fiercely ablaze, the fire quickly spreading to the members stand alongside. Fire brigades from several surrounding areas were dispatched to the site, but they were unable to control the fire. It blazed out of control for several hours, and, eventually, would consume all of the principal buildings at the course.

The local press reports the story.
While police investigated the fire as suspicious, the totality of the destruction deprived them of clues and the case eventually petered out. To date, the cause of the fire has never been determined.

The timing of the destruction was especially unfortunate, as the State Government had been agitating for consolidation in the ranks of local racing. Now, without a home track, the Williamstown Racing Club was in a vulnerable position. Pressured by the state government, and without the funds to rebuild their course, Williamstown members voted to accept an amalgamation with the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, forming the Melbourne Racing Club.

The track was this time sold to the State Government, who put it to use as temporary accommodation for homeless Army veterans.

Racing in Williamstown was consigned to history.

The last Canary Date palm.
But once the last of the veterans had been re-settled, the Government decided to preserve the site as a public park. Now known as the Altona Coastal Park it is in this form still, and now forms part of a popular hiking, bike riding and dog walking track.

But a few remnants of the area's racing history remain; the last of the canary date palms, part of the wreckage of the burnt out grandstand and artist Yvonne George's 'Requiem for a Champion', a small tribute to a vanished era.

Grandstand wreckage.

'Requiem for a Champion.'

Saturday, March 12, 2016

James Stephens and the 8 Hour Day

This weekend is the Labour Day long weekend in Melbourne (and in most of Australia), so I thought it would be a good time to have a look at the origins of this holiday. Like most of our long weekends, Labour Day is a commemoration but, unlike many of them, this links us globally to many other Western countries, most of whom mark a similar occasion somewhere in their calendars.

The origins of Labour Day are linked to the beginnings of the organised labour movement, and some courageous and principled folk who demanded fairer treatment for workers. And in Melbourne, the first of these working groups to demand better conditions were the local stonemasons, lead by a tough and determine Welshman.

Trade Association banner, Melbourne, 19th century.
Melbourne started as an agricultural outpost in 1835, with a small city centre and limited industry. But, as the city expanded rapidly, especially during the gold rush of the 1850s, the city also began to modernise. This brought new industries, and new jobs, in manufacturing, mining, and public works.

But working conditions in these new industries were tough:

One of gold rush Melbourne's biggest growth industries was construction. Awash with cash, and the newly wealthy purveyors of it, the city effectively set about rebuilding itself. The low, often wooden, and very basic buildings that had been constructed during the city's foundation years were largely removed, and replaced by grand edifices, many stories high and largely built of stone.

It was a boom time for Melbourne's stonemasons but, despite high demand for their services, they suffered the same treatment as the city's factory workers; low pay, dangerous conditions and very long hours.

Enter James Stephens.

James Stephens: Stonemason and labour activist.
Born in Wales in 1821, Stephens followed in his father's footsteps and became a stonemason as a teenager. In 1839 he was seriously injured when he fell from a construction site scaffold, and the lack of assistance available to him while he recovered helped steer him towards the organised labour movement.

Once he regained fitness, Stephens joined the newly formed 'Chartists', a political protest group that drew support from the skilled trades. The Chartists were named for their support of  'The People's Charter'; a political manifesto produced by six radical members of Parliament that called for electoral reform and better conditions for workers.

Chartist demonstration, London, early 1840s.
Chartism grew and spread rapidly, from its origins in the working class north to England's major cities. Stephens moved to London in the early 1840s, from where he was able to see the movement at its peak; several enormous demonstrations were organised, and a petition of 3 million signatures was submitted to Parliament, demanding action on the groups reform agenda.

Stephens became a zealous organiser of his fellow stonemasons, and was considered a minor leader within the movement. But the controversy attached to Chartism came at a price; he was sacked from a lucrative job working at Windsor Castle when his affiliation was discovered. Other Chartist leaders called for strikes and civil disobedience and were arrested, which lead to rioting and violent confrontations with police.

Meanwhile, the movement was frustrated politically. Their petitions, which now also included a call for an 8 hour work day, were rejected by Parliament, and they saw no significant progress towards their objectives (most of their program would eventually be adopted, but not until 1867).

Looking for fresh opportunities, Stephens, like many Chartist tradesmen, was lured to Australia in 1853 by the gold rush.

Melbourne Stonemasons banner.
Arriving in February 1853, Stephens energetically set to work in the local construction industry. Work was plentiful, but conditions were nearly as poor as they had been in England. While disgruntled, the local tradesman were not politically organised and Stephens, with his Chartist experience, was a natural authority figure.

8 hour day demonstration, Melbourne.
In February 1856 Stephens, and local tradesman James Galloway, formed the Operative Masons Society at the Clark Hotel in Collingwood. The objective of this group was simple by Chartist standards; to agitate for a mandated eight hour work day. And, after having been in the organised labour movement for nearly twenty years without much tangible success, Stephens was in a hurry. The Operative Masons decreed that the 8 hour day would be in place by April.

On the 21 April 1856, Stephens took decisive action:

Starting at a construction site at the University of Melbourne, Stephens convinced the workers there to down tools and join him on a march on Parliament in Spring Street. Along the way, they detoured passed several construction sites in the city and picked up more supporters. Eventually, a crowd of a few thousand gathered at the Parliament steps for a noisy and boisterous, though peaceful, demand for an eight hour work day.

But Stephens, and the movement's other leaders, had planned this moment carefully.

In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, they had met secretly with business groups and Parliamentarians, and had convinced them both of the movement's strength, and the potential for strikes and disruption if they continued to deny an 8 hour day. A Parliamentary delegation met Stephens on April 21, and he was able to inform his supporters that their demands would be met.

The group then marched on to the Belvedere Hotel in Fitzroy, where their celebration spilled across several streets.

Labour Day Parade, 1923.
Legislation introducing an 8 hour work day was passed by Parliament shortly afterwards. While this still meant a 48 hour week for most workers, as most still worked six days, this was viewed as a great victory, the first by organised labour in the modern era. A celebratory parade through the city was organised for May 12, and would continue as an annual tradition. In 1879, the popularity of this event lead the Victorian Government to make this a paid public holiday, dubbed 'Labour Day,' the State's first.

John Stephens was lionised as a hero. Sadly, it wouldn't last.

8 Hour Day Monument, shortly after being erected.

The top of the monument, commemorating the 8-8-8 slogan.
In the years following his great success, Stephens saw the local labour movement he helped found expand and diversify. But Stephens' support for sub-contracting, then a novel idea, alienated him from the movement's newer leaders, who saw it as a way for employers to cut wages. Stephens claimed that his enemies in the union movement had him effectively blacklisted, and he struggled to find work and make ends meet. They also sought to re-write history somewhat, now emphasizing James Galloway's efforts in regards to the reforms of 1856, at the expense of his own.

Impoverished, sickly and slowly going blind, by the 1880s Stephens had largely been forgotten by Victorian society. A collection taken up for him by the Trades Hall in Carlton provided for Stephens somewhat in his final years, but when he died in 1889 he was destitute and left no estate.

The parade that he helped inspire did not last either.

For nearly a century, the Labour Day parade was a fixture in Melbourne, replete with floats, live entertainment and a carnival atmosphere. Large holiday crowds turned out each year to celebrate the 8 hour day, among other subsequent labour reforms. But by the 1930s, crowds were waning, as the great depression created a sombre mood. World War II further diminished the parade's popularity, and it was discontinued altogether after 1951. The Labour Day holiday had been moved by this time to March, and is now capped by the Moomba festival instead.

But one landmark to the landmark reforms of 1856 remains, on Victoria Street, just opposite Trades Hall. Designed by Percival Ball, and paid for by union subscriptions, the 8 Hour Day monument was erected in 1903.

James Stephens is not mentioned.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Then and Now: Manchester Unity Building Rooftop

The Manchester Unity Building is one of the architectural jewels of the Melbourne. While researching the broader history of this iconic landmark, I came across this amazing photo:

It seems that from the 1932 through to about 1940, the rooftop of the building (Level 12) was home to a Japanese garden and cafe.

The same spot today:

The structure on the right houses a suite of offices, which had been converted from apartments (built in the 1990s).

Sadly, the rooftop is no longer open to the public, although Melbourne Open House often runs tours that include it. The rooftop is currently used for private functions, by the building's tenants.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong

Standing on a nondescript bend in the Maribyrnong River, between Footscray and Flemington Racecourse, is a most unexpected sight. Rising above a former industrial block, towers the Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong.

The Heavenly Queen of the Yarra, Footscray.

Under construction for more than a decade, her arrival at this location is a tale that actually stretches back several thousand years.

Lin Niang; traditional representation.

Born in 960, on the island of Meizhou off the south eastern coast of China, Lin Niang was marked as a remarkable child from an early age. Visiting a Buddhist temple with her family when she was 4, Niang experienced a vision of the Goddess Kuan Yin, which left her with the power of second sight.

Pious, and highly intelligent, Niang began to study Buddhist teachings when she was 10, and was accepted as an apprentice to the village priest shortly afterwards. From her early teens, people from the surrounding area would come to pray with Niang and she developed a reputation as a healer.

Niang seen by sailors, travelling atop a cloud.

She also had a profound connection with the sea; Niang's father and brothers were fisherman, and village life revolved around the ocean.

When Niang was 15, her father and eldest brother were out at sea when a fierce storm blew up and overturned their boat. Working on a tapestry at home, Niang was overcome by a powerful vision and fell into a trance. She was able to project her consciousness out to sea (some versions say she was actually transported, via cloud, as depicted above), and was able to drag her brother back to safety. When she returned to rescue her father, however, her startled mother woke her from her trance and her father was drowned.

And there are many more stories of Niang patrolling the ocean, or answering calls of distress, and rescuing sailors at sea.

When she was 27, answering the call of another powerful vision, Niang said goodbye to her family and climbed a mountain that overlooked her village. Clouds covered the peak and, when they cleared, Niang had vanished. It was said that she had ascended to heaven.

Such is the legend of Lin Niang, later known as Mazu, Goddess of the Sea.

Mazu Temple, Kinmen Matsu Park, China.
The story of Mazu - her heroic behaviour and protection of the weak - is one of the most popular in Chinese mythology, which has given rise to a legion of followers. Temples and statues have been erected to her around the world, and it estimated that she may have as many as 100 million active disciples.

So, it is no surprise to find that multicultural Melbourne, with its high population of Chinese residents, has erected a statue to the Goddess as well.

The Mazu temple site in Melbourne.
The project has been a long time in development.

Starting in the 1990s, a fundraising committee was organised to gather money to purchase both a site, and commission a statue. The location on the riverbank was settled on early, as the poor state of the land (it had been the long standing home to a factory) meant it was available at a reasonable price.

The committee, headed by local businessman William Tsang, had ambitious goals; a 16 metre statue, flanked by two temples (modeled after buildings in the Forbidden City, in Beijing), then surrounded by gardens. The statue alone would cost $450 000 and would be imported from Nanjing, in China.

Mazu: overlooking the Maribyrnong.

The elaborate temple site entrance.

Progress has been slow but steady. At time of writing, the statue and the first of the temples are complete, while the remainder of the site is still under construction (final completion is expected in 2019).

But the statue of Mazu already has a commanding presence. Clearly visible from the main road, and especially from the nearby train line, her calm, inscrutable countenance overlooks the waters of the Maribyrnong, much as it is said she did the waters of the China Sea, a thousand years ago.

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.