Australia is a country of paradoxes. Here birds laugh, mammals lay eggs and raise babies in pouches and pools. Here everything may seem familiar yet, somehow, it’s not really what you are used to.
Today Australia’s identity is developing further from its original base as the home for one of the world’s oldest living cultures.
So that we can operate well within a growing global society, we need to have the best chance possible to develop further our inter-cultural communication skills so that we can create, co-operate and collaborate with others effectively.
Daring to imagine and plan for what it might be possible to accomplish in Australia has only been made possible through the significant achievements of our ancestors.
In historical terms it is the stories of Australia’s indigenous people that are told first and should remain a priority.
They inhabited the land from a time of dreaming when the heady scent of wattle and eucalyptus filled the cool night air.
In Australia today our art, design, music, fashion and style are constantly being re-interpreted, distilled and decanted into something quite unique.
We are by world standards, a young western democracy colonized by the English at the edge of Asia in the days of so-called eighteenth century European enlightenment.
At that time in history the English parliament were seeking a place to send an ever expanding, embarrassing community of petty thieves and criminals, which included many children seeking to survive the injustices and deprivations of the industrial age.
Australia’s story is told against the backdrop of a wide brown countryside, whose raging rivers in full flood, and the fast burning bushfires that scorch the land and its flora, both help to revitalize and renew its earth.
For better or for worse we inherited the intrusive imposition of European cultures on this land of great, and often violent contrast.
English landfall happened in one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world, where today the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge have become iconic symbols of our modern multicultural nation.
Producing an adequate food supply in the first place using unfamiliar soil and in a harsh climate was the major preoccupation for many people in the early years of that colony.
It was hardship that initially provoked ingenuity, innovation and creativity, not culture or fashion.
Australia’s first house was built for the first English governor, Captain Arthur Phillip (1738-1814). He laid the foundation stone within four months of sailing into Port Jackson on January 26 1788 with the first fleet.
The house had six rooms and overlooked a safe harbour anchorage, a freshwater stream and makeshift huts and tents. You might be inclined to think it was not really very sophisticated.
Against a background of a natural environment that until that time its indigenous inhabitants had never disturbed, it was merely an assertion of ‘culture in the colonies’.
Renowned English botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) advised Governor Phillip concerning the introduction of economic plants to the colony of New South Wales.
Plant and seeds were placed in land set aside for ‘farm and garden’ and the Governor reported to London about ‘a farm of nine acres in corn’, known from 1792 as the Governor’s Farm.
These seminal beds were essential for the colony’s first survival but eventually were moved to the Hawkesbury River and other areas opening up through exploration.
In 1810 Government House Sydney was put into a complete state of repair to welcome Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824) and his wife Elizabeth.
As soon as Governor Macquarie arrived he set in motion an ambitious program, including public works, improving roads, encouraging exploration and the creation of the colony’s first bank.
In his own way, and that of his time, Macquarie endeavoured to empathize and work with the indigenous population. As many of his contemporaries he would have believed his ideas of civilization were correct.
Macquarie organized a school for Aboriginal children, a farm for their parents to work at George’s Head, a village at Elizabeth Bay for the tribe that formerly lived on the lands the new town of Sydney occupied, and arranged that a sort of durbar (ceremonial gathering) would be held annually at Parramatta, to keep everyone happy.
He established a string of townships around Sydney and within two decades of settlement Windsor, Richmond, Castlereagh, Pitt Town and Wilberforce contained a fine array of buildings, a number of which still stand today.
No one was keener on, or more capable of improvements in buildings or their gardens within, or without the government domain than the Governor and his wife Elizabeth.
He and his colleagues saw themselves as gentlemen and arbiters of taste, although their supporters were predominantly solid merchants and emancipators, who had no such aspirations for themselves.
They wanted solid houses and brick built warehouses to affirm their status and set their style.
Mainland Australia’s oldest Hotel Building and its oldest mainland public house was built in 1815 by Richard Fitzgerald; whilst under instruction by Governor Lauchlan Macquarie.
The Governor and his wife valued the scenic qualities of the Domain area, whose land overlooked Port Jackson, and it was declared a Botanical garden in 1816.
Sited on the first piece of land in Australia brought under cultivation it is today one of the most gloriously sited botanical gardens in the world.
The intelligent and compassionate Elizabeth Macquarie was a gently born Scotswoman who bravely accompanied her husband on many adventures while she was here.
She took a keen interest in the welfare of women convicts and of the indigenous peoples, as well as gardening and agriculture.
They were shared with wool pioneer John Macarthur (1767 – 1834)’s wife Elizabeth and together the pair are attributed with pioneering hay-making in the colony.
Elizabeth Macquarie had brought from England a collection of books on architecture, which proved useful to her husband and his chosen reformed convict architect Francis Greenway (1777 – 1837).
She was also instrumental in planning a road that encircled the Government Domain to the point which, like the road, was named after her.
Not many colonists had an appreciation for the Gothic style, which was enjoying a revival in the England they had left. Its pointed arches and gargoyles had become involved in a romantic ‘cult of the picturesque’.
Fortunately Greenway, appointed by Macquarie to assist public work initiatives, could accommodate the Macquarie’s architectural style preferences.
His buildings were informed by an extensive knowledge of the ancient buildings of England.
To the left and right entering Sydney Cove were built the very picturesque Fort Macquarie (on the site where the opera house is now) and the Dawes Point Battery, which had dubious defense capabilities.
Both were part of a setting for a new Government House, one imperial in scale, but Gothic in style.
The first building completed, the Governor’s stables (now the Conservatorium of Music) enjoyed views to the west over the town, and over the harbor to the lighthouse on the eastern horizon.
They certainly would not have shamed a substantial estate back home.
Elizabeth Macquarie was an impressive woman in her time. She designed the city of Parramatta church’s towers.
Her participation in architectural affairs was a natural extension of the female artistic role which was finally, and patronizingly defined in 1831 by the Foreign Quarterly Review.
It suggested that women in the colony study architecture ‘not in order that they may be able to draw columns, for that is merely the means, not the end of the pursuit, but that they may thereby cultivate their tastes, and ground it on something less baseless and sifting than mere feminine liking and disliking’.
Scottish botanist, designer and editor John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), whose Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, Villa Architecture sold well in Sydney and Hobart in Tasmania, agreed.
‘If the study of landscape drawing by ladies, has led to the improvement of landscape gardening, why should not the study of architectural drawing, on their part, lead to the improvement of domestic architecture’.
Why not indeed! These might all seem a bit silly and perhaps trifling issues to us in our climate today, but at the time it was an extraordinary manifesto of a maturing culture in the colonies.
In the years between the arrival and departure of the Macquarie’s in 1821 New South Wales changed a great deal, especially in its architectural tastes and the attitudes, fashions and passions of its people, who now included many free settlers moving forward to a new life in a new land.
In format all early colonial bungalows were single storied with a wide shade inducing verandah (Elizabeth Farm).
Loudon in his 1833 edition of The Encyclopedia expressed the importance of association for the people of the colonies. The various elements of Gothic design were meant to arouse an emotional, rather than intellectual response in the viewer – to conjure up moods and associations rather than replicate medieval objects precisely.
It may appear quite odd to a resident in Britain, that a British emigrant to Van Diemen’s Land should wish to build his dwelling in the form of an English church tower but it was all about feeling insecure in a brand new land, feelings that can hardly be conceived by those who have never experienced them.
And so it was that Gothic houses would be seen among those sent to establish the penal colony as ideal. They were enduring the hardships of being so far from home while, at the same time, attempting to establish their own identity and it’s easy to understand how and why such a fashion would take hold.
But the Gothic was not the solution for former naval Captain John Piper (1773 – 1851), who was appointed a magistrate by Governor Macquarie. He built his villa in a style that eclipsed the Governor’s house. And, for four brief years before her husband’s fortunes declined, the house’s namesake, Henrietta, entertained all of Sydney’s polite society there.
The 1830’s in New South Wales are often referred to as ‘the golden decade’. This is when the aspirations of pastoral landholders and merchants resulted in public buildings and mansions being rendered in the ‘classical’ style inspired by the remains of the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Alexander MacLeay (1767 – 1848), Colonial Secretary under Governors Darling and Bourke embraced both horticulture and botany. Secretary of the Linnean Society (1798-1825) in England a variety of Bocconia was named Macleaya cordata in his honour.
He built his country house Brownlow Hill on 1500 acres of land near Camden, which he obtained by grant in 1827.
Elegant Italian urns formalized a generous drive overhung with Chinese elms (Ulmus parvifolia) contributing significantly to the romantic atmosphere, which still pervades this historic garden. His son George inherited it in 1848 but he sold it off in 1875 to the family who have lived there ever since.
McLeay’s city house at Elizabeth Bay was renowned for its rare plants. Its steeply sloping site combined elements of the landscape and picturesque movements advocated by English nineteenth century garden guru Humphrey Repton (1752 – 1818).
‘From the first commencement Mr. Macleay never suffered a tree of any kind to be destroyed, until he saw the necessity of doing so. He gained the advantage of embellishment from his native trees and harmonized them with the foreign trees now growing. His botanic, flower, landscape, fruit and kitchen gardens are all on the first scale…and he has also planned a vineyard of considerable extent upon terraces, which has answered every expectation’. Today only a small overgrown fragment of the garden survives but detailed descriptions of it keep its place in the evolution of gardens in Australia’.
John Claudius Loudon’s four significant books on horticulture, gardening and domestic architecture were available in New South Wales and Tasmania heralding the arrival of the Victorian Age. The cult of the picturesque had encouraged every point of the garden to have some ornament or architectural feature.
The new gardenesque style, promoted by Loudon, featured individual plants in an endeavor to showcase botanical differences. According to the ‘gardenesque school’ Loudon said ‘all the trees and shrubs planted are arranged in regard to their kinds and dimensions and they are planted at first at, or as they grow thinned out to, such distances apart as may best display the natural form and habit of each’.
A riot of color went hand in hand with carpet bedding and a pursuit of botanical triumphs. By the 1840’s New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land saw years of economic depression and drought as the first Australian pastoral boom passed. It was the discovery of gold and resultant flood of fortune seekers that sent the colonial economy into boom again.
As in England, in Australia a grand country estate represented the pinnacle of material and social achievement. Homestead portraits were commissioned by the owner of the property to adorn his parlour. Greek houses gave way to Italianate style villas. Tiled colonnades, columned pergolas and balustrade terraces linked house to garden.
Grander examples were mansions with palace facades, surmounted by loggia topped towers that overlooked terraces and flights of steps complete with cast cement balustrading, urns and statuary. It was not uncommon to find Venus, Napoleon, or Captain Cook lurking about in the bushes.
These were the boom years of the Industrial Revolution and grand houses like Melbourne’s Rippon Lea, epitomize the extravagance of the era.
Its architecture of polychrome brickwork was set off by magnificent wide lawns that swept down to a two-acre lake where a fine bridge, made of iron, has been cast to give an appearance of timber. Much of the charm of Rippon Lea lies in the sensitivity, which has been shown for the garden’s historic origins.
The Botanical gardens at Brisbane, on the river, and the gardens of the Brisbane Acclimatization Society, were established by the 1880’s. They were widely known for their enlightened research and generous policy of distribution. Many plants were recognized as being suitable for subtropical gardening in Brisbane.
One of the most spectacular would have to be the Bougainvillea, which could be trained over any style of framework built as a support.
In April 1884 Oxford educated lawyer and ornithologist John Cotton and his wife and nine children constructed a larger house of sawn timber in the Australian countryside.
He, like many others, benefited from the changes and the culture in the colonies the Macquarie’s had established.
‘We have now been resident in our new house five weeks and find in it every comfort that we would enjoy in the same style of house in England, and perhaps more, there being no rent or taxes to pay. We have a comfortable sitting room 18ft x 16ft with a brick chimney where there is a cheerful fire of logs constantly kept up unless the mildness of the weather should prevent our replenishing it. We have the piano here, which sounds remarkably well, in our wooden house, and the walls are ornamented with a few pictures. My books are arranged on shelves in recesses each side of the fireplace and they will continue to afford a source of amusement and study’.
Within one hundred years of settlement life in the colony became very civilized and culture in the colonies, a reality.
In Australia, our aesthetic choices, like or dislikes were formed through associational interpretation and imagery.
Living in the bush for many today still remains a romantic ideal, much like country life in great country houses in England, or villas in Rome, while most people cling to a quarter acre suburban block.
Half city, half bush, house and garden style today reflects individuality. This is made feasible by the modern car and American roadway system.
It is formed through an interplay of international influences and our own complex multi-culturalism.
Australia today enjoys a robust cultural life, applying its creativity to generate innovative solutions in the fields of medical research, science, design, the arts, resource management and sustainable urban living for all its peoples. It is a land of opportunity, one whose layers of diversity embolden everyone.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2015