Skip to content

It being nearly Christmas, some may be considering things loftier than the usual splurge on gifts and food. My mind was turned to religious architecture again during a recent wander around Armidale in northern New South Wales – a country centre with two fine cathedrals (Anglican and Catholic) and a very handsome Presbyterian Church adjacent to the retail centre.

St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins
St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins

I often tell those who come on my guided walks around North Sydney that architecture provides the  most accessible way of comprehending the material culture of past generations. Unlike clothing, cars or other forms of technology, the structures of the past are still all about us.

Few buildings wear the ideological intent of the architect or owner more clearly than places of worship and their associated structures. These were literally built to express and evoke religious sentiment. And what I find especially fascinating is that, despite the apparent immutability of the truths presented in them, buildings erected by the various Christian churches in Australia reflect changing architectural fashion and thought just as non-sacred structures do.

Gothic architecture, in its various forms, was the dominant mode of sacred expression in this country through the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth. It is not surprising given that the consolidation of British occupation of the Australian colonies coincided with the revival of the Gothic in the ‘mother country’. Americans, by contrast, were far more willing to erect a church that looked like a Greek or Roman temple, something that would have appalled John Ruskin for whom classicism was synonymous with paganism.

The spiritual message of much Gothic architecture is clear. Cathedral spires and pinnacles reach for the heavens. Even in their absence the pointed arch window directs one’s gaze, and hopefully thoughts, upwards. Then, of course, in Catholic and some Anglican churches there is the obvious iconography apparent in statues and stained glass windows.

All this is very apparent with St Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in Armidale. It was designed in 1910-11 by the firm Sherrin and Hennessey who did a huge amount of work for the Catholic Church at the time. Heavenly thoughts are conveyed to all who enter or pass by with the spire, pinnacles and pantheon of saints.

The Cathedral is built of brick rather than stone, as was the case with many Federation-era Gothic churches. In this instance the construction also shows off the characteristic local light and dark bricks and the polychromatic brickwork of the prolific local builder, GF Nott. St Mary and Joseph’s looks like it belongs in Armidale because of this localism.

The extravagant expression of Gothicism was pared back during the first half of the 20th century by the impact of Modernism, which celebrated mass production and tended to eschew ornamentation. Accordingly the celebration of the craft of the carpenter, bricklayer, and mason, so apparent in earlier Gothic structures, was muted and then lost altogether.

Cathedral Hall, built 1938, photograph by Ian Hoskins
Cathedral Hall, built 1938. Photo by Ian Hoskins

This move to austerity is so apparent in the ‘Cathedral Hall’ that was built by Armidale's Catholics near the sublime structure from which it gets its name. It is clearly a building that has been designed rather than simply erected as a functional shelter. The Gothic ancestry is referenced by the stylised battlements on the bay front. The decision to leave the grey concrete render unpainted seems to be part of the original intent of the architect or builder. There is a grimness about it that may reflect the impact of the Great Depression, just past when the place was built. Possibly cost was an issue. To me it also expresses an age when totalitarian ideas were in conflict with democracy and the Catholic Church was trying to find its place within this turmoil. But was arrival at the Cathedral Hall meant to uplift and express hope in the future through its modernity? Or was the bleakness an attempt to cower a congregation and secure their allegiance? Either way, for such as small building, it is amazingly affecting.

 

 

 

 

Share

Two things have got me thinking again about the meaning of trees. The first was the trip to New England NSW I have mentioned in the previous two blogs. There trees are hard to ignore. They stand in stark lines across sheep pastures. They clump around dwellings. They form avenues, glow with autumn colour or dot the grassland as contorted grey trunks, ringbarked years ago or killed by die-back.

Poplars and willows north of Armidale
Poplars and willows north of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

The second was re-reading Michael Pembroke’s really beautiful book Trees of History and Romance: Essays from a Mount Wilson Garden, in which the horticulture and cultural history of 21 types of exotic trees – those that grow in the author’s mountain garden – are outlined.

This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place
This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place just south of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

My postgraduate work on public parks and the symbolism of flora, twenty or so years ago, made me very aware of the historical ambivalence of many non-indigenous Australians to the vegetation of the country they took from the first people. ‘The invaders hated trees’ was WK Hancock’s unequivocal summation. Writing in 1930, he was responding to more than a century of de-afforestation. By then, the Big Scrub, that once covered 75,000 hectares around the northern rivers of NSW, had all but disappeared. Such was its size and so sanguine were newcomers that they estimated the forest would last 600 years. Hancock saw it all as the hollow triumph of the ‘greed’ and ‘ignorance’ of a ‘transplanted’ people. (WK Hancock, Australia, [1930], 1945, pp.30-33)

Of course the ‘transplanted’ did not hate all trees. In time, they actually came to celebrate the endemic flora.  The golden wattle, for instance, would be embraced as a symbol of a nation – albeit a golden-haired, white one. Painter Hans Heysen and photographer Harold Cazneaux both elevated the maligned Eucalypt to the status of icon emblematic of the tenacious pioneer.

And the ‘transplanted’ people brought with them attitudes to trees that were deeply ‘rooted’ (the puns are telling and intentional) in British and wider European culture. They transplanted exotic species out of affection and practical familiarity.

DSCN5717
The Elm avenue at Gostwyk station, Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2014

It is interesting to wonder then what prompted the Dangar family, owners of Gostwyck sheep station on the New England plateau, to plant 200 English Elm trees (Ulmus procera) to create a grand avenue that would impress visitors coming to their big home. They were almost certainly aware of the use of Elms on coffins and ships’ hulls. But more so through English verse and painting, the Elm was synonymous with the working countryside – an association that a landed family of ‘improvers’ in ‘New England’ would be keen to promote. The Elms were planted sometime after the family felt it had consolidated its holding in the wake of the 1861 Selection Act which threatened to break up the vast properties taken up by squatters in earlier years. Gostwyck was established in 1836.

Elsewhere on the plateau there are stands of Radiata Pine (Pinus radiata) – huge trees at least 100 years old planted obviously as wind-breaks in pastures and around dwellings because their needles so effectively block moving air. These are North American trees but in the England of the late 18th and 19th centuries, conifers were increasingly planted on estates because they could flourish in the thin soil of moors that were being enclosed and thereby acquired by the landed. They were, then, widely known among the newcomers and were as emblematic as the Elm or Oak. In Australia, also, the shape and colouring of the pine was easily distinguished from that of the native flora. I think they must also have served as landmarks for those returning to home after working in the bush or pasture.

DSCN5761
A stand of Radiata Pines around a building site, near Gostwyk station, Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

So when I see a stand of Pines, as opposed to a wind-breaking line, I wonder whether they once enclosed a home. Their presence in such formations is so clearly part of a cultural landscape. Like Gostwyck’s avenue of Elms, these Pines are evidence of the shaping intent of newcomers. But where the former speak of the permanence of the occupiers, empty Pine groves indicate their departure. Sometimes those stories can be recovered, often we can only imagine.

 

Share

It is not easy finding good second hand bookshops in regional areas – at least not in my recent experience in NSW. For me an indicator of something special is the range of local history carried – books and monographs that are specific to the area and that one might not find elsewhere.

Armidale and surrounds are an exception; almost certainly because the town has a University of long standing and high repute - the University of New England - and there have long been good researchers and writers in the Armidale and District Historical Society.

There are two good bookshops there. The first, Burnett’s Books, has been in the beautiful little town of Uralla (20 minutes south of Armidale) for at least a decade. That place is worth a visit in its own right because of the new boutique brewery, McCrossins Mill Local Museum and the Uralla Wool Room (the latter is owned by my sister – so I should add a disclaimer).

My nicest find in Burnett’s was a 1960 edition of The Australian Legend signed by the author. Russel Ward, of course, taught at the University of New England and completed that foundational study of Australian identity there in 1957/1958 when it was published. So my volume is not quite a 1st Edition but it’s signature and location give it a very nice provenance and proximity to the author.DSCN5913

Another discovery had both local associations and relevance to the Sydney Harbour history I was writing at the time. That was Nancy Keesing’s Garden Island People in mint condition published by the Wentworth Press in 1975 but signed by the author and dedicated to Russel Ward in 1983.

That trawl also produced Laurence Le Guay’s Sydney Harbour, a photographic work from 1966 (the year I arrived in Sydney Harbour as a boy in a boat!) with a great preface by Kenneth Slessor.

Burnett’s has some gems but don’t go there expecting conversation. Despite my many purchases I rarely get a hello – it is at the ‘Black Books’ end of the spectrum for those familiar with that comedy series.DSCN5914 At the friendly end is Boobooks in Armidale itself. I visited their new premises the other week fired up with a need to find out more about local history because of a couple of drives through the surrounding grazing land that left me breathless with its beauty (see my previous blog-post).

It was a fruitful visit. Sitting on top of a new acquisitions table was RB Walker’s Old New England – a 1st Edition from 1966 by Sydney University Press in mint condition. And a great read.

Down in the local history section was another 1st Edition; this one EJ Banfield's Last Leaves from Dunk Island. There is very little literature about the Australian coast before the post-war period and the poetry of John Blight and a few others. Robert Drewe and Tim Winton were pioneers of a genre as late as the 1980s.

The temptation to get this volume because of my interest in the coast increased when I saw in a child's hand the dedication to 'Daddy' followed by the names Judith, Bruce and Peter. There, too, was the original Armidale bookseller's stamp.

DSCN5915

The Wrights were a prominent local family. A quick consultation of the online Australian Dictionary of Biography confirmed my hunch that this was Judith Wright's Christmas present to her father - probably chosen by her and on behalf of her younger brothers. The datDSCN5911e '1925' means the gift was likely prompted by the family's recent cruise north to SE Asia, taken as a last attempt to improve her mother's health. Ethel Wright died the following year and the young Judith was devastated. Last Leaves is double the treasure because of its provenance.

Share

I recently spent a few days up on and around the New England plateau in northern New South Wales. It is a region so-named when the first squatters moved in back in the 1830s because of its climate rather than any physical resemblance to an English landscape. The association has stuck and been amplified by architecture – the two central grand churches are Gothic and Norman and the area’s largest house Booloominbah (1888) is a tour-de-force of architectural Anglophilia, right down to the celebration of the life and death of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum, in a stained glass window. The old and more recent deciduous plantings in town and around outlying properties have added a natural association to Old England. The autumn colours were breathtakingly beautiful.

These reds and golds contrasted with the surrounding pastoral landscape and remnant forest which was a subdued grey green. And because New England is granite country the boulders which often lie strewn around the pastures emphasize that muted palette.

DSCN5767 2

I was struck by the effect that landscape had on me. The expanse of ground and concurrent vastness of the sky – filled with clouds that were punctured by occasional sun - was obviously dramatic. But there was a melancholy about the scenes which I had felt before but never quite so strongly. Aesthetic, rather than depressive melancholy, is prompted by contemplation. Its certainly not joyous but neither is it debilitating and corrosive. Indeed it can be seductive. The philosopher SØren Kierkegaard wrote of it as a ‘love’ - a mistress to which he kept returning. For my part I couldn’t help stopping to look and photograph what I saw in an attempt to capture the quality.

There must be some psychological basis for the connection between the emotion and aesthetic – hence the term ‘sombre’ colour I suppose.

But there is so much that is cultural – right down to the feeling of loneliness that an empty landscape can evoke. For me the cultural is always historical. Swirling around in my head when I looked around were imagined narratives of those who colonised the place – both squatter and shepherd - and those who were dispossessed. Beauty and wonderment was mixed up with sadness. There was also a wondering about a landscape transformed by clearing - though remarkably there is no consensus on what the original place was like. The explorer John Oxley likened it to parkland. Was this because of Aboriginal fire-stick farming or was it a natural open forest?

DSCN5774

Melancholy was a powerful theme for the writer Judith Wright whose roots were embedded in the area but who became aware that her connection to the place was still relatively recent and that her family story was one of wealth derived from dispossession and environmental transformation. She reprinted her poem ‘south of my days’ in her 1999 autobiography. The first verse is:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
Rises that tableland, high delicate outline
Of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
Low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite –
Clean, lean hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
Willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
Branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen,
And the old cottage lurches in for shelter…

My own family moved constantly after we arrived in Australia in 1966 so there are no roots – even recent – for me to agonise over here. But we did live for a while in a country town not too far from Armidale and Wright’s reference to an old cottage and green lichen recalls my own discoveries of empty houses and derelict orchards. Even as a boy the presence of abandonment evoked a strong melancholy - beauty and sadness merged. Its a response that goes back at least to Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem 'The Deserted Village'; though as a boy I was hardly aware of broader social forces that led to abandonment - central to Goldsmith's poem and no doubt underlying the places I came across. However that sense of a landscape disappearing and an economy shifting - constant centralisation and homogenisation - now adds to the historical basis of melancholy. Dispossession gives way to dispossession, disappearance to more disappearance.

Those feelings were reprised when I drove through Tyringham – a tiny place north 120 kms of Armidale named after another in Buckinghamshire but one I had always associated with poor timber mill families. Tyringham began as a series of slab huts one of which may still be there.

DSCN5662

I stopped to photograph that and was directed by a local to two graves a short distance away.

DSCN5669

Behind the grave site was a planked house on the verge of collapse, with a windmill nearby. It turns out that the headstones are those of John and Isabella Perrett who established the village and ran the local hotel and store from the mid-1800s. They died in the 1890s. A century later their plot is being overtaken by tobacco tree and ivy, and the place they created is melting away. More sadness and beauty.

Share