Posts Tagged 'UWA-P1-exercise'

UA1-WA:P1-p3 Pugin on Gothic

Notes on a question from the course notes: What, in Pugin’s view, was the overwhelming advantage of Gothic over other architectural styles?

Augustus Pugin (1812-52) is known for his design of the Gothic interior and exterior ornament of the Houses of Parliament in London, amongst many other buildings in his short working life. He was a key figure in the Gothic revival in Victorian England. He also seems to have polarised opinion among his contemporaries and historians ever since.

“…by a nimble shift of emphasis from styles to principles … Pugin freed the Gothic Revival building from the stigma of being a deception” (1).

Trying to do some fast-yet-effective research, I was stopped in my tracks by that sentence in the course textbook. “A nimble shift of emphasis”. In my reading, that makes Pugin sound like a rather shady character, using some sleight of hand to distract us from his own nefarious agenda. A showman? A conman? I’m sure that’s very unfair. It must be unfair (to the textbook and to Pugin). But most things I’ve read have a similar sense of hesitation or reserve.

Going further in the textbook I learnt Pugin believed that both humanity and architecture had fallen into poor ways. He espoused ‘the cause of truth over that of error’, the need for ‘sincerity’, that ‘there should be no features… which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety;… all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building’ and ‘have a meaning or serve a purpose’. Rather than building shallow copies, shams of historical architecture, methods should be revived, materials respected and emphasis placed on underlying principles of construction. Further, ‘it is in pointed architecture alone that these great principles have been carried out’. (All quotes are from Pugin, as given in Honour and Fleming pages 663-664). A link to Pugin’s conversion to Catholicism is mentioned, the general purpose of integrity and truth seems very current today – but this doesn’t tell me why pointed (aka Gothic) architecture was the answer.

A paper by Michael Bright (2) gave the background and contemporary context needed. One aesthetic theory dominant in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was the Pragmatic – artwork with the practical functions of pleasing through beauty and instructing through symbolism, thereby eliciting a response in the viewer. Architecture has the further underlying function of providing shelter. A example of this is the pinnacle on a flying buttress. A practical function is the addition of weight and strength to the structure. A symbolic function is a reference to the Resurrection through vertical lines.

A second aesthetic movement of the time was the Expressive, revealing the artist’s feelings and thoughts. Pugin believed that a true revival and restoration of Gothic architecture must be through the ‘restoration of the ancient feeling and sentiments’ (quoted in Bright, page 156). A building is a collaborative effort of architect, commissioner, craftsmen and more, and thus can express the beliefs, religion, customs and environment of an entire society. This introduces the idea of a building or other work of art expressing the values, worth and morality of the artist.

Pugin believed that the architecture of the middle ages was superior because of ‘faith, the zeal, and above all, the unity’ of those who designed and built (quoted in Bright, page 158). Pugin deplored the Renaissance, the Reformation and the classical (to Pugin ‘pagan’) revival. Also, if an architecture was to be a true expression and reflection of a man and society it should be consistent and truthful, not a mishmash of conflicting styles and symbols.

For Pugin pure Gothic was an expression of faith, of Christianity, of morality. This explains the “overwhelming advantage” of Gothic. It also explains some of the ambivalence to the man, who in his idealism and zeal could be intolerant, inflexible, petulant and abrasive. “The canons of Gothic architecture are to him points of faith, and everyone is a heretic who would venture to question them” (John Henry Newman, quoted in Bright page 160).

Other oddments about Pugin:
* he was aware of the gap between his theories and ideals and the physical buildings – due to financial constraints and the interference of others;
* he abhorred inconsistency in design, but the Houses of Parliament, one of his most memorable, loved and painted achievements, was a collaboration and mix of styles. Kenneth Clark wrote that he preferred the pseudo-Gothic of the Houses of Parliament above a classical style “itself… an imitation of antiquity”. “Barry’s design is beautifully related to the bend of the river, and Pugin’s Gothic pinnacles melt into the misty London air”. (3)
* There is debate about the extent to which Pugin’s writings influenced John Ruskin. Both were concerned that a building should be designed to meet its purpose; that symmetry purely for appearance was absurd; that there is a strong link between the value of a work and the morality of the designer and builders. However Ruskin attacked Pugin in his writing, was vehemently Protestant and anti-Catholic, and had different attitudes to workers among other differences.
* Bright suggests that Pugin was more open than Ruskin to the use of machines, appreciating the time they could save. “We should not, he [Pugin] tells us, cling to the old because of its antiquity or reject the new because of its novelty, but should judge all according to sound principles.” (4). Kenneth Clark believed that the major creative impulse of the period was in engineering – using new materials, transforming building. I like that Pugin, in all his zeal, was not entirely closed to the new. To me any building that looks back to an “authentic” past risks being inauthentic itself. To ignore perversely the changed context of the building compromises it. Through evolution or revolution, intelligent, informed, thoughtful, selective use of new materials and techniques is my preference. This is particularly important to a weaver. Many weavers find great pleasure in the beautiful reproduction of traditional patterns, but for me they should be reinterpreted, made personal, be renewed by the weaver – or architect/designer/craftsperson – or risk stagnation. Every “rule” is subject to question, to ongoing testing, to change.
* the mention in a quote above about the “canons of Gothic architecture” takes me back to my earlier struggles with the concept of the canon of Western Art (see 28-April-2013). It’s good to read about an example of the canon in flux.
* there are ten or more buildings designed by Pugin still standing in Australia. (see

(1) Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King, page 663.
(2) Bright, M. (1979) A reconsideration of A. W. N. Pugin’s architectural theories. Victorian Studies. 22 (2), pp. 151 – 172.
(3) Clark, K. (1969) Civilisation London: British Broadcasting Corporation, page 330.
(4) Bright, op. cit. p. 170.

Additional reading
Andrews, B. (1999) Mr Pugin the Bigot. Paper read to the Newman Society, Hobart, Sunday 31 October 1999. [online] Available from [Accessed 13 June 2013]

Yates, N. (1987) Pugin & the medieval dream. History Today. 37 (9), pp. 33-40.

UA1-WA:P1-p3 Pugin on Gothic
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project three: Religious art.
Topic: Pugin on Gothic

UA1-WA:P1-p3 Visit to a Victorian Gothic church

Report on a visit to St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney

st_marys_01In one sense St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was completed in 2000, when building of the front towers’ spires was finished. However the design of the spires, and of the cathedral as a whole, is Victorian Gothic as planned in the 1860s by architect William Wilkinson Wardell.

The cathedral’s site was granted to the church in 1820 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and it is close to Hyde Park Barracks (see my previous report, 11-May-2013).  Building of the original church progressed slowly, the first mass being celebrated in 1833.

Pier from original cathedral, near entrance to the current crypt

Column of the original cathedral, near the entrance to the current crypt

Additional works included an 1843 bell-tower and an 1844 chapter house, both designed by Augustus Pugin. Pugin also designed extensions to the cathedral, with work commencing in 1851. However in 1865 fire destroyed most of the complex, with only the chapter house and a single pillar of the original cathedral still standing today.

Archbishop Polding commissioned Wardell to design a new cathedral, writing “I leave all to you and your own inspiration in the matter. I will not even say that your conception shall be restricted to the Gothic style of any particular period.” (1) This is slightly ambiguous, but I take it that any design was acceptable – with the assumption it would be a variant of Gothic.

plan.xcfstmarysplanOn the left is a rough floor plan of the cathedral, based on observation and counted steps on my visit. There is a strong emphasis on the longitudinal axis – the cathedral is 107 metres long, the nave including aisles 24.3 metres wide. Site considerations combined with the intended size of the building led to orienting the cathedral with the main altar (the liturgical east) to the north. The cathedral is basically a cruciform shape.st_marys_cross-sectionA cross-section shows the high nave supported by flying buttresses, the lower aisles, and an indication of the width provided by the transcepts, baptistry and what I believe could be described as axial chapels.

plan.xcfstmaryszoneplanThe plan on the left highlights the various areas of the cathedral. The chapels are up a step, have low railings and in some cases different floor treatment, but are not actually screened from the main body of the cathedral. The sanctuary is raised a few steps and is screened at the sides with a reredos at the back. I am not sure what to call the section at the south (liturgical west) which includes the two side towers. From my reading “narthex” seems the most appropriate, although a more elaborate version on a Romanesque church would be “westwork”. Inside the cathedral it is largely hidden by a large organ loft.

headsThe cathedral was built of dressed Sydney sandstone with extensive carved detailing. Construction of the cathedral was in stages, as finances allowed. The foundation stone was set in 1868 and the northern end was opened and dedicated in 1882. The central tower was completed in 1900, while the nave was opened in 1928. The spires of the front towers were built 1998 – 2000.

Effects of this sequence can be detected both internally and externally. The image at the right is a compilation of some of the many carved heads around the windows – and one of the many uncarved blocks. All the blank blocks I saw were towards the rear of the cathedral. The head on the bottom left is from high on the south-east tower and and is quite different in style to the other heads (all from the north-west wall).
st_marys_03The differences are more dramatic on the three doors at the southern end. st_marys_04
The surrounds of the left door are richly carved with great variation in the detail. The surrounds of the door on the right are molded but not carved.
st_marys_05Most fascinating are the central doors – I presume in terms of ceremony the most important doors of the building. The surrounds are largely uncarved, although the beginnings of work can be seen on two of the column capitals.


North wall – detail


North wall

The northern (liturgical east) wall shows many of the features that would be seen in an original Gothic church. There are pointed arches, elaborately carved finials, blind arcades, statues and stained glass.
st_marys_18Elsewhere in the building are elements that would be less familiar to a medieval stonemason, such as carvings of some of our local fauna and even more the steel framework of the new spires.

stmarystitch1Photography is not permitted inside the cathedral, so I have only my rough sketches to give a sense of the interior. A series of compound piers run the length of the nave and sanctuary. Each includes eight engaged shafts. A total of six of the shafts support the arcade, the seventh continues up to the ceiling of the nave and the last supports the ceiling of the aisle. While the capitals are doric and the engaged shafts quite plain, fluting on the arches and additional moulding creates a clean but rich effect.
A triforium-gallery adds to the play of light and shadow. Amber glass in the clerestory windows provides only subdued lighting – very effectively supplemented by modern directional electric lighting and many candles.

An impact of the staged building effort can be seen in the ceiling treatments in the cathedral.
The ceiling of the chancel is vaulted in timber, with eight compartments in each bay.
ceiling2The aisles are rib-vaulted in stone. A nice detail is the lines carved in the stone which echo those of the timber vaulting.

st_marys_07However the nave roof uses hammer-beams. These vary depending on the support point (engaged shaft or above clerestory window) and are carved providing visual links to some of the window tracery. While attractive I suspect that this construction method was chosen with an eye to speed and cost in the building effort.

There are elaborately carved altars in the chapels, including many designed by Wardell. There is a tomb commemorating those lost in wars, but no other free-standing statuary or memorials outside of the chapels and sanctuary. This provides a very open, uncluttered and contemplative space.

st_marys_08I was able to take one “internal” photograph while observing cathedral requests. This was taken from outside the transept on the eastern side, looking across to the rose window on the western side and the organ below. Stained glass in the cathedral includes images based on the early history of Catholicism in Australia and other local themes in addition to stories of saints and from the bible.

st_marys_14There is a crypt below the nave and here the fall of the land has become a positive. On the western (city) side of the cathedral there are just a few stairs up to the entry. On the east side, seen here, there is space for easy external access to the crypt. There are also stone internal stairs at the back of the church.

st_marys_11st_marys_12Photography is permitted in this area, so I am able to show the huge structure underpinning the cathedral. Rather than the compound pier upstairs, here there is a system of central pier and detached columns. The relatively low ceiling is rib vaulted. I couldn’t determine the building material – it certainly did not look like raw or dressed sandstone.

st_marys_13A significant feature of the crypt is the terrazzo mosaic floor. Completed in 1961 by Melocco Brothers, the design forms a Celtic cross with a series of medallions of the Days of Creation. The crypt is a sanctuary, holding the remains of Archbishops and pioneering priests. It is also used for weddings and other services.

Flying buttresses and many more finials

Flying buttresses and many more finials

The history of the building of St Mary’s cathedral is closely linked to the history of Catholics in Australia. When I visited it clearly played an active part in the spiritual life of many Sydney-siders, with a well-attended lunchtime service (which I thought was well paced to meet limited time availability). The various chapels provide spaces in a variety of sizes for different usage. It is also a popular tourist attraction, and the cathedral authorities have responded with physical changes (particularly an entry vestibule at the western door), signage and discreet staff, allowing visitors to enjoy the building while minimising any impact on worshippers. Technology has been introduced (lighting and sound the most obvious) to enhance the experience. There is an active conservation effort. Work also continues to “complete” still more of Wardell’s original design, a recent example being the commissioning and installation of statues in the reredos (2).

st_marys_10Preparing this report has been a fascinating shift of perspective for me. Coming from a bellringing family, from my earliest years I have spent many hours in the Cathedral (dad was Captain and Ringing Master for many years), but much of it I had never noticed before. This photo is from ground level below the transept on the eastern side. There are 111 stone spiral steps up that turret, and the red arrow shows where the next photo was taken.

st_marys_09This is me (with a goofy expression unfortunately) and a ringing friend with that same turret behind us. We’re on a wooden walkway across the base of the roof, about to go up some more steps to the ringing chamber in the central tower. So you can now see that the roof is slate!

Additional images: There are some wonderful historic images of the Cathedral, including a drawing by Wardell (including the spires!), the remains of the earlier Pugin-designed church after the fire, one that shows the proximity of the Hyde Park Barracks and one of building work in the 1920’s (pre spires) – all available on the State Library website at

(1) Polding, John Bede (10 October 1865) Letter to William Wardell. Cited in St Mary’s Cathedral [n.d.] About Us [online] Available from [Accessed 8 June 2013]

(2) Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese (5 March 2013) 16 Magnificent New Statues Installed in Cathedral Reredos [online] Available from [Accessed 7 June 2013]


Curl, J.S. (2006) Oxford dictionary of architecture and landscape architecture (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dunn, M. (2008) ‘St Mary’s Cathedral’, Dictionary of Sydney [online]. Available from [Accessed 10 June 2013]

Heritage Council of New South Wales (2008) St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral and Chapter House,/em> [online] Available from [Accessed 10 June 2013]

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

St Mary’s Cathedral [n.d.] About Us [online] Available from [Accessed 8 June 2013]

St Mary’s Cathedral (2012) Crypt of St Mary’s Sydney: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

Stalley, R. 1999) Early Medieval Architecture Oxford: Oxford University Press

UA1-WA:P1-p3 Visit to a Victorian Gothic church
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project three: Religious art.
Topic: Visit to a Gothic church

UA1-WA:P1-p1 Visit to a classical building


Hyde Park Barracks. Front (west)

The final section of Project 1 is a visit to a classical building. The key skills required are: observe, describe, comment. I chose Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney as the subject building for this visit.

Selection of building

The requirements called for a classical building, not a church, with interior fully accessible if possible. Although I have written previously about Sydney architecture displaying classical orders (13-Apr-2013), the building interiors are generally not accessible to the public or heavily modified and extended even to the point of being merely a facade to a modern building.

Elizabeth Bay House ( was one possibility. It was built 1835-39 in the Greek Revival style, conceived as “the finest house in the colony” (1), and is now open to the public as part of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. However due to the financial situation of the owner, Alexander Macleay, the building was never completed as planned, the intended colonnade was not constructed and all original furnishings and decorations were sold off.

The Hyde Park Barracks, also cared for by the Historic Houses Trust, was built in 1819 to house convict men and boys. It has a significant place in Sydney’s history of architecture and town planning. At one point the Barracks were surrounded and almost overwhelmed by attached buildings, but these have now been removed leaving a largely original structure. The interior is fully accessible, and while this is sparse with no artworks to be seen this is appropriate to the original function of the building. I believe it displays elements of classical buildings.

Description of building – exterior

The Barracks are built of brick on a stone base. It could be (has been) described as a large barn, or as a temple. Brick pilasters divide the front and rear facades vertically into three equal parts, and the sides into ten parts. The pediment contains a clock. The deep soffits and stone base act as protection to the bricks in heavy rain. Although there is virtually no overt ornamentation or enrichment of the exterior the effect is imposing and attractive.

classical_building_02There is a strict geometry to the building, based on the square. My photograph, taken from street level, makes this difficult to see. The guidelines shown are based on a diagram in Herman (1954).

classical_building_03The square is used at all levels of detail, down to the panes of glass in the windows.


Southern side

The building is a simple rectangle. At first glance the division of the sides with brick pilasters repeats the front, but there is a slight adjustment to proportions and size. The photograph on the right also shows the small bell turret at the front (not in the original plan), a central dome providing ventilation, and four apparent chimneys. The two at the front are connected to fireplaces. I believe the two at the rear may be entirely to provide symmetry.


Rear and north east corner

The rear of the building repeats the front without any ornamentation in the pediment. In the photograph on the left it can be seen that at the ground level windows and doors fit into semi-circular recesses. At front and back the windows are rectangular – one and a half squares on the first two levels, a square at the top level. At the sides the ground level windows are two squares surmounted by a semi-circular light, the upper levels as on the back and front. Bright red bricks are used at window heads and arches. Courses of stone are the only other ornamentation.

Description of building – interior
classical_building_07Internal division is very simple – four rooms on each level separated by corridors which run the length and width of the building. There is no artwork, no decorative moldings.

Original stairs - north side

Original stairs – north side

The original stairs and balustrade on the north side display the same practical, functional and plain treatment. However here the walls are smoothly plastered and detailing has been added with paintwork. These treatments were added later in the building’s history.

classical_building_08The purpose of the building was to house convicts and all twelve rooms were used for that. This photo shows the south east room on the top floor, complete with a reconstruction of the wooden frame and hammocks similar to those that would have been used. I think this room has 70 hammocks, and in actual use would have had twice that number with a second layer above these.
classical_building_09The roof trusses look wonderful. You may also be able to pick out the corbelled brickwork which carries the chimney stacks. At the end of the corridor in this photograph is the box for the clock pendulum.

The architect and the Governor
Hyde Park Barracks were designed by Francis Greenway, arguably one of the greatest names in Australian architecture. Greenway arrived in Sydney in 1814. An architect in Bristol, he had been convicted of forgery and transported for life. Lachlan Macquarie was Governor of the colony from 1810 and brought great energy and vision to the role. He instituted a major series of public building works that began a transformation of the ramshackle town, bringing order, imposing authority and providing buildings of function and substance. In Greenway Macquarie found an architect able to share, interpret and implement his vision. Over five years from 1816, when Macquarie appointed Greenway as Civil Architect and Assistant Engineer, Greenway designed and oversaw the construction of major buildings in Sydney and surrounding townships.

City design
classical_building_11classical_building_10Macquarie’s and Greenway’s vision went beyond individual buildings to city design. Above and to the left are matching photographs looking across Queen Square, defined by the Barracks to the east and St James church to the west. This was the first civic square in the colony and the direct relationship of the two buildings is immediately apparent, forming an axis at right angles to the grand boulevarde of Macquarie Street.
classical_building_12St James was completed in 1822 and the hand of the same architect is clearly visible in the bricks, window arches, pilasters, courses of stone and other details.

Fit for purpose
However there are also clear differences. Hyde Park Barracks was built to house convicts. Prior to its construction convicts were responsible to find and pay for their own board and lodging in the town. There is little to the architecture that could be regarded as ornamental.
classical_building_13St James was originally designed as law courts, and redesignated a church (a symbol of state authority) early during building. In it Classical design is more clearly evident, including a portico with Doric columns and entablature, although more elaborate details originally planned did not eventuate.

Macquarie granted Greenway a full pardon following the building of the Hyde Park Barracks. However the British Government did not agree that they were fit for purpose. Macquarie was denounced for the extravagance of his building program. A Commissioner was sent out, Macquarie dismissed, and his relationship with Greenway ended in acrimony.

Later history of the building
The Barracks were used to house male convicts until 1848. Later occupants include a female immigration depot (including Irish female orphans), Master in Lunacy, Supreme Court judges, Wheat Acquisition board and Industrial Commission of NSW. The original mustering area surrounding the Barracks was filled by a multitude of extensions and additional buildings. Eventually, after archeological excavations and extensive conservation it was opened as a museum in 1984.


(1) Carlin, S. (2000) Elizabeth Bay House: A history & guide Glebe: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.

Dunn, M. (2008) St James Anglican church Queens Square [Online]. Dictionary of Sydney website. Available from [Accessed 10 May 2013]
Freeland, J.M. (1972) Architecture in Australia Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia.
Herman, M. (1954) The early Australian architects and their work Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Historic Houses Trust (2003) Hyde Park Barracks Museum Guidebook [online] Available from: [Accessed 9 May 2013]
Summerson, J. (2002) The Classical Language of Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

UA1-WA:P1-p1 Visit to a classical building
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Visit to a classical building

The New Classical at Art Gallery of South Australia

gallery_sa_01Leaving the Turner exhibition (see post 4-May-2013) we walked out of the Art Gallery of South Australia through the Melrose Wing of European Art. This was on the recommendation of a lady we chatted with while sharing a table at lunch in the busy Art Gallery café. The work she thought was a must-see on our visit was Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We Are All Flesh (2011-12), epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel. I can understand why this work has got all the press (see links at the end), but the entire wing is just so exciting. I’ve since learnt that the wing was opened in January 2013, refurbished and completely re-hung. To quote Director Nick Mitzevich in the press release “Boundaries of geography and time have been collapsed to inspire a new way of looking at the rich diversity of the Gallery’s collections. Objects from different periods and cultures are juxtaposed to reveal how art links the past to the present” (1).

I didn’t know that at the time we were there, just that we started at the back of the gallery very tired after five hours spent with Turner, and as we passed from room to room we got more and more interested and energetic. It was still a fleeting visit, a little time with one or two items in each room.
gallery_sa_02This is the work that stopped me in my tracks. The Bowmore Artemis c. 180 AD, Italy, carved marble. The information sign provided “… the huntress Diana pursuing wild animals, her tunic billowing as she runs… It is modelled on an earlier sculpture from the Hellenistic period… The naturalistic detail of multiple textured folds of drapery, in which the female form is accentuated, reveals an ideal of perfection that has influenced art through the ages.”
gallery_sa_03This of course relates to one of the major concepts in my current Part of the OCA course – Ancient Greece and the canon (although here not necessarily restricted to Western art). This also clearly (although I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time) relates to my post on 28-April-2013, about the canon evolving and merging different histories and cultures. You can see glimpses of other works shown in combination, but the one that really caught my attention can be seen in the distance here, facing Artemis with confidence and pride.
gallery_sa_04Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009), bronze. From the sign, this is a “life-cast sculpture of a female who underwent various sex change treatments”. Here is poise, confidence, a challenge to classical ideals of perfection, and in my eyes at least, beauty.
gallery_sa_05The reverse view (the wall at the back is mirrored). There was a lot more to be seen in this room – which had as its theme “The New Classical” – but my attention was totally caught by the conversation between these two figures. I think I looked at each a little differently because of that relationship.
gallery_sa_06That’s all the actual content I have for this post, but I couldn’t resist a closeup of that wonderful swirling textile. I wonder what colours it would have been originally. It looks wonderful in cream, but I decided to play a little…gallery_sa_07

(1) Mitzevich, N. (2013) quoted in Art Gallery of South Australia (2013) Art Gallery unveils sumptuous new Melrose Wing of European Art [online] 10 January 2013. Available from [Accessed 4 May 2013]

More information
Adams, J. (2013) Art Gallery of South Australia hung like a horse. Arts Hub [online] 4 April 2013 Available from [Accessed 4 May 2013]
McDonald, J. (2013) Succès de Scandale in Adelaide [Accessed 4 May 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 4

Previous posts on or around this topic:
17-Mar-2013 An initial attempt at understanding the concept and considering the implications
13-Apr-2013 Finding evidence of the canonical orders in Sydney, and considering the message being given by the planners and builders.
26-Apr-2013 This post was ostensibly about a trip to some exhibitions in Canberra and reflections on being Australian. With further thought I think that in part I was working through the relevance of The Western Canon to a modern Australian.

This thought crystallized when I read a quote from Tony Abbott (current Leader of the Opposition in federal parliament). “There is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.” (1) (Partial disclosure, not wanting to get distracted by Australian politics, I will not be voting for Mr Abbott’s party in the coming election). So are we ignoring a significant part of our heritage in attempts to be multi-cultural and politically correct?

Further internet searching led me to the information that “the great Australian silence” was originally used in 1968 in reference to the virtual absence of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australian “history” at the time.(2) ( is a source of “Australian independent journalism”, seen by some as myth-busting and giving the true low-down, by others less positively.)

I hadn’t realised that the Western canon was so topical, so did some more internet surfing. In an article on the English school syllabus I found “The retreat from the canon, while appearing to have social equality at heart, has disempowered a generation by divorcing them from the mythic reference points of our culture”. Also “As a people, to understand the story we are in, we must understand the story of where we have been, and the great narratives of the literary canon are vital to this understanding.” (3) Apparently the new curriculum has achieved a good balance, with a greater diversity in “canonical” texts.

A simple search on “Western canon Australia” turned up a lot more. Both the articles I’ve cited refer to school curricula, one history the other english. The political element is very clear, also perhaps a battle for the minds and hearts of the young (sorry about the twee expression). It also reinforced for me the ongoing importance of the Western canon in Australian life and the stories we tell about ourselves. I don’t believe that a single true history is possible or desirable – nothing is that simple. So it seems a canon needs to be constantly questioned and tested, to evolve, to merge different histories and cultures.

(1) Abbott, T. (2013?) Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation lecture. Cited in Baird, J. (2013) Don’t dismiss nation’s blemishes. The Sydney Morning Herald 27 April 2013 [online] Available from
[Accessed 28 April 2013]

(2) Knott, M. (2013) Tony Abbott talks God and Western values behind closed doors [Online] 5 April 2013 Available from [Accessed 28 April 2013]

(3) Hastie, D. (2013) Why great narratives must be passed on. The Sydney Morning Herald 4 November 2011 [online] Available from: [Accessed 28 April 2013]
UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 4
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Canonical Orders.

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:

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2

In a previous post (17-Mar-2013) I tried to figure out what “The Canon” is – not surprisingly a confusing post, given my own confusion.

I’ve since found the term used in a slightly different way, in John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture (1). To quote (p. 10): “It was Sebastiano Serlio … who really started the orders … on their long career of canonical, symbolic, almost legendary, authority”. Excellent – a chance to see the concept used in action and thereby perhaps make better sense of it.


Sydney Town Hall, by JH Willson (~1889)
Composite columns at main entry, corinthian upstairs.
(French Second Empire architecture)

“The orders” are types of columns – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. I used to think of these as decorative, just a matter of how fancy the carving at the top was, and except where standing clear and holding up a porch many columns seemed more like moulding on the walls than actually structural or integral to the building.


State Library NSW (1910).
Ionic columns driving the plane of relief

However when used The Orders (I feel a need for the capitalisation) define a “plane of relief”. They support an entablature – architrave, frieze and cornice – which moves with the columns. If the columns are changed from free standing to half embedded in the wall, the entire face of the building changes. The Orders control the structure (page 20). The spaces between the columns can completely change the impact.

The Orders started with the Greeks. The Romans used and extended them, and added arches. In the Renaissance this architectural grammar was re-established, then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Orders again became the major discipline in architecture.

Queen Victoria Building (QVB), by G McRae (1893 - 1898) Is that a temple up there? Federation Romanesque style

Queen Victoria Building (QVB), by G McRae (1893 – 1898)
Is that a round temple up there?
Federation Romanesque style


Inside the QVB

One thing I was troubled by when writing earlier about the Western Canon was the prospect of an inflexible and suffocating set of rules. In practice the canonical orders have evolved over time. Summerson shows the progression of a circular temple – from the Temple of Vesta, to Bramante’s Tempietto (1502), to Wren’s St Paul’s (1696 – 1708), and (my addition) a variation in McRae’s Queen Victoria Building (1893-1898). New ideas and extensions are added, appropriate to contemporary needs.

This developmental arc is not just refinements and extensions. There can be boredom and revolt, although it seems to me that Summerson’s example of Giulio Romano is more an extreme exaggeration, not turning to a new path. It seems the arc can also be traveled in reverse – for a long period Greece, as part of the Ottoman Empire, was basically off-limits to Western travelers. Ancient Greek architecture was known from old, inaccurate drawings and through Roman buildings. In 1762 Stewart and Revett published a volume of new and accurate drawings, feeding a Greek Revival in architecture.

A light-hearted, more decorative approach on this circa 1881/1882 building

A light-hearted, more decorative approach on this circa 1881/1882 building

The Greek Revival extended into the early twentieth century – and walking around Sydney, I think rather longer here… and I pause briefly to savor the moment. When family and friends ask what I’m up to I’ve been making a bit of a joke of the course notes research point which begins “Find out as much as you can about the Roman occupation in your area”. Not a lot to find here in Sydney (although it has been claimed that Melbourne has the third largest Greek-speaking population in the world (2)), but when you get to the Greek Revival and to classic influences of the Modern Movement suddenly we’re at least in the game. Something that seemed purely academic has become more directly relevant.

National Library (1968)

National Library of Australia, by W Bunning (1968)


Leonard French, Stained glass window. (1967)

Leonard French, Stained glass window. (1967)

These photos show the National Library in Canberra. Opened in 1968 the stated aim of the chief architect was “to design a building that was a contemporary derivation in the spirit of Classical Design”, while the refurbishment completed in 1999 “succeeds in expressing the design language of the building with a fresh interpretation, achieving a contemporary derivation of classical design” (3). I’m directly quoting my source with such abandon because in a sense I didn’t need it. I was in Canberra last weekend, visited three different exhibitions at the National Library, and given my recent reading couldn’t have missed that it’s a modern Greek temple.

All of the photographs in this post were taken in Sydney and Canberra. In fact Sydney’s enthusiasm for this western world classical style building has me wondering. Was it simply a matter of the architectural vogue at the time that much of Sydney was built (ignoring earlier more temporary wooden buildings)? Going back to John Summerson I find “… the shop-filled arches and arrogantly bedizened Doric columns of Australia House – Bramante again, in the age of British Imperialism: date, 1911” (p. 43). Arrogant. Imperialism. With Australian federation as a nation in 1901, were our leaders and planners a little over-keen to show that we had made it – no longer a colony but ready to take our place among the great nations as cultured citizens of the world. Could there be a whiff of cultural cringe?

Lands Dept (1876, 1888)

Lands Dept, by J Barnet (1876, 1888)

orders_lands_02This particularly extravagant and arrogant building is the Lands Department office built in Sydney in two stages in 1876 and 1888. The department was responsible for the administration, selling and leasing of Crown lands, including resolving disputes between settlers, speculators and pastorialists (4). Notice who are missing from that brief? Non-Australians might not know of “terra nullis”, the extremely convenient theory used by the British Government of the time to treat Australia as uninhabited and thereby take the land from the Aboriginal people – a nasty piece of work with consequences that are still very much felt today (see for example I don’t know which would be worse – that the planners of this building with its statues of heroic explorers of the “empty” land were sending a message of power and control to the traditional owners of the land, or if those planners were absolutely unaware or unconcerned about them.

The canonical Orders have retained their strength and influence over more than 2,000 years. They have been able to survive adaptation, refinement, enhancement and perhaps the occasional debasement. They also have been used to project or assert power, prestige and authority.

(1) Summerson, J. (2002) The Classical Language of Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

(2) [Accessed 12 April 2013]

(3) [Accessed 12 April 2013]

(4) NSW Land & Property Information (2013) History of Land and Property Information. [online] State of New South Wales through NSW Land and Property Information. Available from: [Accessed 12 April 2013]

Additional information
Lands Department Building: [Accessed 13 April 2013]
National Library of Australia: [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Queen Victoria Building: [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Stained glass by Leonard French: Fuller, J. (2010) Leonard French’s stained glass windows at the National Library of Australia. The National Library Magazine 2010 (March) pp. 12- 15. [online] Available from: [Accessed 12 April 2013]

Sydney Town Hall: [Accessed 12 April 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Canonical Orders.

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon

The clumsy looking title is a new naming convention that may turn out to be just the way to keep track of where I am over various courses, or alternatively an irritating distraction. The full version is
Understanding Art 1: Western Art.
Part one. Classical and religious art.
Project one. Ancient Greece.
Particular topic of this post – the western artistic canon.

This is a provisional post, an initial attempt. Having read the section in the course notes a few times and thought about it a while I attempted to look up ‘canon’ in one of the recommended texts, Art History: The Key Concepts by Jonathan Harris. The entry looks normal – just under two pages giving a high level definition. Unfortunately it turns out not to be in Australian English, or really any English. Ordinary words can’t be trusted. Their use has been refined and/or distorted so that they become unrecognisable – or worse, a pit trap with a surface that looks like solid ground on the top to lull you into a false sense of security, and sharp stakes at the bottom to deal with you when you fall through.

Alright, an indulgent flight of fantasy and classic (if I dare use that word) work avoidance. More objectively, in the entry for CANON CANONICAL the first paragraph of sixteen lines includes 23 words and expressions which need to be looked up in turn. Each of those entries becomes its own labyrinth. Words such as ‘originally’, ‘text’, ‘classic’ and ‘genius’ cannot be trusted. Exciting, an adventure – but daunting and a potential time sink.

Fair enough, in a new field one requires patience and perseverance, plus a willingness to live at least initially with a tentative answer, perhaps a suspension of disbelief. So, subject to later revision, here goes:

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for canon (from the Greek for ‘rule’) has multiple meanings including “A standard of judgement or authority; a test, criterion, means of discrimination”, illustrating its use with a quote from 1601 “…one absolute piece of work, from whence artificers do fetch their draughts…”.

In terms of the history of western art, the ‘canon’ is a group of art works of individual greatness and value to which all subsequent work can be compared and evaluated, and its foundation or springboard lies in ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture. Partially hidden in this definition are the individuals and institutions who over time have had the power to determine what works are canonical. Tradition, education, elitism, power, money and I would guess cronyism have played a part to different degrees.

The canon provides a framework, a context, without which it would be difficult to distinguish one thing from another – nothing stands out. It may give something for later artists to aspire to – to emulate, perhaps join or even surpass, standing on the shoulders of giants. On the other hand the canon could be seen as elitist, self-referential and insular.

A rigid and inflexible canon would discourage innovation and originality. Taking a very long view through history this has not been the case in western art, but perhaps in a single lifetime it would feel like it. This could be discouraging, perhaps lead to self-censorship, or it could stimulate by providing something to react against and protest (probably more a modern idea). Perhaps a truly great artist is able to transcend and redefine the canon (is that a circular definition?).

It will be interesting to learn more about recent evolution or revolution of the western canon. For example the name ‘Fauve’ was a critical, negative, dismissive judgement. I wonder if any works from that movement would now be regarded as canonical. Also perhaps now originality and innovation may be valued more highly than in the past when stability and maintenance of the status quo was vital. Last year as part of my reading during Textiles 1: A Creative Approach I posted about Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking though craft (6-July-2012) and touched on this area. On the one hand Adamson claimed avant garde art was autonomous, on the other it required an “accepted critical account” (page 32). I also quoted John McDonald (2012) writing that when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference”, and Tom Wolfe (1975): “Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting … Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” This now appears to me to suggest strongly that the western canon of art has continued to evolve and remains a significant force in contemporary art, although with a pace of change that can lead an over-enthusiastic critic astray.

The role of the mediating individual or institution is a very disturbing aspect of the canon, the power that attends it. Being recognised as working within the canon may provide access to opportunities, recognition and reward not available to others. As a textile-focused person this is particularly important. I have already researched and written a lot about Art and Craft during A Creative Approach – blog entries are included in categories Reading and Research Point. I won’t attempt to re-cover that ground here – there are likely to be other opportunities during the current course.

Adamson, G. (2007) Thinking through craft. Oxford: Berg.
[anon.] (1971) The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. Abingdon: Routledge
McDonald, J. In with the new [Accessed 6 July 2012]
Wolfe, T. (1975) The Painted Word, quoted in Ellsworth-Jones, W. Never mind the theory…–20120629-21792.html [Accessed 6 July 2012]


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