An enthusiastic crowd gathered on a balmy evening in Camden’s John Street historic precinct anticipating the opening of a new art gallery. The twilight evening event provided just the right atmosphere for this once in a generation event for the town centre.
The event was the opening of the Alan Baker Art Collection which is housed in the fully restored grand Gothic-inspired town residence of Henry Thompson (1860) called Macaria. Even today after 150 years Macaria is still an important architectural statement as part of Camden’s John Street colonial streetscape and historic precinct. The precinct includes the police barracks, the old school of arts building and temperance hall, the commercial bank building, the Tiffin cottage all topped off by the magnificent vista of St John’ Church rising above the town centre.
Alan Baker, the artist and a life story
Alan Baker was a true local identity and he, his wife Majorie and the family had a profound influence shaping the art scene in the Camden district in the second half of the 20th century. Alan Baker helped shape the lives of a host of Camden artists including Patricia Johnson, Nola Tegel, Olive McAleer and Gary Baker. Baker also contributed to the broader art world through his vice-presidency of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales.
Baker’s artwork and ‘the collection tells the story of life…and the journey of the artist’, according to his son Gary. The exhibition highlights the two identifiable periods in Alan’s artistic career. Divided by the tragic drowning death of Alan and Marjorie’s two sons in a Georges River boating accident in 1961.
Alan’s work after the tragedy has a more contemplative approach. The paintings have a ‘zen’ quality, according to Gary, and reflect the ‘stories of love, family, community, war, beauty, darkness and tragedy’.
The literal meaning of zen is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition. Applied to artwork it might mean that Alan Baker was inspired by the contemplative aesthetic of the house garden and bush surroundings at his home at The Oaks.
Gary Baker maintains that there is a ‘purity’ to Alan’s work and it was centred on Alan’s studio and the way the light played with it. Gary explains the process his father used to create his artworks:
My father’s studio was located under his house at Belimba Park. It had one south window and it was cool dark and silent. There was a large sandstone rock over which dripped water. The water seeped from underground and was all around where he sat to work. The light was pure without any other sources and then went to total darkness further into the room, which was rather like a cellar.
In the morning he would pick fresh flowers that he grew with my mother’s help. He would choose them from their extensive garden. Hundreds of camellias, roses, Japonica, peaches and all sorts blossom trees, annuals and perennials. He would arrange them with great care. Aware he only had time to paint them for the life of the flower. Sometimes one or two days.
The flowers would move to the light as the day passed. They were truly living. Some would fall to the table. They constantly changed. After arranging them he would cut a board that fitted the composition. Not being restricted to stock size he made his own frames.
During the process of painting, I felt he was in a state of meditation. He often with classical music playing. There was a rhythm to his work leading to this state of mind. His technical skill learned over decades enabled him to get to this heightened state.
He didn’t have to focus on the difficulties of drawing colour tone, instead used his intuition. Sitting in an upright position close to his board he would spend hours or days completing the painting until done. He never over painted and rarely moved away from his easels to view his work during the painting stage.
The flowers had a stability and calmness. They are asymmetric in design. The reflections on the glass table show a sort of purity calmness. The delicate flowers capture a purity or truthfulness. The flowers were almost textured, the way the paint is applied.
His brush strokes are simplified. Directly confident. Almost abstract. I see a likeness to Chinese ink painting techniques. The designs with the vase in the middle. Most art teachers say that it should not be done this way.
I see some of his paintings as being perfect! I see how they are living, not still. I see the air flow around them. Even viewing at different angles the texture of the paint changes the look of each painting. They are so complex and yet so simple. The brush strokes are very pronounced on board enhancing a textured feel. He did not use canvas.
Flowers themselves are universal symbols of remembrance love. I feel that he was chasing perfection in beauty. His paintings of flowers seem to speak to people with this. Many a man has said to me that they do not look like flower paintings. His are different. You can appreciate that! His floral work is from the heart not intellectual. I feel it’s spiritual.
Alan and Marjorie made The Oaks their home after the 1961 tragedy and maybe Baker was searching for the truth through the subject material he chose for his work. Certainly Alan’s still-life paintings absorbed a large of amount of his artistic effort and possibly account for Gary labelling his work as a form of ‘realism’.
Realism was an artistic movement that appeared in France in the mid-19th century when Realists rejected Romanticism and its exotic subject matters and emotional influences. Romanticism had dominated French art from the mid-18th century. Realism, as an art movement, sought to portray the truth and accuracy of daily life and growing in parallel with the new visual source of photography.
Alan Baker certainly does not pander to sentimentalism or heroic depiction of subjects as 19th century Romantic might have done. The Realists, as Alan’s work represents, rejected the sentimental and heroic and they the later tradition of the moderne. Alan was not a fan of modernist abstract and avant-garde styles of painting. Alan was a technician which was the basis of his commercial art commissions during the Interwar period for Tooths Hotels and others.
Gary goes on about his father’s artwork:
This is the other side of his work. When you walk back and see his work from a distance. It comes into focus. You see a realist painting, the simple brush strokes disappear. He was so well trained in the art skills of tone, drawing and colour. He found modern art to be “the refuse of the incompetent”.
Alan learnt his trade at the J.S. Watkins Art School where he studied drawing at 13 years of age. Watkins had set up his art school after returning to Australia after studying in Paris in 1898 above the Julian Ashton’s art school in King Street. By 1927 when Alan Baker was attending it had moved to 56 Margaret Street Sydney.
At the Watkins art school Alan was trained in tonal drawing in pencil charcoal, pen and washes and later oils, according to Gary’s biography of his father. The art school provided a competitive environment and Alan thrived in it. His mentors included Henry Hanke, Normand Baker (his brother ) and William Pidgen and Alan later became a teacher at the school.
In 1936 at 22 years of age Alan had a self-portrait accepted in the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alan’s brother Normand won the Archibald prize in 1937 with his Self Portrait and the travelling scholarship in 1939. Between 1932 and 1972, according to Gary Baker, Alan entered the Archibald Prize with 35 separate paintings and made the finals 26 times. In 1969 he submitted a portrait of Camden surgeon Gordon Clowes which made the final selection that year.
The Alan Baker Art Collection is representative of the art genres that Alan practised his career. They are portraiture, still life, landscape, seascape, life drawing and life painting. These artistic genres have long history in Western art and Alan drew on these traditions.
The exhibitions has a number of examples of Baker’s commercial hotel posters, pencil drawings and portraits. Some were completed during his war service in New Guinea and the Pacific where he painted Papuans, fellow diggers and others. Alan enlisted in 1942 in the Australian Army with the rank of private and served in New Guinea. On discharge in 1945 he was with the 2 Australian Watercraft Workshop AEME (Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers).
After the war he met Marjorie Whitchurch (formerly Kingsell) who had taken up art classes at the Watkins art school. Alan worked an instructor at the school after he was demobbed from the army. Marjorie fled Singapore in 1942 when the Japanese invaded the city, and in the process she lost her husband, who died on the Burma Railway, her home and her possessions.
After Alan dated Marjorie for a year they married in 1946. They lived in primitive accommodation at Moorebank with few facilities. Their first child was born in 1947. Alan’s career started to prosper and he had a painting of his wife Marjorie accepted in the 1953 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was one of the finalists with his Artists Wife.
After the tragic loss of their sons Alan and Marjorie were suffering profound grief and moved to the isolation of The Oaks. Here they established a house and garden and Alan established studio in a bush setting. The garden might have provided some light in these dark days. Alan used many of the garden flowers for Still Life paintings. Some of these are in the exhibition. Baker maintained that
An artist must arrange his own composition by any means…the value of the shadow being thrown from one flower thrown from one flower to the other…I spend hours arranging till I am satisfied the result will be successful.
Alan was a fan of plein air painting, a tradition which goes back to the French Impressionists in the mid-19th century with the introduction of paints in tubes. Before this artists made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigments powder with linseed oils. This genre is illustrated by a number of landscape paintings in the exhibition, some of local area which capture Alan’s ‘commitment to the natural and man-made environment’. Baker’s landscapes reflect naturalism and the avoidance of stylisation.
Baker lived at The Oaks until his death in 1987 and across those years had a prolific output of work. The Australian Art Sales Digest lists 708 works by Baker across his lifetime, of which 77 are on display at the new gallery. Alan’s artwork is exhibited in numerous galleries and private collections and he held many shows across Australia,
Camden Mayor Lara Symkowiak gave the keynote address at the gallery opening. She outlined the gestation of the project and those who supported it along the way. She was full of praise and said that she has been a strong supporter of the project.
Others who spoke at the opening included local Camden MLA Chris Patterson, Alan’s son Gary Baker and philanthropist Max Tegel. These speakers explained how the project required patience and perseverance and that the initial inspiration came from Gary Baker and Max Tegel.
The conservation and re-adaptation of the building was supervised by Sydney architect Ashley Dunn of firm Dunn and Hillan Architects. The original interior joinery has been highlighted with Australian red cedar architraves, skirtings and window frames. Wide original floor boards of Baltic Pine have been polished and provide a warm ambiance to the gallery rooms.
Dunn has designed bespoke gallery furniture in a mid-20th modernism style that works well with the gallery aesthetic. Dunn drew his inspiration from a number of sources and he has stated:
We wanted to ensure that the furniture was readily identifiable as a contemporary addition. I have always admired the work of artist and architect Max Bill who practiced in Switzerland during the mid 20th century and was educated at the Bauhaus. We are also inspired by the work of artists such as Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys and Gordon Matta-Clarke, all of whom worked during the later part of the mid 20th C.
Modern joinery is treated differently to highlight the contemporary phase in the life of the building and in the process creates a distinct separation from the joinery of the colonial period. Dunn has stated:
Our approach to the building was to use a consistent material for all new additions that was sympathetic to but different from the original fabric. We chose 40mm Blackbutt which is much blonder with a tighter grain than the reds and browns of the Australian Cedar and Baltic Pine. The new openings are framed in 40mm Blackbutt and the furniture has 40mm Blackbutt tops. The carcasses all have Blackbutt veneer and are edged in solid Blackbutt. The leather upholstery was chosen to mediate between the different browns and work with the floor colour.
After the official proceedings had finished the crowd of 180 milled around under the marques that lined the exterior front lawns of the gallery. Appetizers, canapes, hors d’oeuvres and other delicacies were served to the guests.
Macaria, the building
Macaria is a building that is an historical artefact in its own right. The building tells its own story and illustrates that the built environment can be used as a primary source document. Buildings are a ‘constructed landscape of architectural heritage’.
The town residence of Macaria is representative of the Picturesque Tudor Gothic style. It is brick town residence of the colonial Victorian period and originally had a shingle roof. For a house of its scale it is one of the best examples of the architectural style in Australia. Originally there were similarly designed cottage and stables around the house that were demolished long ago.
Macaria has been identified by architects Richard Apperly, Robert Irving and Peter Reynolds in their A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architecture, Styles and Terms from 1788 to the Present (A&R, 1989) (p.92). These architects identify as part of the Victorian Rustic Gothic which emerged from the 18th century Picturesque movement from Europe. Supporters of the movement felt that:
Natural and man-made things were attractive to look at – houses, gardens, open spaces…gazebos…-were seen as elements in a huge, three-dimensional picture which needed to be artfully composed by a designer possessed of finely tuned judgement.(p.90)
Macaria is representative of the some of the design characteristics of the Picturesque movement included ‘prettiness, quaintness and old-world charm’. Expatriate Englishmen in the colony of New South Wales, according to Apperly, were seeking the known similarities with home in England that provided a degree of comfort in the strange environment of the antipodes. Pattern books of these type of designs were published by JC Loudon (1833) and Calvert Vaux (1857).
In New South Wales one adaptation from Victorian English designs was the addition of a verandah as illustrated by Macaria. There are a number of other residences across Australia of a similar style. One can be found in Vaucluse where Sydney architect John Hilly designed Greycliffe House in Neilsen Park in 1852.
Macaria the history
The Macaria building can be treated as a historical document and primary source. The story of the building can be revealed by the diligent researcher. The layers of its history can be peeled back to reveal previous uses and stories of people who lived and worked within it.
Macaria was originally built by Sydney Congregationalist businessman Henry Thompson who came to Camden with his brother Samuel in the early 1840s. They established a general store and a steam flour mill. Thompson was part of a Sydney based retailing family which set up a chain of stores including Yass and Camden.
The land that Macaria was built on was originally purchased in 1846 by Sarah Tiffin who was a housekeeper for the Macarthur family of Camden Park. Henry Thompson purchased the land from the estate of Sarah Tiffin in 1854. Tiffin has constructed a small Georgian brick cottage on the site in the 1840s, now 39 John Street.
Henry Thompson, who had several school-age sons, became a patron of William Gordon’s Classical and Commercial Academy in 1857. Thompson built Gordon ‘a very handsome house of elegant design’ as a schoolhouse which was known as Macaria. In 1861 Gordon had moved his school to Macquarie Grove, which had been vacated by the Hassalls, where he took a seven year lease. The school closed before the end of the lease. (Atkinson, Camden: 188-189)
Macaria was a substantial town residence and was statement by Thompson to demonstrate his status and importance as a local businessman. Henry’s Thompson’s large family of sixteen children lived in Macaria until 1870. Henry died in 1871 after falling from his horse.
Macaria was a residence for the Milford family, after which the house was leased by Dr George Goode in 1875, an outspoken Irishman of ill-temper. GB Crabbe leased the house in 1886 and converted it to the Camden Grammar School for young boys. The school closed in 1894.
Dr FW West used the house as the surgery for his medical practice and a home for his family from 1901 to 1932, when Francis West died. A series of medical practitioners occupied the house: LB Heath (1932 1938); RE & JT Jefferis (1938-1955); GF Lumley (1955-1975)
Macaria was purchased by Camden Municipal Council from Dr Lumley, and the building was used as the Camden Library, and then the Camden mayor’s offices.
The Camden Council website states that
The restoration of Macaria is part of Council’s strategy to invest in the historical Camden Town Centre and create a landmark tourist attraction for residents and visitors to enjoy.
This creative vision was made a reality by Camden Council, which showed its support and commitment to the promotion of arts in the region, by investing in and restoring historical Macaria as Camden’s revitalised home of the arts the community.
So what does all this mean?
The opening of Macaria and the Alan Baker Art Gallery is ground-breaking for the Camden Local Government Area.
- It is the first time an important historic town residence has been conserved and re-adapted by Camden Council and opened to the public.
- It is the first time a major art gallery in the Camden Local Government Area has been supported by public funds.
- It is the first time that private philanthropic interests have donated an art collection to create a public art space and gallery.
- It is the first time that a notable local identity has been acknowledged in a public space in this fashion.
- It is, according to his son Gary Baker, one of the one of the few collections across the global art community that embraces ‘the complete life of the artist, their family and their place with the community’.
- The new art gallery has the potential to help drive local economic growth