Canberra, study and being Australian

A recent visit to Canberra, the capital of Australia, had me thinking about being Australian. It’s been front-of-mind a fair bit lately as I navigate Understanding Western Art – not just the course content, but the different perspective and the relevance to me personally, as an Australian with no Roman remains down the road and “Western” just one part of the cultural mix. It is important for me that study is personal, not a dry, objective, academic exercise, if I am to invest this much time and thought and energy.

There are lots of different versions of “Australian”. On dad’s side our earliest direct relative arrived in 1839 (Irish), at the request of his uncle who arrived less voluntarily in 1800. Mum arrived in 1952 (English). Apart from a few years traveling I’ve always lived in the suburbs of Sydney. So what I write is from a pretty narrow perspective, but one that’s as valid as anyone’s.

canberra2013_01I travelled to Canberra with my mother and our main purpose was the annual 2 day walk ( – see 9-Apr-2013 for last year’s trip. We also spent a day at the National Library, which had three exhibitions which particularly interested us.

canberra2013_02The first was Beyond the furthest fences: the Australian Inland Mission collection. Mum and I visited the Australian Inland Mission hospital in Lake Grace when we visited Western Australia in 2011 (blog post 17-Oct-2011). The library exhibition consisted of a display of photographs, most taken by John Flynn whose work led to the foundation of the Inland Mission hospitals and the Flying Doctor Service. I took the photo on the right at Lake Grace AIM hospital and the reference to communication is significant. Flynn encouraged and used the inventions of Alfred Traeger, in particular a pedal-powered radio that was used to create a network of communication across inland Australia. In the Library exhibition a photograph from 1930 that really caught my interest shows an elderly woman sitting just outside a house surrounded by three young girls. The incongruity in the photo is that the woman is wearing headphones and pedalling to provide power to the radio she is using. The photo can be seen in the Library digital collection at

canberra2013_03The nurses at the AIM hospitals did more than provide medical care. They taught Sunday school and sewing classes (the sewing machine photo is from Lake Grace), they provided reading material and organised social events. They helped to create communities, as did the network of communication provided by the two-way radios (which later were also used for the School of the Air). Flynn constantly promoted the work of AIM, and all these achievements had a huge impact on the national self-image – community, mateship, ingenuity, innovation, self reliance, resilience, toughness, practical, achieving against the odds, living in remote, inhospitable places (I’d add laconic and self-deprecating, but I’m not sure if that came from Flynn). There was another photo I loved (see It shows a group of people sitting around the dining table, eating Christmas dinner and drinking tea. I didn’t notice the oddity until reading a caption with a diary entry by Sister Grace Francis: [during the dust storms] “we have a table cloth on top of the dishes, not underneath”.

canberra2013_04The second exhibition at the Library was The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s National Capital. The photo on the left is captioned “Andrew Fisher, Lord and Lady Denman and King O’Malley acknowledge the crowd from the foundation stone at the naming of Canberra ceremony, 12 March 1913”, available at and also, excitingly, copyright free at The National Library of Australia Commons on Flickr. Canberra is an artificial city, created from some perfectly good sheep-grazing land. A competition was held to design the new city, won by Walter Burley Griffin working with Marion Mahony Griffin.

Some designs that didn’t win were shown in the exhibition as well as the Griffins’. In terms of being proudly Australian, the thing that impressed me was that the chosen design started with the land – the hills, valleys and water of the site. Two hills, Mount Ainslie and Mount Bimberi, provided one axis. The Molonglo River and its valley crossed at right angles. The existing geometry of the land was recognised, enhanced and celebrated. This approach contrasted to that of other designs, where the city was imposed on the land, something that could have been built anywhere given a bulldozer and a bit of time.

Treasures Gallery was the third exhibition at the Library. It included things like Captain Cook’s Journal of H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771 ( It felt extraordinary to be surrounded by so much of our history – in fact too much for me to take in and process. A positive of the whole day was finding out about all the resources and material that are available to view in Canberra, and also available on the internet. One that I will explore further is the manuscript of John Olsen when working on his painting Five Bells (a painting that I return to often in the NSW Art Gallery – I’ll take a photo to insert next time I go). The manuscript in the National Library is available digitally at The painting in the NSW Art Gallery is featured at

canberra2013_05canberra2013_06While in Canberra we also visited The National Arboretum ( which opened earlier this year. An interesting place, but for this post I’m particularly interested in the sculpture sitting right along the crest of the hill. When taking the photo I was more interested in the patterning of the terracing and planting, and the detail doesn’t really help. There are some really interesting shots at (and on seeing them now I wish we’d had the time to go right up). The work is Wide Brown Land by Marcus Tatton, Chris Viney and Futago (2010). The words come from a poem by Dorothea Mackellar, My Country, first published in 1908. When I was at school pretty much everyone learned the second verse at least, which begins “I love a sunburnt country” and ends “The wide brown land for me!”. At the time of writing Mackellar was living in England and homesick for Australia – a momentous idea for a country of immigrants who are always talking about “home”. The full text of the poem is available at I don’t recall ever reading the first verse before today. It refers to “the love of field and coppice … running in your veins”, which she understands but cannot share. That’s part of what I feel about the Western Art course. I’ve visited Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight and seen the mosaics, I’ve stayed in a chilly farmhouse just below Hadrian’s Wall – but I don’t feel that link to it.

canberra2013_07canberra2013_08The Arboretum centre, designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects responds to the landform just as the Griffin’s design for Canberra did. (I’ll not mention the harsh triangular function centre going up nearby, other than that it exists and I have carefully cropped it from my photographs).

I don’t have a nice, neat wrapup for these musings. I would love to find a way to express some of this in my work – without it being too obvious, sugary, nostalgic or non-urban. Mackellar wrote a poem “Colour”, and it might be interesting to create a palette from that. As for the OCA course, I’ll continue enjoying it, learning, and gleefully jumping on any Australian links I can find or manufacture.

Additional information

AIM Hospital Lake Grace:

AIM collection at the National Library:
– list of photographs included in the exhibition, with links to the images:
– even more photos:

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April 2013

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