Melbourne in Art: Charles Conder
Russell Degnan

Spring St. Melbourne

One of the many things I like about the National Gallery (of Victoria: for you federalists) are the many paintings (and photographs) of Melbourne, and other Australian cities from earlier times. Others may like the Nolans and the visitors flock around The Pioneer or Shearing the Rams; but I spend the most time looking at the cityscapes, to see how things were.

So, in what will (I hope) be a series, I'm going to scour the Australian collection and compare them to what exists today.

The first selection is Charles Conder, for reasons I'll get shortly. He was born in England and was in Australia only six years, but, like so many artists of all types who would follow, we claim him as our own. He had travelled to Australia at 15 (in 1884) to train as a surveyor. By 1886 he had quit to paint, and soon studied and worked with some of Australia's best contemporary artists, such as Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin.

The ulterior motive behind my choosing him first is the exhibition currently being held at the gallery. It closes November 9th, and I highly recommend it while you have the chance. (Also see the other exhibit Second Sight until the 16th, which is also excellent). Conder's art is amazingly lively, full of colour, and humour, and seems to emphasise the human element where his contemporaries were often more interested in the landscape itself. His work in Melbourne (from 1888 till 1890) was in some ways his best. On returning to Paris, and then England, he seems hampered by trends, and forced into trying styles that don't suit him. But you can judge that for yourself.

Spring Street, Melbourne was painted around 1890, and isn't in the aforementioned exhibition - actually, I am not sure I have ever seen it. It has been painted from in front of Old Treasury, on the corner of MacArthur St. and Spring St. looking north up Spring St. I suspect - having the two pictures side by side - that Conder was painting from the top of the steps, rather than the street corner, but they are close enough. The photo on the right was taken on Cup Day. It should, in theory, be at approximately the same time, to get the same shadow across the road, but, one of the ugliest buildings in Melbourne has been built in the way for that. And yes, it is from the 1960s.

This area of town went through some radical changes in the decade before the painting was done. On the left, out of shot, is the "Parisian end" of Collins St. On page 84 and 85 of Melbourne: the city's history and development, you can see them clearly. Several new buildings have been constructed, and the elm trees that still exist today have been planted. In the painting, but not the photo, you can see them along Spring St. as well, on the left. In the photo you can see the remnants of another change from Melbourne's boom. Down the middle of Collins St. and running across Spring St. and along MacArthur St. are the tram tracks. These existed in 1888 although, unlike today, they were cable and not electric. Conder has either neglected to put them in, or they have faded over time. I can't tell from either the black and white photo, or the painting if the streets were paved (asphalted) at the time - it certainly wasnt of today's standard - but the gutters and footpaths had been put in before 1880. One final change at the street level. White and Yellow Lines.

But enough of Collins St. The small park you can see is the Gordon reserve, and the statue in the centre of both pictures is of General Gordon. It was put there on 26th June 1889, which provides a reasonable clue as to the painting's date. The landscaping of the reserve has changed considerably: whereas in 1890 flowers predominated, it is now all grass, with the two statues (the other is of poet Adam Lindsay Gordon), and a fountain. The fountain dates from earlier than 1890, but may have moved; the flowers are certainly no more, and what appears to be a hedge is now an entrance to Parliament Station (or a ladies toilet). The biggest change though, are the trees, the large green (native?) has been removed, and several large palm trees dot the reserve. They also provide very little shade.

Behind the reserve lies Parliament, which hasn't changed substantially (although it may not have been completely finished then). The trees surrounding it are a little bigger perhaps. But there are two more substantial differences behind that. In the photo, you can see the ICI/Orica building, I think, Melbourne's first modern glass-fronted office building. In the painting, and again across the street: a water- tower. In a city with no running water, these were essential. And, I am guessing, so ubiquitous as to go almost unnoticed.

The last, and probably biggest, changes can be seen on the western side of Spring St. The Windsor Hotel - formerly the Grand Hotel - (visible in the photo) was built in 1883, and must be slightly out of frame in the painting. The other buildings on the left in the painting are not recognisable as anything (one should be the Imperial Hotel - 1856), however, the distinctive widow's walk atop the Princess Theatre (1886) is very noticeable. By contrast, in the photo the red building obscures the theatre, and the most prominent building by far, is Casselden Place, former site of brothels and now the Federal Government offices.

Overall, the changes are actually quite few. Both sides of Spring St. from Little Collins to Little Bourke are almost unchanged. And the most prominent, and attractive of the landmarks remain (albeit obscured). There are even, blessedly, few cars in the area, which does hark back the 113 years since Charles Conder sat and painted there. Few streets in Melbourne can say that.

UPDATE: After a week of looking at a not-quite-right cropping I decided to change it. The major change is that the Windsor Hotel is not visible in either picture. The 'artistic' effects put on the statue are more visible too, the plinth and the statue seem slightly broader, and taller, giving it emphasis in the painting.

Melbourne Town 7th November, 2003 00:40:05   [#]