After Heron Island, we flew back to Sydney to start our residency at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) at the University of NSW (my science degree alma mata). COFA gave us a wonderful apartment just off Oxford St. in Paddington, close to galleries and an easy bus ride into downtown Sydney where I wanted to be for most of my planned research.
Sydney is my hometown and its always great to be there. Old friends, beloved relatives, Scotch finger biscuits, Madura tea, Boy Charlton Pool, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Bondi Beach, the list goes on.
My main purpose in Sydney, however, was to continue my research into Australian colonial furniture and artifacts connected with natural history collections and the transmission of knowledge about the colony back to England. I have already talked about Bauer’s writing desk that I saw at Kew Gardens in London in an earlier blog. In Sydney I struck the jackpot! My dear cousin Anna Blunt is a librarian at the Historic Houses Trust which has a rich and varied library. Anna spent a day with Sandra and me helping us research our various interests and getting wonderfully side-tracked along the way.
Anna showed me a beautiful new monograph of the early colonial painter Joseph Lycett (a convict deported to Sydney in 1814 for forgery). In the monograph was images of the Macquarie Chest, an extraordinary piece of cabinetwork, which encapsulated all of the ideas which I had been looking for in an early colonial piece. For those of you interested you can find a wonderful image archive of the Macquarie chest here.
I will give you a taste of it here.
The cabinet itself is about as big as a cooler (Esky) and sits on four short legs. Its made of timber sourced in the colony. When the chest is opened it reveals its treasures. Under the upper doors is a separate shallow chest with two drawers and an opening top. Below that are two shallow trays. Underneath all that, opening from the front of the chest, is a series of 3 drawers. In each drawer and tray is a unique collection of aesthetically displayed natural history specimens. The piece as a whole is wonderful but it has four extraordinary aspects.
Firstly, under each lid is an original oil painting by Lycett of a scene from around Newcastle and Port Macquarie (north of Sydney).
Secondly, the natural history collections are intact and largely undisturbed from when they were assembled almost 200 years ago. The dried bird specimens in particular are brilliantly coloured and perfectly preserved – it looks as though they all fell off the perch yesterday.
Thirdly, there is a great story about the piece which conservationists, curators and historians have pieced together over the years since the chest was discovered. It seems that the chest was most likely a gift from Lieutenant Wallis, the Commandant of the new penal colony of Newcastle, to the 5th Governor of the colony of New South Wales – Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie in all likelihood, took the chest with him on his return to England in 1822 and passed it on to his son – also named Lachlan – in his estate two years later (dead at 62). Lachlan was a wild boy with passions for gambling and drinking (a good son of Australia), he ran up debts to William Drummond the son and heir of his father’s old friend Andrew Drummond, the 6th Viscount of Strathallen. It appears that shortly before his untimely demise from a drunken fall down the stairs of Craignish Castle (in 1845 at 41 years old), Lachlan Jr. changed is will to leave most of his dwindling estate to Drummond in payment for his debts. Fast forward to 1986 when the NSW State Library was informed of the existence of the chest still in place in Strathallen Castle where it had rested for 140 years undisturbed – passing from owner to owner over the generations. Resting undisturbed in a cold, dry dark stone castle was perhaps the best treatment it could possibly have received.
My task now is to develop a piece based on and drawing inspiration from this incredible piece of craftsmanship so imbedded in Australian history and the relationship of the young colony to England. Its quite a challenge. I wish I could just claim authorship of the work as an objet trouvé. It would be a wonderful addition to my Genius Loci series. But this isn’t a possibility. I’ve been enjoying thinking through my interpretation of this piece. How much will it be a reproduction? What will it contain? Where is my act in the work? What part of history will it encapsulate? Which Scottish castle will take care of it for 140 years for it to reach maturity?
My immense thanks to Anna Blunt, at the Historic Houses Trust, who revealed the existence of this piece to me and to Louise Anemaat, curator at the State Library who kindly made it possible for me to spend an unforgettable afternoon closely examining, measuring and being awed by the Macquarie chest.