State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


Paul Fox
Stretching the Australian Imagination:
Melbourne as a Conservative City

Melbourne Is a city where you can literally turn a corner and see a replica of the dome of a Florentine Cathedral in a nineteenth-century exhibition building or cross the street and find Harley Chambers and a couturier named Le Louvre. Here names recollect distant European places: Harley Street, London, where British medical specialists are found in force; and a great Parisian picture gallery. In this way London faces Paris across Collins Street and you forever travel to overseas destinations while walking the city's pavements.
And what purpose does this claiming of the colonial terrain serve? Drawing on overseas examples of European high culture allows the conservative Melbourne imagination to define the self, claim the nation and occupy the world. Thus Melbourne allays national anxieties about the failure of European civilisation in the antipodes and assigns itself the role of cultural capital of the nation. This is what sets Melbourne's conservative imagination apart from the rootless nomadic existence of the bush itinerant of the Australian radical tradition.
* * *
European cultural artefacts have always been important to Melbourne's sense of identity. Consider the British Architectural Photographic Association's photographs that arrived in the Melbourne Public Library during 1861. To the conservative Melbourne newspaper, the Argus, the acquisition of these images raised questions about the future of European culture in the colony. As it reminded its readers — who had migrated to the colony during the 1850s gold rush — the native-born would suffer cultural amnesia if Melbourne didn't imagine itself in terms of European arts. Indeed, it was difficult to imagine ‘the disadvantages under which the rising generation will labour in respect to the familiarity with objects worthy of admiration in architecture, painting, statuary, and other branches of art’.1
In Melbourne architecture played an important role in creating images of a European world. One such building was Joseph Reed's 1880 Exhibition Building whose dome conjured up Florence's Il Duomo. As a colonial architect Reed understood the concerns of the Argus about the need to acquaint ‘the rising generation’ with examples of European culture. After all, he too had been to the Melbourne Public Library and consulted the Architectural Photographic Association's photographs that included views of Florence. He therefore designed the Exhibition building so that everywhere the Victorian colonists looked they were reminded of the sights he had seen on his 1860s grand tour. Even the tapis vert leading to the entrance was modelled on the one found in Louis XIV's grand palace of Versailles. To the Argus the sheer scale of the building would allow untravelled, young colonists to be

Fratelli Alinari and Carlo Ponti, photographers. View of the Duomo, Florence. [1857–1860]. Albumen silver photograph. H87.73/2. La Trobe Picture Collection.

introduced to the sights of Europe without having to leave Victoria's shores.2
This conscious modelling of buildings in terms of European examples — encountered through travel or photographs — points to one means of allaying the fear that European civilisation would diminish the longer European immigrants stayed in the antipodes. Yet experiences in other parts of the Empire were just as likely to inform the colonial vision. This should not surprise as the United Kingdom, composed as it was of a number of distinct races, was a microcosm of the larger nineteenth-century Empire.
Consider the early colonist, Sir Redmond Barry, who championed European civilisation in the antipodes through his unswerving support of the Melbourne Public Library and its Art Gallery. In 1862 he took himself on a grand tour to collect books for the Library and see the sights of Europe. Striking the pose of a ‘supplicant mendicant’, this Justice of the Supreme Court begged donations of 7,000 books in Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Munich, Switzerland, Cologne, and England and Ireland. In all, a twenty-five percent increase in the Library's holdings.3

John T. Collins, photographer. Carlton, Exhibition Building, Rathdowne St. [1963–1969]. Gelatin silver photograph. H94.200/12. La Trobe Picture Collection.


S.T. Gill, artist. Doing the Block. 1880. Pencil and Chinese white on buff paper. H332. La Trobe Picture Collection.

While Barry was triumphant in advancing European civilisation in the colony, during his travels this Irish Protestant gentleman became increasingly conscious of how he was not English. This became apparent when he returned to his birthplace. Visiting Ireland, he slid effortlessly from grand London dinners with the likes of the President of the Royal Geographical Society into the pastimes of his social class, including attending ‘break-neck steeple chases and fox hunting in Limerick’. In Ireland he confessed he was glad to have left England behind.4
Sir Redmond's reliance on Ireland to picture the world came to the fore when on his return voyage to Australia he visited Rome. Here he conjured images of Irish hedge-row schools and the wail of the banshee to explain the foreignness of Catholic Rome. Perhaps this is what one might expect of an Anglo-Irish colonist in Rome, but it should be remembered that Barry was no bigot. His recourse to Irish metaphors to understand his whereabouts reveals the role of Irish memories in the psyche of a caste that provided soldiers and administrators for the ever-expanding British Empire.5 Sir Redmond's Roman experiences suggest how members of British settler societies collage the world together in a
very different way to those dwelling in the metropolitan heartland. Rather than being nostalgic for home, the whole of Empire is their point of reference. This leads to a vision that is informed as much by provincial experiences as it is by metropolitan tastes.
Consequently, Victorian colonists — whether they were long-term residents of the colony or the native-born — made sense of their travels by recourse to their colonial experiences. Among these was Thomas Shaw, a pragmatic and successful pastoralist of nearly forty years' experience in the Western District of Victoria. In the early 1880s during his travels abroad, Shaw continually drew on his Australian experiences. In Italy he likened the lava flows of Mt Versuvius to the Western District's volcanic stony rises, while he thought Foggia in appearance, climate and manner of life was Australian. Indeed, on his travels he read the illustrated colonial newspapers while looking at the Swiss Alps.6
While the Argus of 1861 saw colonial culture in terms of European absences and feared for the native-born, by the 1880s Lady Loch, the consort of the Victorian Governor (1884 to 1889), was challenging this view. Writing to her English relatives, she warned against forming erroneous impressions of the likes of Alfred Deakin, the Melbourne-born politician (and future Australian Prime Minister). If they were to meet him in London during the 1887 Imperial Conference, she cautioned about judging him to be ‘vulgar and like an American’. Rather, Mr Deakin having ‘read a great deal’ was ‘not at all vulgar in mind’; indeed, he appeared ‘to know about everything’.7
Yet books were only one way by which Deakin understood the world; he also saw it through the lens of the Empire. In his travels, colonial landscapes overlapped with one another. For instance, on a visit to India in 1890–91, the hill station of Darjeeling, reminded him of Mount Macedon, the Victorian hill station where the Lochs built the Governor's summer residence in 1886.8
Deakin was not alone in relating Australia to other parts of the Empire. The work of the Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, William Guilfoyle, essays how Australians consciously created a landscape that drew on imperial experiences as much as they did on European examples. From 1872 to 1908, Guilfoyle re-created the Melbourne Gardens by drawing inspiration from his colonial experiences in the Pacific, the Sydney Botanical Gardens, Northern New South Wales and the fern gullies of Victoria. This was a perfectly natural response for a gardener who had left England at the age of nine and only returned there in 1890 at the age of fifty.9
* * *
In the Empire the Governor also played a significant role in acculturating Australians to English ways. In the early Commonwealth period, colonial Governors and their consorts — drawn from the English landed classes — were responsible for introducing Melbourne's middle classes to the ways of the English country house. Sir Reginald Talbot, the Governor of Victoria between 1904–08, took this responsibility seriously. When on furlough in England during 1907, he made the time to invite Frank Tate of the State Education

The Block [ca. 1908]. Postcard. H96.200/538. Shirley Jones collection of Victorian postcards. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Department for a weekend at his country house. This gave a first-time visitor to England some understanding of the way of life of the British upper classes.
Yet even in this quintessential English world, Tate still found himself remembering Australia. Entering the ‘green dimness’ of a ‘wild tangle’ of thick trees, smelling ‘the moist rich smell of rotting twigs’, Tate ‘easily believed’ he could have been in ‘the heart of Gippsland save for ferns and gums’. In this the ‘scene was reminiscent of home’, and it was only the appearance of gorgeous pheasants, moles, a hedgehog, and unfamiliar ducks and geese that reminded him that he was, indeed, in an English parkland. Tate was reading England, as Deakin had read India, as being reminiscent of Australia.10
Tate's arrival as an awkward colonial unversed in the ways of the country house and his departure as an advocate of British county values might be seen as the proof of an Australian nostalgia for England. Yet this discounts the way members of British settler societies took examples from both centre and colonial peripheries and re-assembled them in new and distinctive ways. As a result settler societies were often robust inventive acts of imagination rather than pale English copies.
The Australian conservative imagination consequently used English models for its
own purposes. In Melbourne the appreciation of the country houses of England signalled how after Federation the Victorian squattocracy and the Melbourne middle class, to assume ‘an upper class ease’, embraced English models and precedents.11
Again, vice–regal circles were to the fore in this endeavour. The idea of an unchanging England where respect for tradition was a national virtue drew the chatelaine of Government House, Lady Denman, to organise an exhibition of antique furniture in the Government House ballroom just months before War was declared in 1914. As might be expected, Lady Denman had no doubt as to what constituted ‘good taste’. She steadfastly believed that the ‘originality and real beauty in English furniture’ ceased at ‘the close of the eighteenth century’. While she was willing to concede that furniture made after 1820 remained ‘technically excellent’, nothing would make her change her mind that in the nineteenth century ‘beautiful invention in domestic objects decayed and died’.
These remarks from someone ensconced in a Government House built in 1872 might be deemed tactless. Yet even the wife of a Governor-General might be occasionally forgiven for voicing her distress at living in a house that was not to her taste. And so she wrote in the exhibition catalogue — in a thinly veiled reference to her Victorian abode — how ‘architecture after 1820 was, for the first time in England, utterly ugly and uninteresting, and the furniture became as heavy as its surroundings’.
Lady Denman did her best, however, to make an elegant home in the Melbourne Domain. As Lord Denman explained, his wife was constantly adding to her collection. Although not a collector himself, he was astounded at how from their eyrie in the Domain, Lady Denman would hear how ‘a rug from a deposed Sultan's harem’ was for sale, or a Bohemian nobleman was travelling with a collection of ‘priceless Sevres china’. While not every thing that was offered was ‘genuine’ — the genteel vice–regal vocabulary did not include the word ‘fake’ — according to his Lordship, there was ‘a great deal of rejoicing’ in the vice–regal household when an item proved to be ‘a treasure’. Little wonder, then, that Lady Denman drew heavily on the four volumes of Percy Macquoid's History of English Furniture to verify if the exhibits were genuine. As the Governor-General of Australia tactfully put it: the exhibition put paid to those who believed ‘in Melbourne we are surrounded by ugly objects’. His wife couldn't afford to be publicly duped. Imagine the gossip.12
Among the contributors to Lady Denman's exhibition were Mrs Emmerton and her daughter, Mabel Brookes. One of the pieces lent to the exhibition by Mrs Emmerton was an Empire cabinet that had once belonged to the parents of the Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Teck. In Melbourne owning an antique allowed the colonial upper middle class to share the taste of European aristocrats.13
This lesson was not lost on Mabel who, on visiting the Hillyards at Thorpe Satchville, Leicestershire, in 1914 found, in a dining room ‘just large enough to take themselves, their guests, and the beagles’, that ‘the Chippendale chairs were authentic’. Thorpe Satchville was not the only country house Mabel visited after her husband won the Wimbledon tennis
championship in 1914. She also was a guest of the great British aristocratic family, the Marlboroughs of Blenheim.14

Government House, Melbourne [ca. 1906]. Postcard. H96.200/507. Shirley Jones collection of Victorian postcards. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Mabel used her English experiences to good effect in her 1917 wartime novel, On the Knees of the Gods. Much of the story takes place in the country house, Ashdown House. Unlike Frank Tate, country house living does not faze the heroine. As a colonial abroad, she is at pains to show how she too is a connoisseur who, like her hosts, has an appreciation of objects and furniture belonging to the pre-Victorian age. Her recognition of furniture by the eighteenth-century English designers Chippendale and Sheraton, porcelain and oriental rugs reveals Mabel Brookes to be ‘no mean judge of the merits and authenticity of antique pieces’. Indeed, the Chippendale furniture is pronounced to be ‘probably unequalled anywhere’. Moreover, Mabel is careful to dissociate herself from the ‘examples of early Victorian art’ so abhorred by Lady Denham, and praise ‘the odds and ends, cabinets, desks and bureaus, beloved by the connoisseur’. Although ‘much could be said’ about the pictures adorning the walls, Mabel is content to detail Lord Ashdown's hobby of collecting water colours, and how ‘a Turner held the place of honour, elusive vivid as young girl's beauty’, while close by were examples of most of the great modern artists. In time Mabel Brookes would claim to own two Turners.15
* * *
If the interiors of Melbourne's upper middle class now began to be imagined in terms of the English country house, Collins Street in the city served similar imaginative purposes. Consider Brice Bunny Mackinnon, the son of an Australian wool baron who became a lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the British Royal Highlanders (the Black Watch). Like Frank Tate, Mackinnon was able to find Australia in the most unlikely overseas places. During the Great War of 1914–18, he could be found in Macedonia picking flowers — ‘a
glorious clump of daffodils and blue hyacinths’ — for the officers' mess. The flower-filled mess reminded him of Webbs, the fashionable florist in Collins Street.16
After the war Collins Street continued to represent upper middle class aspirations as to what Melbourne should be. In 1921 its citizens gathered at the intersection of Collins and Swanston streets, where the Town Hall clock marked the passage of time. It was the fifth anniversary of the termination of the fight by the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Australian divisions for Mont St Quentin and Peronne in western France. The occasion was a fete. Yet instead of gay bunting, charred timbers from the recent fire at Buckley and Nunn were used to replicate French homes on the western front. For a moment the most fashionable promenade in the city was turned into war-torn Europe. With 1,200 people in Villers Bretonnneux still without a permanent home,17 what better way then to raise awareness of their plight than have the stalls represent the homes of the citizens of a French town?
Although the Lord Mayor of Melbourne pointed to the precedent of British cities adopting French towns, to Australians Villers Bretonnneux had a special significance. In August 1918 Australian forces had captured the town from the Germans and from there the Allies had launched a counter-offensive that had been ‘the beginning of the end of the war’. As the Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police, Major-General Sir John Gellibrand, explained: ‘every Australian division had taken part in the fighting at Villers Bretonneux’. The former commander of the AIF, Lieutenant-General Monash, agreed. So too did Senator Elliot, the former commander of the 15th Brigade who had taken part in the recapture of the town. He believed the adoption of Villers Bretonneux by Melbourne was a more realistic means of safeguarding the peace than the League of Nations, which was not in ‘a practicable position’ to prevent war'. Consequently, there was ‘a strong feeling among the troops in favour of the township by Melbourne’.18
By 1923 the committee, formed to raise funds to save Villers Bretonneux from the aftermath of the peace, had raised nearly 18,000 pounds. The State Schools' Patriotic Fund, chaired by Frank Tate, also contributed 12,000 pounds. Much of this money was used to rebuild the Villers Bretonneux school. It was Tate's fervent desire that ‘successive generations of pupils passing through the school will carry with them feelings of goodwill and affection’ towards Australia and the British Empire. When in 1923 Tate visited Villers Bretonneux he found his way to the school by walking down the Rue de Melbourne to the Place de Victoria. By treading Australian paths, he had found his way to Europe. That was a very Melbourne story.19
So, too, is the story of Lil Wightman, a Ballarat girl who dreamed of being a French couturier. In 1922 she established her temple of haute couture at 74 Collins Street and named it Le Louvre. With a chic becoming the French capital she also gave to the city's most fashionable promenade the assignation ‘the Paris end of Collins Street’, even though she had never been to Paris.20 So powerful had the conservative invention of Melbourne become that in the end it didn't matter if one had actually travelled to Europe, Paris could be imagined
by simply walking down Collins Street.

Mark Strizic, photographer. [‘Paris end’ of Collins St. 1958] Gelatin silver, gold chloride toned photograph. H87.356/3. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Or so it would seem. For the more worldly who had travelled overseas, Collins Street paled by comparison with Paris. Mabel Brookes, who rather than going to ‘the university’ was ‘finished’ by a grand European tour, begins her 1922 novel Old Desires with her heroine returning to Melbourne after living in Europe. With an unerring sense of Melbourne's social geography, the author begins the novel with her heroine's car drawing up in front of a hat shop in Collins Street. Looking in the window at the ‘one exclusive model perched with conscious aloofness upon a tall stand’, the heroine, with a ‘dispassionate Parisian-trained eye’, deems the display nothing more than ‘millinery art’. If Mabel Brookes was worldly wise, then Lil Wightman was street smart. She knew that her class of customers wanted to imagine Melbourne as a chic European city and hence she spun the confection of Collins Street being a Parisian boulevard.21
So why was there a need to pretend that in Melbourne there was an Australian equivalent for every European sight? Why erect mock-Tudor villages in fashionable suburbs like Toorak and tastefully fill neo-Georgian domiciles with eighteenth-century antique furnishings? Is this nostalgia, a manifestation of an ongoing conservative act of colonial creation that assembles and translates European civilisation in odd juxtapositions and simultaneously pretends they represent fashionable Paris or the English home counties?
In Collins Street East Sydney Smith, Ogg and Serpell's Harley Chambers (1923), W A. M. Blackett's Francis House (1929), and Cedric Ballantyne's Athenaeum Club (1930) with their Georgian and classical revival details could be said to express the developing antiquarian taste of the sons of boom-time Melbourne who rebuilt the city of their Victorian fathers during the interwar period.22 Yet, according to W A. M. Blackett, it was visitors ‘from abroad’ who created the perception that the eastern end of Collins Street was
‘the part of Melbourne that carried on most nearly the traditions of the West End streets of London’.
In this way Collins Street became a tale spun by overseas visitors that was believed by the locals. This narrative also satisfied the conservative need to belong to Empire. As Blackett explained to the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects when accepting the inaugural Street Architecture Medal for Francis House, ‘careful’, ‘urbane’ and ‘reticent’ design with reference to the past would help Melbourne realise its ambition of becoming ‘the cynosure among the (British) dominions’.23
Blackett's speech also re-assured Melbourne's professional classes, among whom were members of the Athenaeum Club then being built in Collins Street. Although Francis House was a speculative venture by a pharmaceutical company, this was not represented as a threat to the independence of Melbourne's professional men. Instead, the respect for their values so evident in the building's façade, made the change from the nineteenth-century doctors' residences in Collins Street East to up-to-the-minute consulting rooms appear as part of the on-going conservative rhythm of the city. At least in Collins Street East, Melbourne's professional classes could continue to believe that ‘ill considered commercial ventures’ were not part of the West End traditions they so admired.24
In imagining Melbourne in this way, the conservatives created a set of signifiers that linked the private domain of Melbourne's professional middle classes to the wider civic and moral worlds of society. They brought together private and public realms to reinforce a social hierarchy that had been fundamentally challenged by the First World War. By these means the upper classes of Melbourne were able not only to claim their ascendancy in society but also show they belonged to the caste that ruled the Empire.25
Not all Melbourne's sons and daughters, however, shared the confidence that there would always be an England. Consider the Melbourne artist Dora Meeson, who had lived much of her life in the thrall of Chelsea. In 1936 she was writing to Australian friends bemoaning the ‘immense changes in London’. Whole streets had been destroyed and ‘acres of tall new flats’ had sprung up ‘like mushrooms almost in a night’. The destruction of the Adelphi Terrace was especially singled out because, being ‘a unique bit of eighteenth century London’, it was mourned by ‘every art lover’. London was changing for the worse in other ways. The traffic was ‘appalling’, and she feared that ‘we shall have to have overhead or more underground crossings for people before long’.26
This painter of pretty flower paintings, Negro women and the Thames now found herself living in ‘a world characterised by unrest and changing of methods and ideas … in everything — politics, literature, music’ and art. Meeson found it increasingly difficult ‘to steer a midway course between the iconoclasts who will clear all ancient landmarks away however beautiful and useful — often without anything really new and good to put in their place, and the genuine modern seekers after truth, who look for fresh expression’. Her solution was to advise her Melbourne friends that ‘America seems to offer a scope and field
for Women's Art which is wanting in England’. Ironically, what London was demolishing was being built in Collins Street East.27
* * *
For many of the city's élite antiquarianism and good taste went hand in hand. Among those who subscribed to this ideal was architect Robin Boyd. In 1941 he wrote a scathing review of the mock-Tudor shops of Toorak village, in which he lamented how ‘pleasant buildings’ had been scrapped to make way for a ‘maudlin riot of half timbered, crenulated erections’. What irked Boyd most about this display of ye olde England in Melbourne's ‘number one suburb’ was what it revealed about Melbourne's ‘wealthy, cultured and distinguished citizens’. Instead of exemplifying ‘the taste so assiduously cultivated in its private residences’, it revealed how Toorak shopped for papers, oil for ‘sleek motors’ and sausages in a ‘hot bed of architectural corruption’.28
Boyd characterised Toorak as ‘the show place, the leading suburb, the undisputed top drawer into which our best homes were packed’. He became a defender of Toorak style. Soon after his return from Europe in 1951, he was asking: ‘Is Toorak going the way of all once fashionable areas?’ And ever ready to craft a phrase to express his displeasure with post-war Melbourne, he saw ‘the homes and flats which are being built there are extraordinarily poor, not to say downright vulgar’. This was in contrast to pre-war Melbourne where Toorak ‘led fashions, then took no interest in them’.29
To Boyd, ‘the tall green trees of private gardens’ also made Toorak. The demolition of the Toorak mansion ‘Leura’, in 1955, provoked him to write how with the site looking as if ‘a tornado has swept through’, the axeman had had ‘a heyday in the old garden of great trees’. There was hardly a big, old garden left in the suburb. This led Boyd to wonder out loud if Toorak would be able to ‘retain its dignity as the few remaining big estates are broken up — or will the centre of fashion and money gradually swing away to a new select area?’
As a gentleman of taste, formed by the taste-makers who had resolutely stamped their class on Melbourne in the inter-war period, Boyd believed standards in Toorak were slipping. There was a sense that the suburb would no longer retain its ‘quiet dignity’ and remain aloof from the modern equivalent of ‘Queen Anne and Spanish Mission and Tudor revivals (that) swept over less fortunate suburbs’.30
Boyd envisioned how modernism might create a new vision of society. In 1949 he was a driving force behind the 1949 House of Tomorrow exhibition held in Joseph Reed's 1880 Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building. Under the supervision of the leading Melbourne industrial designer, Richard Haughton James, the Exhibition Building was transformed into a display championing modern home design. Even the State Department of the United States of America contributed, sending to the exhibition ‘a special display on housing featuring the latest American techniques in planning, construction and architectural design. If, in the words of the modern Melbourne architect, Roy Grounds, the exhibition was a ‘stepping stone from the fin-de-siècle to a brave new world’,31 Boyd was not persuaded that
American culture was appropriate for Australia.32
Despite his modernist pretensions, Boyd was never able to entirely free himself from his past. His taste continued to be influenced by those who inhabited the Georgian drawing rooms found south of the Yarra. In his hugely influential work The Australian Ugliness, published in 1960, Boyd reflected Melbourne's Georgian taste. He equated modern architecture with the simplicity of Australian Georgian architecture and ‘the manners of the eighteenth century’. Boyd did what the pioneers of modernism like Le Corbusier or Gropius never did; he read modernism in terms of Georgian architecture, even though he saw it as ‘the symbol of good taste and breeding’ for those ‘most anxious to display their Englishness’.33
Being a Melbourne man and a modernist, Boyd framed his disdain for popular suburban taste in terms of old Protestant values and the views of early twentieth-century Viennese architect, Adolf Loos, about ornament. Victorian architecture was to be disdained. In his eyes ‘modern day Victorians’ had inherited a love of ornament from their Victorian forebears. Indeed, the State of Victoria embodied the ‘spirit, the letter, and the image of Victorian taste and Victorian endeavour’. As a man of taste Boyd saw Victorian architecture as a precursor of postwar Featurism that arose when ‘a community is not entirely well-adjusted’. Only ‘visually alert people’ who were ‘artistic or sophisticated’ were immune to this failing.34
Boyd's values belonged to Melbourne's upper middle class who in the inter-war period had learned to abhor the Victorian age and value Georgian and English county values (including ‘a freedom from the anxiety to please’).35 They sat comfortably with those of his uncle Martin, the novelist of Melbourne's upper middle class, and Hardy Wilson, whose 1920s publications did so much to evoke the nostalgia for early colonial/Georgian architecture. Indeed, Boyd's distaste for Victorian architecture has an uncanny similarity with the earlier abhorrence of Victorian architecture of the chatelaine of Government House, Lady Denman.
From this lofty elevation, Boyd looked down on ‘the forgotten people’ who supported the conservative Liberal government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies during the 1950s and 60s. These were the small shopkeepers, business men and thoroughly decent people of Melbourne's lower middle class, whose businesses were conducted in mock-Tudor shops in suburbs like Toorak and who lived in postwar, featurist suburbs.36
Alarmed by the threat modernity posed to the rhythm of their lives, Melbourne's upper classes formed the Victorian Branch of the National Trust in September 1956. Attending its inaugural meeting at the University of Melbourne were His Excellency, the Governor of Victoria, and his wife, while in the chair was the Deputy Chancellor.37 The Trust soon attracted influential Melbourne people to its ranks. Its patrons included the Governor, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, the former conservative Prime Minister of the 1920s, Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, a former vicereine of Bengal who had grown up in Collins

Mark Strizic, photographer. [Whelan the wrecker was here]. Melbourne :A Portrait. Melbourne, Georgian House, 1960, p.11.

Street, and several lords and ladies of the realm. Its first chair was the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, while architects Roy Grounds and Robin Boyd Esq. were among the members of its Council.38 Indeed Boyd, then ensconced in his post-war modern home in the established, middle class suburb of Camberwell, was a signatory to the Trust's 1957 Memorandum and Articles of Association.39
Boyd used the Trust as a platform to berate the lack of taste and vandalism that he believed characterised the development of Melbourne's new suburbs. At the first annual general meeting of the Trust held in September 1957 he criticised city councillors who chopped down trees and subdividers who ‘wreak havoc among the trees and shrubs of the land they are trying to sell’. They were ‘not much worse’ than ‘youths who slash seats on suburban trains’. In his opinion Australia was ‘the most vandalised country in the world’. In Australia there was ‘an almost pathological hatred of gums and wattles and the untidiness of bushland’. Any departure from virgin bush’ was regarded as ‘an improvement’. To the municipal mind, ‘everything had to be neat and tidy and clipped and in European colours’. What he feared most was a ‘pattern of culture’ whereby the brick veneer house with its
‘marigolds and silver birches’ would extend from the postwar suburb of Balwyn North in Melbourne to ‘the back of Bourke’ in the far west of New South Wales.40
In these circumstances the Trust looked to its English counterpart for guidance. One of its members travelled to England in 1957 to learn what he could of the English organization. Inevitably, comparisons were drawn. Victoria did not possess ‘the stately homes and beautifully kept gardens’ of England, and its ‘present architectural heritage was perhaps not so stimulating’ as ‘the Old Country’. Nevertheless, it was recommended that the Trust ‘select a suitable property, make every endeavour to bring it within the control of the Trust, and to use it as the basis for initial operations and publicity’.41
Accordingly, in 1958 the Trust acquired for the sum of 100,000 pounds ‘an old and well-known property at South Yarra’ which had been owned by the same family for the better part of a century. Through its acquisition the Trust transformed an early Melbourne suburban villa, named after Lake Como in northern Italy, into an English stately home and represented its owners — who for three generations had grown rich on Australian wool — as a local aristocracy. At a time of rapid social change, ‘Como’ spoke to an elite whose English county values gave a patina to New World pioneering families. For this reason, ‘Como’ resonated with the likes of Mabel Brookes whose taste was formed by the English country house, whose historical imagination was derived from her pioneering ancestors, and whose position in Melbourne society was enhanced by her being made a Dame of the British Empire in 1955. To secure ‘Como’ for the future, she formed a ladies’ committee to raise funds for its acquisition.42
The stately homes and gardens of Toorak and South Yarra may have been under threat, but the eastern end of Collins Street continued as it had been in 1938: ‘a street of clubs, and little shops, of a quiet kind of professional rooms and banks, which are not given up to daubing their premises with red paint, or putting up neon signs’.43 If the eastern end of Collins Street was still Paris in 1955, then the block between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets was imagined as another part of the world. The skyscrapers, general stores, and churches were imagined as being built by the Catalan architect Gaudi. While this might have stretched any traveller who had visited Barcelona, that was not the point: Collins Street was about an imaginary world which spoke more about the taste of those who wrote about it than reality.44
By 1964 the eastern end of Collins Street was linked ‘strongly to the past’. It was characterised as a place where ‘doorways still have boot scrapers, and the bell-push is shined daily’. Here ‘leafy sunlight’ fell on ‘footpaths paved with 80-year-old Mintaro slate, and on bluestone, brought as ballast in the clipper ships from Italy and Scotland’. It lit ‘the chromium jewels of sleek black limousines’ outside the Melbourne Club where ‘parched Holland blinds’ were drawn against the mid-day sun. Paris in Melbourne was also portrayed as a place where ‘the prettiest girls in Melbourne’ could be spied: ‘tripping daintily to hair stylists and health studios, to chic little bistros and stylish boutiques’. Now ‘the girls, as much
as the boulevard cafes’ gave ‘a continental touch’ to a country where over a million British and European migrants had settled.
As well as ‘the pretty girls, and the trees’, the Paris End of Collins street was made up of a hundred other things’:
The doorsteps, worn with many yesterdays … the warm-brass shine of doctors’ plates in rows as long as your arm … the striped café umbrellas on the sidewalk and canvas awnings on the shops … the spring mornings … the autumn leaves … the antique shop in a building itself an antique.
Increasingly, Collins Street was being portrayed in terms of the antiquarian taste cultivated by Melbourne's upper middle class in their domiciles and promoted in the inter-war street architecture awards of the Royal Institute of Architects. At a time when Robin Boyd was pretending that the national aesthetic of an affluent, postwar Australia was ugliness, Collins Street spoke of a civilised country where tradition and the rule of taste prevailed, and where the city's Victorian past was no longer disdained.45
At this time, an immigrant, Melbourne photographer Mark Strizic, elegantly and lovingly portrayed the allure of Collins Street and the patina of its social customs. All seemed safe in a world created by old architecture and elegant women ‘doing the Block’ (Arcade) just as their forebears had. Yet ominously Strizic included a photograph of a Whelan the Wrecker sign set amidst a cleared building site. Victorian Melbourne and Collins Street were about to be demolished. And soon the 1960s Cultural Revolution would make superfluous the hats and gloves of suburban ladies ‘going to town’ and challenge the discreet charm of Melbourne's bourgeoisie. As Graeme Davison points out, New York now threatened Melbourne's Paris. Amid this social upheaval Collins Street began to change, and when it did Old Melbourne, who populated the National Trust of Victoria in the 1970s–80s, campaigned to save Collins Street.46
At the end of the day Le Louvre held on and Harley Chambers survived as Australian society began to cast off from its European moorings. Nonetheless, the patterning of Melbourne in terms of overseas places continues. This is in spite of the inhabitants of Melbourne's revitalised inner suburbs having forged a new social contract with the city. To claim the national terrain, Melbourne still represents itself as Australia's European city. So it is not surprising to read as recently as 2005 how this ‘world-class’ city proposed to turn a stretch of the Victorian coastline — said to resemble the Turkish coast — into ANZAC Cove where national mythology has it Australia during the First World War became a nation. In a far away place like Melbourne, the imagination forever journeys to overseas places to invent the nation.47


Argus, 9 November 1861, p. 4; Christine Downer, ‘Notes on Barry and the Origins of the Picture Collection’, La Trobe Journal, no. 73, Autumn 2004, p. 95; Robert Elwall, ‘“The Foe-to-graphic Art”: The Rise and Fall of the Architectural Photographic Association’, Photographic Collector, vol. 5, no. 2, 1985, pp. 142–156.


Paul Fox, ‘Exhibition City: Melbourne and the 1880 Exhibition’, Transition, Summer 1990, p. 63. I am indebted to Chris Wood for information concerning Joseph Reed's use of the Architectural Photographic Association's albums deposited in the Melbourne Public Library.


Redmond Barry to Lord Augustus Loftus, 2 April 1862 & Redmond Barry to Augustus Tulk, 24 April 1862, MS 12161, Box 2781, Folder 4, Redmond Barry Papers, State library of Victoria.


Redmond Barry to Augustus Tulk, 31 October 1862, MS 12161, Box 2781, Folder 4, Redmond Barry Papers, State Library of Victoria.


Redmond Barry. Rome, Opposite Mount Sinai, 8 January 1863, MS 8380 box 597/1 (a), Redmond Barry Papers, State Library of Victoria.


Thomas Shaw, A Victorian in Europe by a Visitor from the Western District, Geelong, Henry Franks, 1883, pp. 53, 141, 332–33.


Lady Loch to her sisters, January-February 1887, Loch papers, GD 268/867, Scottish National Archives.


Paul Fox, ‘The Simla of the South’, Proceedings of the Australian Garden History Society: Fifteenth Annual Conference, 1994, p. 11.


Paul Fox, Clearings: Six Colonial Gardeners and their Landscapes, Carlton South, Miegunyah Press, 2004, pp.101–42.


L. R. Gardiner, ‘Sir Reginald Talbot’, in John Ritchie, ed., Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 12, p.165; Frank Tate, 6 April 1907 & n.d. but May 1907, Letters April-July 1907 (England), Frank Tate Papers, MS 99-31, University of Melbourne Archives.


Margaret Plant, ‘The Lost Art of Federation: Australia's Quest for Modernism’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 28, 1987, pp. 111–13.


For Lady Denman's comments see Exhibition of Old Furniture, Silver and China. Government House, Melbourne. March-April 1914, Melbourne, E. Whitehead & Co., 1914, p. 12; For Lord Denman's comments see Argus, 1 April 1914, p. 15. Percy Macquoid, A History of English Furniture: With Plates in Colour after Shipley Slocombe, and Numerous Illustrations Selected and Arranged by the Author, London, Lawrence and Bullen, 1908.


Exhibition of Old Furniture, Silver and China. Government House, Melbourne. March-April 1914, pp. 19, 21.


Mabel Brookes, Crowded Galleries, Melbourne, William Heinemann Ltd., 1956, pp. 72–3.


Mabel Brookes, On the Knees of the Gods, Melbourne, Melville & Mullen, 1918, pp. 77–79; Mabel Brookes, Description of Antique Furniture, China, Napoleonic Relics and Old Books from the Collection of Sir Norman and Dame Mabel Brookes with some items loaned from the Balcombe Family, Kurneh, 206 Domain Road, South Yarra, Open Saturday 17 March 1956. n.p.


Brice Bunny Mackinnon to Charlie Mackinnon, 4 April 1918, Mackinnon Family Papers, MS 9470, Box 2048, File 6, State Library of Victoria.


Argus, 20 July 1921, p. 8.


Argus, 8 October 1920, p. 6.


Argus, 9 February 1923, p. 8, 13 February 1923, p. 9, 13 February 1923, p. 7; R. J. W. Selleck, Frank Tate: a Biography, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1982, p. 235; Argus, 11 June 1923, p. 9; R. J. W. Selleck, The Shop. The University Of Melbourne, 1950–1939, Carlton South, Melbourne University Press, 2003, p. 533.


Undated Age article. I am indebted to John Betts and Robert Buckingham for this information.


Mabel Brookes, Old Desires, Melbourne, Australian Authors' Agency, 1922, pp. 8–9.


For Athenaeum Club see John Pacini & Graeme Adamson, Windows on Collins Street: A History of the Athenaeum Club, Melbourne, Melbourne, The Athenaeum Club, 2001, pp. 223, 232, 235. For Francis House see Journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, vol. 27, no. 1, March 1929, p.6; vol. 27, no. 2, July 1929, p. 60; vol. 27, no. 4, September 1929, p. 88.


Proceedings of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, vol. 22, September 1929, p. 127.


Blackett, Forster & Craig, Henry Francis & Co., Proposed Premises at 107 Collins St, Melbourne, n.d., Sheet 2 Blackett, Forster and Craig Collection, La Trobe Architectural Drawing 2/4, State Library of Victoria.


The author would like to thank Allan Powell for his conversations regarding Melbourne in this period.


The Adelphi was that small area of London bounded by the Strand, the Embankment, Villiers Street and Adams Street. As early as 1923 Australian artist Will Farrow had illustrated Francis C. Prevost's The Adelphi, London, Chelsea Publishing Company, 1923. The British Australasian, 19 July 1923, p. 17.


Dora Meeson Coates to Ivy Brookes, 4 November 1936, Jessie Clarke Papers, MS 13268, Box 108, State Library of Victoria. Dora Meeson, Negro, pencil on paper, 1927, Private Collection.


Robin Boyd, ‘Tombs in Toorak’, Smudges, 3, 1941.


Age, 24 July 1951, p. 7.


Herald, 1 November 1955, p. 18.


Roy Grounds, Design Comes of Age in Melbourne, Professor Brian Lewis Papers, MS 9244, Box 7, File 42, State Library of Victoria. Although the paper is not dated, internal references to the Red Cross Modern Homes' Exhibition allows the paper to be dated to 1949. See Age, 16 October 1949 for description of Red Cross Homes Exhibition.


Age, 9 September 1949.


Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, Melbourne, F. W. Cheshire, 1960, pp. 35, 55.


Ibid., p. 34.


Ibid., pp. 50–51.


For discussion of Menzies' forgotten people see Judith Brett, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Sydney, Macmillan Australia, 1992.


National Trust of Australia (Victoria) Memorandum to Members, 22 August 1957, National Trust Miscellaneous file 3, 1956–7, Professor Brian Lewis Papers, MS 9244, Box 11, State Library of Victoria.


Draft minutes of the Second Annual Ordinary General Meeting of the members of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Professor Brian Lewis Papers, MS 9244, Box 11, National Trust 1958 miscellaneous file, State Library of Victoria.


Memorandum and Articles of Association, National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Professor Brian Lewis Papers, MS 9244, Box 11, National Trust 1958 miscellaneous file, State Library of Victoria.


Age, 10 September 1957, p. 3.


C.N. Hollinshed, Report on Some Aspects of the Work of the National Trust of England including Wales and Northern Ireland, Following Discussions with the Trust's Secretary, Mr. J. F. W. Rathbone, March 1957. National Trust Miscellaneous file 3, 1956–7, Professor Brian Lewis Papers, MS 9244, Box 11, State Library of Victoria.


National Trust of Australia (Victoria) Report and Statements of Account for the Year Ended 30th June 1958. Report on Como for Inclusion in the Annual Report, Professor Brian Lewis Papers, MS 9244, Box 11, National Trust 1958 miscellaneous file, State Library of Victoria.


Quoted in John Currey, ‘Collins St. Contrasts’, Walkabout, March 1964, pp. 12–13.


Alan Ross, Australia ‘55, quoted in Currey, ibid.


Ibid., p. 13. I would like to thank Ivan Rijavic for his conversation about Robin Boyd and the Australian ‘ugliness’.


Mark Strizic & David Saunders, Melbourne: A Portrait, Melbourne, Georgian House, 1960; Graeme Davison, ‘The Modern and Melbourne Self-Imagining in Photography, Journalism and Film, 1945–1970’ in Lynette Finch & Chris McConville, eds, Gritty Cities: Images of the Urban, Annandale, Pluto Press, 1999, pp. 56, 60.


Age, 18 October 2005, pp. 1 & 4.