Assuming the mantle

by Peter Timms

ON THE MORNING I visit Ancanthe, a billowing veil of rain is drifting off the mountain, reducing the trees to downy silhouettes. Then, just as I round the bend past the Pura Milk factory and start up the hill, the sun suddenly appears – that cold, hard sun so characteristic of late winter in Hobart – highlighting the honeyed hues of the little temple's sandstone pediment and throwing its sturdy Doric columns into sharp relief. It is a very surprising building, even when you've seen it many times before. There is something delightfully incongruous about it, perched presumptuously on its stone plinth against a backdrop of eucalypts and wattles, like an unweaned baby Parthenon abandoned by its mother but determined to put on a brave face.

I find it deserted, with only the carolling of magpies and the burbling of the New Town Rivulet to break the silence. Had I come at the weekend, during one of the Art Society of Tasmania's regular exhibitions, I'd have found the surrounding park abuzz with art-loving picnickers, bushwalkers heading for nearby tracks, and eager little terriers exercising their middle-aged owners.

Lady (Jane) Franklin (1791–1847), wife of the reforming Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, Sir John Franklin, purchased the land near Hobart Town in 1839 for a botanic garden of native Tasmanian plants. Ancanthe was built (using convict labour – something her critics never let her forget) as a museum of natural history.

To our way of thinking, a Grecian temple is hardly an appropriate setting for the study of native plants. Any architect given the commission today, secure in the knowledge that history has nothing to teach us, would opt for something distinctly Australian – corrugated iron, untreated timbers, large expanses of glass and so on – shunning any conscious reference to other countries or past eras.

Yet it was not laziness or lack of imagination that led Lady Franklin to choose a Classical model. Nor was it simply an arrogant imposition of British values on a foreign land. She knew what she was doing, and the symbolism would have been widely understood at the time.

Neo-Classical architecture is common enough in Australia, of course. Almost every city and major town can boast some Greek-style 'clip-on porches', as the architectural historian Clive Lucas calls them. It was once the favoured style for banks, art galleries, government buildings and private schools – wherever deference to power and authority was demanded. But a freestanding Greek temple amidst native trees, especially one that can only be described as cute: that was unusual.

 

JUST OVER FIFTY kilometres north of Hobart, in the rich, undulating pasturelands of the Coal River Valley, St Patrick's Church looks down over the tiny settlement of Colebrook. Although modest in size and plain to the point of frugality, St Patrick's is nonetheless beautifully proportioned, occupying its elevated, if somewhat isolated, hillside position with confidence. The historian Brian Andrews calls it 'a completely convincing, yet totally original, evocation of a small English medieval village church.'[i]

Consecrated in January 1857, St Patrick's was designed in England by Augustus Pugin (1812–1852), a radical young firebrand who, although he never visited Van Diemen's Land, formed an attachment to the little colony through his close friendship with the first Catholic Bishop of Hobart Town, Robert Willson (1794–1866).

Sadly, Jerusalem, as Colebrook was once quaintly called, failed to prosper as expected. These days, although undergoing restoration, St Patrick's is rarely used. Services, according to the notice board out front, are 'occasional' and the angelus is rung at the behest of an automatic timing device. As I stand in the denuded churchyard gazing up at the quatrefoil clerestory windows (unusual in a church of this size), a man cruises past to make sure I am not about to throw a rock through them: a parked car outside the church on a Sunday morning raises suspicion. Colebrook's popular gathering spot these days is the Hacienda, a blocky, burnt-orange service station, post office and café further down the hill on the main street, which boasts of 'great coffee, cute staff' (I decide not to check it out, for fear of disappointment).

Unlike the Hacienda, which sticks out like a sore thumb – and unlike Ancanthe, for that matter – St Patrick's looks perfectly at home in its semi-rural setting. There is something about a Gothic-style stone church that 'fits' the rural landscape, in a way that a mock-Grecian temple never can: something comfortingly Trollope or Hardy, or even Miss Marple. Pointed arches, pitched roofs and dreaming spires are the stuff of romance and nostalgia. Doric columns and stone pediments, arranged in strict symmetry, while they may impress, are not so likely to win hearts.

 

THAT 'GOTHIC' IS associated with religious ceremony and 'Neo-Classical' with more worldly, urban functions is something we now take almost entirely for granted. Even quite recent buildings pay homage to the tradition: the National Library in Canberra, for instance, is a modified Greek temple, while churches are still being designed as quasi-Gothic hybrids.

Surprisingly, however, the distinction is a fairly recent one: arising out of a furious 'battle of the styles', which galvanised educated English society in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the Gothic corner, the intense (even slightly mad) young Augustus Pugin: in the rational and worldly Neo-Classical corner, a true heavyweight named Decimus Burton (1800–1881): a wealthy establishment architect with a number of important commissions to his credit.

For Pugin, Gothic architecture was Christian and good, with its roots firmly in English soil, while the 'Greek' was pagan, foreign and sinful. He was a man of strong opinions. Accordingly, he provoked strong reactions. Burton, along with a sizeable portion of educated Britons, dismissed the Gothic as barbarian, lauding Classical styles as the very embodiment of civilisation. Hadn't the Greeks and Romans bequeathed to us almost all our intellectual heritage?

The fight came to a head in 1835 with the inauguration of a competition for the new Houses of Parliament. This was the building from which the mighty British Empire would be ruled: without doubt the most important building in the world. It was any architect's dream commission. Supporters lined up on both sides. Those in the Gothic corner pointed to recent 'disasters' such as Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery, which demonstrated all that was tired, confused and pompous about the Classical style. Burton's high-powered champions, on the other hand, expressed horror that British might and authority should be 'doomed to crouch and wither in the groinings, vaultings, tracery, pointed roof, and flying buttresses of a Gothic building...'[ii]

As we now know, the gothicists won, but only after an extraordinarily bitter tussle. A young architect named Charles Barry landed the commission, with Pugin (who, as a Catholic, had been ineligible to apply) as éminence grise. London's Houses of Parliament have become so familiar – so 'iconic' – that it is impossible for us to understand just how radical, and how deeply offensive, they were to so many at the time.

Today, this dispute may seem arcane and even a little silly. We no longer think of architectural styles as embodying cultural or moral values. The Modernists' arid insistence that 'form follows function' reduced architectural decoration to something meaningless and unnecessary: mere frippery. As a result, an age-old visual language has been almost entirely lost, replaced by the superficial 'referencing' of the post-modernists.[iii] (For example, Neo-Classical stone buildings often feature 'vermiculated' stonework on door-jambs and window frames, comprising random-looking wiggle patterns carved into the surface. 'Vermiculated' means 'worm eaten': a wry reminder that death lurks, and that even mankind's most impressive achievements will eventually succumb. These buildings anticipate their own decay.)

 

IN MARCH 1843, when Lady Franklin stood on the steps of her newly completed Ancanthe, proudly declaring her Museum of Natural History open, this ongoing controversy would doubtless have been fresh in her mind. She was, after all, a woman of considerable learning, with a keen interest in social and political affairs. Her Grecian temple signalled that as the healthy young growing tips of the new colony strived towards a new dawn, its roots would remain firmly established in nourishing Enlightenment soil. In this light, Ancanthe might be understood as a massive vote of confidence in the future of the fledgling colony. 'By invoking the mythical authority of Latin history,' writes the historian Robert Dixon, 'it was possible to trace the movement of civilisation from ancient Greece to Augustan Rome to Georgian England...or to predict its imminent departure for the new world.'[iv] Tasmania, in other words, was ideally situated to assume the mantle of rational European civilisation, renewing and revitalising it in the wake of Europe's inevitable decline. Fanciful? Even dangerous? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is a notion that, in one form or another, has gripped the imaginations of educated Tasmanians ever since.

Lady Franklin might also have been aware on that day that Bishop Willson was in London preparing to set sail for Hobart (he would eventually do so in February 1844 – things moved slowly in those days) and that Pugin was designing for him metalwork, vestments, furniture, 'and a range of objects to meet all the needs of priests labouring in the far-flung and often remote missions across the island'.[v] It is unlikely that she would have approved.

But then a lot of people disapproved of her in turn. Poor Ancanthe was much derided. Of course, the Franklins had their supporters – enough to fund a memorial statue after their departure – but, as always, the whines of the philistines were shrillest. Their mockery and derision has echoed down through history. Ancanthe seemed to symbolise all that was deluded about the Franklins' civilising vision. They were supposed to be administering a military outpost at the furthest reaches of the world, over a third of whose population laboured in captivity. The economy was in a bad way and politics dangerously factionalised. Yet here they were setting up primary schools, a Royal Society for the advancement of science, an institution for the reform of female prisoners and an Anglican state college. With their 'half-baked ideology' (according to one recent historian), the Franklins were behaving 'as high-minded lord and lady of a reforming manor.'[vi] What on earth were they thinking?

Well, although they would doubtless have scorned the comparison, what they were thinking was not so different to what Pugin was thinking: that Van Diemen's Land was their perfect laboratory, a made-to-measure testing ground for their ideals. The little colony had to be rescued and led into the light. For the Franklins it was the light of Pure Reason. For Pugin, it was the light of the True Church. He saw 'an opportunity...to create a Gothic paradise in a pristine land in concert with another soul [that is Willson] whose views exactly corresponded with his own; a place where no pagan intrusions would be countenanced.'[vii]

 

FAST FORWARD NEARLY a century and a half to the early 1980s. The campaign to save the Franklin is gathering force. Bob Brown, a young doctor from Launceston, has given up his job and moved to Hobart to organise growing protests against a proposed hydroelectric dam which will flood this remote southwestern river. But the campaign needs a focus, an image that will galvanise public opinion, especially on mainland Australia, where support is crucial if the federal government is to be drawn into the fight. Brown meets with wilderness photographer Peter Dombrovskis in the hope of finding it. As they sift slowly through the hundreds of photographs Dombrovskis has taken during some twenty years of trekking the Tasmanian wilderness, one, in particular, stands out. Both agree immediately that Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, taken in 1979, is the icon they have been seeking. They have chosen well. Soon, reproductions of it will be pinned to toilet doors and taped to refrigerators across the nation. In 1983 it will help Bob Hawke to victory in the federal election and play a part in saving the Franklin.

Rock Island Bend is certainly evocative, brilliantly conveying both the rugged harshness of the wilderness and its seductive beauty. The turbulent waters spiral towards us, tightly constrained by two high, rocky escarpments hung with trees. In the foreground, a stony promontory extends along the bottom edge of the picture, providing a visual foil to the water's surge: giving us somewhere to stand, as it were. Just to the right of centre in the middle distance, an island of jagged rock emerges through soft, bluish haze. Everything directs our gaze up the serpentine curve of the river to this island, then beyond to a glimpse of bright open space in the distance.

How much less compelling this photograph would be if we were looking downstream with the water's energy draining away from us, if the riverbanks sloped gently making the view less dramatically constricted, or if the water rushed headlong towards us instead of snaking seductively around the island. Rock Island Bend is a masterful arrangement of elements: so satisfying, so exactly right.

But what makes it so?

Simply that this is a composition we have seen so often before that it has become integral to our way of seeing the natural world. Which is why it seized the public's imagination: like Lady Franklin's Ancanthe and Pugin's Gothic church, it tapped into an archetype, connecting something specific in the present to a much older mental image lodged in the collective unconscious. 'The picturesque', as it is known to art historians, originated in the eighteenth century as a way of reconciling two fundamental impulses identified by the philosopher Edmund Burke: the sublime (terror, obscurity, vastness, magnificence and suddenness) and the beautiful (smallness, smoothness, gradual variation and delicacy).[viii] In practice, the picturesque is a way of looking at nature with the eye of a painter, organising it into foreground, middle-distance and background, with a winding pathway or stream between darkened side-screens leading the eye into the scene from the specific to the universal, from darkness to light, from the familiar to the unknown.

In short, Rock Island Bend, in common with much wilderness photography, is an image of transcendence. While the environmental movement cannot call upon the symbolic language of architecture in which to ground its vision, it can tap into the symbolic language of painting to add a depth and complexity that can be sensed even when the allusions are not fully understood.

In the end, Pugin's Gothic paradise would find its realisation not in pointed arches, bell-towers and the trappings of the Catholic liturgy, but amidst the forested hills and gullies of 'nature's cathedral'. Is it mischievous to make such a comparison? Pugin would certainly not have been amused. He would have detected in the unfocused Transcendentalism of the environmentalists, with their frequent evocation of the 'spiritual', a worrying whiff of the pagans. (It would be nice to think that he knew of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay, Nature, published in 1836, from which the founding philosophies of the green movement spring, but I know of no evidence that he did.)[ix]

 

IN A RECENT book about Hobart, I called Tasmanians 'a particularly mythopoeic people', which some have apparently interpreted as a slight. On the contrary, it is a way of saying that they are a particularly idealistic people, since cultural ideals, if they are to mean anything, must be rooted in cultural myth, informed by the imaginative intellect of the artist. This is what distinguishes the visions of Lady Franklin, Augustus Pugin and the environmentalists from the practical schemes of politicians and social planners.

People in Tasmania (at least those able to occasionally lift their thoughts above work, entertainment and shopping) talk a lot about what they think their home state should become. They are very proprietorial and very focused on possibilities. If pressed, most would say they want it to become an example to the rest of the world, although what that actually means will depend on who you ask. While few these days would advocate a Gothic paradise (at least in the form Pugin intended), the Franklins' dream of an Enlightenment state is still very much alive, as is the Greens' natural paradise. To these have lately been added the Romantic ideal of Tasmania as the antipodean Parnassas, where the arts and the imagination reign, and the Epicurean garden of organic gourmet delights. There are, too, those who advocate a quasi-medieval Arts and Crafts model of small-scale, artisan production in defiance of the multinational juggernaut.

Essentially, all these ideals are oppositional, pitting themselves against the norm to boldly advocate a better way of living. All yearn for the good life, in the sense of being both virtuous and pleasurable. They are about fairness, freedom from drudgery, the exercise of the imagination and the realisation of individual potential. Although easily dismissed as elitist and unrealistic, they in fact strive for the restoration of what used to be called the 'common weal' and for equality of opportunity. Importantly, they extol the virtues of E L Schumacher's 'small is beautiful' philosophy, as opposed to 'bigger is better'.

The language people use to express these ideals is, as often as not, the language of economics, since that, today, is the lingua franca and there's no escaping it. For example, the Museum of Old and New Art is hailed as Tasmania's biggest tourist drawcard, as if its financial contribution were all that mattered. Even proponents of gay marriage have played up the supposed economic benefits. But this is a mere distraction: a crude, if necessary, attempt to win the favour of those practical minds that deal with the legislative niceties.

Fortunately, there remain those with higher aspirations, who still believe that Tasmania is ideally situated to assume the mantle of civilisation, renewing and revitalising it in the wake of the Western world's perceived decline, although if they want to be taken seriously they will probably not express it in quite these terms. Tasmania, by their reckoning, is a beacon of hope for a world gone badly wrong. (If this occasionally gets too high-minded, they can always let their hair down in Melbourne or Sydney over the weekend.) Such people are Lady Franklin's heirs and successors, and they make living in Tasmania a stimulating experience.

This is not, of course, to claim that 'practical dreamers' cannot be found elsewhere, only that this little island provides them with an especially sympathetic environment.

Oddly enough, I think it has a lot to do with insularity, in both meanings of the word. Tasmania is compact and manageable enough to serve as a cultural laboratory – to be Australia's off-Broadway, as it were. Big ideas can flourish in small places, where people have the confidence to instigate change free from the weight of a remote and implacable political machine. Small-town politics, so often hidebound and frustrating, does at least have the advantage of not needing to be taken too seriously. And, if things don't work out quite as hoped, then never mind, it was worth a try and not too much will have been lost.

Compactness also tends to throw people together, which generates conversations, especially across disciplines, something the Franklins, aware that they had a very small pool to draw from, did much to encourage. Biologists, lawyers, novelists, historians, sociologists, doctors and all manner of interested non-specialists are constantly rubbing against one another – intellectually speaking, of course – and the sparks they generate can burn through established patterns of thinking.

A keen (and sometimes, it has to be said, exaggerated) sense of being apart – from the rest of Australia and from the world at large – also gives Tasmanians a measure of clear-sightedness and objectivity. Here, thanks largely to new technologies, one can be informed without necessarily being entangled, which is a very good situation to be in if you want to appreciate the bigger picture.

Even the climate, the topography and the ubiquitous evidence of a dark past play their part. What could be better for concentrating the mind than sequestering yourself in a Georgian stone cottage beneath a snowcapped mountain as rain beats against the glass? Lying on a beach under a palm tree is all very nice but it doesn't get anything done.

It was, of course, a little different for the Franklins and Bishop Willson. To them, Tasmania was at such a low ebb that the only way was up. They confidently imagined they were starting with a clean slate, and they lived at a time when progress was an incontrovertible good. Things are not quite so simple today. Still, something of this perception lingers. This remains a relatively poor state, still socially under-developed and a bit rough around the edges, the runt of the Commonwealth's litter. In short, it is still in need of rescuing. Which makes it fertile ground. Ultimately, it is the very fact that Tasmania can be dismissed as a 'basket case' (that regrettable expression) that makes it so attractive to the reformer, the idealist and the visionary.

If Tasmania is indeed at a 'tipping point', then it is as well to have a clear notion of what it is tipping from and into, one that goes beyond mere economic or political imperatives. As the late Tony Judt warned, 'All political arguments need to begin with an appreciation of our relationship not only to dreams of future betterment, but also to past achievements: our own and those of our predecessors...[W]e have been in thrall to the 19th century Romantics, in too much of a hurry to put the old world behind us and offer a radical critique of everything existing. Such a critique may be the necessary condition of serious change, but it can lead us dangerously astray.

'For in reality, we only build on what we have. We are, as those Romantics well knew, rooted in history.'[x]

 


References

[i]
Brian Andrews, 'St Patrick's Church, Colebrook, Tasmania', website of the Pugin Foundation: www.puginfoundation.org/assets/Colebrook_essay.pdf

[ii] Anonymous pamphlet of 1835, quoted in Guy Williams, Augustus Pugin versus Decimus Burton, London, Cassell, 1990, p. 69.

[iii] For example, Neo-Classical stone buildings often feature 'vermiculated' stonework on door-jambs and window frames, comprising random-looking wiggle patterns carved into the surface. 'Vermiculated' means 'worm eaten': a wry reminder that death lurks, and that even mankind's most impressive achievements will eventually succumb. These buildings anticipate their own decay.

[iv] Robert Dixon, The Course of Empire, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 2.

[v] Brian Andrews, Creating a Gothic Paradise: Pugin at the Antipodes, Hobart, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2002, p. 55.

[vi] Lloyd Robson, A Short History of Tasmania, (updated by Michael Roe), Melbourne, Oxford, 1997, p. 20.

[vii] Brian Andrews, Creating a Gothic Paradise, op.cit. p. 54

[viii] See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in 1757, reprinted 1998 by Oxford University Press.

[ix] A Google search will take you to it.

[x] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, London, Penguin, 2010, p. 233

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.