Recalling the view across St Mark’s Square
I’ve been reading Carrying off the palaces: John Ruskin’s lost Daguerreotypes, a book by Ken and Jenny Jacobson about Ruskin’s use of photography for observing and analysing the architecture of Venice.
The book reveals the deep scholarship the Jacobsons have applied to a box of 188 Daguerreotypes they bought at an auction sale in 2006. This box contained a significant set of photographs collected, commissioned or taken by John Ruskin in the 1840s and ’50s. I’m making slow and pleasant progress through the text, the photographs, and the copious footnotes.
Among his most important works is The Stones of Venice, an account of the city’s architecture published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853, and based on years of study in Venice. At first he relied on sketching and drawing to record his observations, but then he took up the new medium of photography. He wrote to his father in October 1845:
I have been lucky enough to get from a poor Frenchm[an] here, said to be in distress, some most beautiful, though small, Daguerreotypes of the palace I have been trying to draw—and certainly Daguerreotypes taken by this vivid sunlight are glorious things.
… I am very much delighted with these and am going to have some more made of pet bits. It is a noble invention, say what you will of it, and any one who has worked and blundered and stammered as I have for four days, and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain, done perfectly & faultlessly in half a minute, won’t abuse it afterwards.
The Daguerreotype process, announced in 1839, was the first practical method of producing photographs. A Daguerreotype was made on a silvered-copper plate that was made sensitive to light by iodine fumes. After it was exposed in a camara the plate was developed by mercury vapour. Each was unique, with an exquisitely detailed image visible in the light reflected on its polished surface.
At first Ruskin bought Daguerreotypes from dealers, or commissioned photographers to make them under his direction. Later he bought cameras and other equipment and made his own Daguerreotypes, with help from his valets who became skilled photographers.
Buying Daguerreotypes like these are well beyond my budget—Ken and Jenny Jacobson happily paid £75,000 for their box lot. Instead, I collect some of the cheaper photographic images that came later: cartes-de-visite in the nineteenth century and postcards in the twentiety. These ordinary tourist pictures remind me of places I have seen or want to see, and evoke the kind of travel-without-a-valet that is closer to my own experience than Ruskin’s grand tours.
The square in front of St Mark’s church—the Piazza San Marco—is the principal civic space in the city. It’s a wonderfully irregular series of spaces enclosed by an eclectic set of buildings. Ruskin studied the fabric of those buildings in great detail, both in the bricks-and-mortar and in his Daguerreotypes. On 28 May 1846, while he was in Padua, Ruskin wrote in his diary:
I think the campanile of St Mark’s is the most perfect instance of the power of proportion than can be given, for by this alone, and the right introduction of the little and grand ornament that it has, it entirely effaces all sense of its rude materials and ugly surface. The shell ornament at the top is perfectly right in its use, one of the few instances of its coming well; the loggia is delicious and yet all this would be quite vulgar without its great blank pyramidal top, and the whole vulgar if it were the least more slender than it is.
The campanile, built in 1514, fell down in 1902. Cracks were noticed in the masonry before the collapse, the square was evacuated, so nobody was hurt. The tower was reconstructed in the same form, and re-dedicated in 1912.
I was sixteen years old when I first went to Venice. In the spring of 1966 my father and I left my mother and sister in England while we made a sortie to the Continent. In Venice we stayed in a hostel on the island of Giudecca. We began each day with a bowl of milk coffee and a piece of bread eaten at a refectory table with a view across the shipping channel to the domes, towers and terracotta roofs of the city. We took a ferry to St Mark’s Square; from there we walked and walked along the paths and across the squares, lost our way, and found it again.
I did not get back to Venice until the autumn of 2010. This time I was with my partner Margie and our daughters Lucy and Sally. We stayed in an apartment in Castello and walked to the square most days. We explored the buildings that mark the edges of that remarkable civic space. One morning we ascended the campanile and looked down on the pattern of the city and, on the hour, were deafened by the bells. Then we went down into the square and found the place where I had been standing in 1966 and Lucy took a picture.
A good facsimile
People who look after historic places and collections are most attracted to the authentic, the real, the genuine. Facsimiles and reproductions, not so much.
But there are times when a facsimile can be a good thing—such as at the Old Museum in Brisbane, where visitors are now enjoying a new copy of an old picture.
The Old Museum was originally called the Exhibition Building, and it replaced an earlier exhibition building that was destroyed by fire in 1888.
The Queensland National Agricultural and Industrial Association (ancestor of the present RNA) held an architectural competition for the design of the new building. The winning architect was George Henry Male Addison, who used the pen name Rough Sketch (the competition rules required the entrants’ names to be kept secret until after the judging).
G H M Addison illustrated his design in a beautifully executed pen, ink and gouache drawing—in no way a rough sketch. I assume that this drawing, in its original oak frame, stayed in the architect’s possession and when he died in 1922 it passed to his son and practice partner George Frederick Addison, and when G F Addison died in 1955 it passed to his partner Herbert Stanley Macdonald. Stan Macdonald gave it to the Queensland Art Gallery in 1958. Since then it has been kept safe but mostly out of sight, except as an entry in the collection database.
As is usual in design competitions, the building was not built in accordance with the winning design. The brief was altered and the budget was cut back. Details of land tenure and finance had to be sorted out. Eventually in 1891 work began on a plainer brick building, designed by Addison, that included a large concert hall as well as the exhibition hall. Construction started around the same time as the deep depression of the 1890s hit—a depression that put the National Association into financial strife.
In 1899 the Queensland government rescued the National Association by taking over the building and adapting the exhibition hall wing to house the Queensland Museum. The concert hall was managed by the Brisbane City Council until the City Hall was finished in 1930; the concert hall was then used by the Queensland Art Gallery until 1970. The museum moved out in 1987. Since then the building has been home to the Queensland Youth Orchestra and other arts organisations.
The building has been, and still is, an important place for public gathering. Generations of Queenslanders have fond memories of visits there. This is the place where the observation of Anzac Day was first proposed, where Dame Nellie Melba gave a farewell concert, where Bert Hinkler’s Avro Avian and Pablo Picasso’s La Belle Hollandaise were displayed, where beautiful shows of flowers appeared each spring, and where musicians and their audiences still gather.
I recently arranged for a copy of G H M Addison’s Rough Sketch to be made and hung in the building, where it helps to interpret the story of this place. This was a small aspect of some excellent work done by the Queensland Department of Public Works to conserve the building.
The copy is a close match for the original, although the two will never be seen together. The success of this project brings credit to the people who helped to make it happen. At the Queensland Art Gallery Michael Hawker (Associate Curator) and Phil Lawless (Assistant Registrar) brought the picture out of storage and into the inspection room so that I could record the details of the frame, and Samantha Shellard (Conservator) removed it from the frame so that Natasha Harth (Photographer) could make a new digital image. The facsimile print was made by Martin Barry of Brisbane Digital Images, and placed in an accurate replica frame made by Graham Reynolds. Matt Artemieff from Building and Asset Services hung the picture in the exhibition hall entrance.
If you are in the neighbourhood I recommend a visit to see the finished work. The coffee is excellent too.
Brisbane City Botanic Gardens
Yesterday, at the annual general meeting of the Australian Garden History Society, Queensland, the guest speaker was Dale Arvidsson. Since March of this year he’s been the curator of both the Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha (opened in 1976) and the City Botanic Gardens (established as a botanic reserve in 1855).
This appointment, as curator of both gardens is a good thing. It hints at the possibility that the city gardens might recover some of their former botanical attributes. Since the new gardens were established at Mount Coot-tha the city gardens have became a general-purpose civic park—over-trampled and under-maintained.
Lighthouses in the spotlight
The ABC Radio National program Off Track is on my regular listening list. Each week Ann Jones interviews all sorts of ratbags and obsessives. She catches the intimate voice of her subjects, along with the sonic atmosphere of the places they inhabit, and assembles radio pieces that teleport the listener there. Magic.
To mark the centenary of the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service Ann Jones has made a program with a focus on the Queensland timber-framed, iron-clad towers that I am so fond of.
I got to be one of Ann’s subjects this time. I met her beside the Brisbane River at the Queensland Maritime Museum and we talked lighthouses. She wove our conversation in with the sounds of Double Island Point and the voices of Lyndon O’Grady, Jack Duvoisin, Col Gladstone, and Glenn Wiggin, and made a wonderful show, if I may say so.