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Camden and its French Connections

French nationalism on show

Glory or death each morning brought –

Small matter which the chance.

Our General knew his soldiers fought

For Liberty and France!   

– Marcus Clarke  (Camden News, 20 July 1916)

During the First World War, the Camden News’s editorial policy expressed strong cultural connections with France, especially around Bastille Day. The News carried reports of patriotic celebrations around the French National Day, visits by French soldiers and the personal reminiscences of Paris by Camden identity and owner of the News, William Sidman.

The Franco-Prussian war

In September 1914, the Camden News published a series of six articles written by William Sidman. They documented his personal experiences of the chaotic events of Paris at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. (Camden News, 27 August, 3 Sept, 10 Sept 1914, 17 Sept, 24 Sept, 1 Oct 1914)  

Sidman had been sent to Paris in mid-1869 to ‘take charge ‘of The European News by the owners of Hull’s The Eastern Morning News, where he worked as a ‘junior reporter’. (CN, 27 August) The European News was large circulation bi-lingual, English-French, daily with a weekly edition. (CN, 3 Sept 1914)

In his memoirs, Sidman wrote about the chaos that broke out in Paris in mid-1870. There were large mobs of people roaming the streets after a national vote supporting the bellicose policies of Napoleon III towards Prussia. Sidman recalled that the ‘ends of streets were made impassable, omnibuses overturned’, resulting in ‘a political crisis’ with a ‘simmering discontent by the masses’. (CN, 10 Sept 1914)

The front page of the Camden News of 27 August 1914 with William Sidman’s memoirs of Paris and the Franco-Prussian war in columns 2 & 3 alongside cables from Europe about developments of the war front.

Sidman wrote that eventually, the French government declared war on Prussia. The situation in Paris deteriorated, foreign nationals were told to leave, and Sidman left for London (CN, 24 Sept 1914). He was later told by an English compositor who fled Paris that the lead-type of The European News had been ‘melted down for bullets’ during the Prussian siege of the city in late 1870. (CN, 1 October 1914)

Sidman felt guilty leaving France and recalled that he felt sorry for ‘all my French friends’ during the conflict. The following year, he returned to Paris and found that the old newspaper office had been re-built by French authorities after its destruction by Prussian forces. (CN, 1 October 1914)

William’s articles were published under  George Sidman’s editorship of the Camden News and were put on the front page. GV (George) Sidman was William’s son, took control of the Camden News in 1912, and continued William’s support for the French.

Bastille Day

Support for French patriotic causes was not unique to Camden. Historian Alexis Bergantz in his book French Connections, Australia’s Cosmopolitan Ambitions, writes that Bastille Day celebrations in Melbourne in 1915 were prevalent. He reports that ‘hundreds of women spilled onto the streets selling flowers and cockades and flags in the colours of France’ according to the Melbourne Argus. The Marseillaise was played and funds raised for the French Red Cross on 14 July. The day was topped out with a ‘great concert of French music’ at the Melbourne Town Hall. (Bergantz, p136)

Camden’s first celebration of Bastille Day and French nationalism occurred on Friday, 14 June 1916.  The Camden News published Marcus Clarke’s patriotic French poetry as the story’s lead item (see the beginning of this article) and then reported on a town hall meeting called by Camden Mayor GF Furner. Press reports stated that a ‘very enthusiastic’ crowd celebrated the ‘French National Day’ by listening to patriotic speeches from the mayor and Rev Hogan and ended with ‘three hearty cheers’ for France. (Camden News, 20 July 1916)

Camden Frances Day Procession for French Bastille Day 14 July 1917 (Roy Dowle, Camden Images)

In 1917 the Camden Red Cross organised a fancy dress procession and sports day for France’s Day on 14 July and raised £374. The aim of the appeal was to assist French widows and children after the defence of Verdun. France’s Day started with a ‘hearty’ fancy dress procession along the main street, ending up at the showground, led by the Camden District Band and the fire brigade.

The procession along Argyle Street was followed by a sports day where the Camden Red Cross conducted a ‘tea tent’. The whole event attracted an ‘enormous crowd of people’ and entry was 1/-. The ‘younger members’ of the Camden Red Cross organised a concert (9 July) and raised £23 with entertainment provided by the Guild of St Faith and the Camden District Band.  (Camden News, 5 July 1917, 12 July 1817, 19 July 1917.)

In Australia, the British Red Cross, including the Camden branch, conducted extensive fundraising for the French Red Cross and other French causes throughout the First World War. (BRC)

New Caledonian garrison visits Camden

These Red Cross activities were followed later in 1917 (Monday, 15 October) with a visit by a group of 20 French soldiers from the New Caledonia garrison. Sibella Macarthur Onslow hosted the soldiers in the ‘famous gardens’ at Camden Park after a planned visit to Gilbulla had been cancelled. The soldiers were part of a group of nearly 300 French troops welcomed in Sydney by the military, the Red Cross and Sydney’s French residents. They were entertained at a variety of functions around the city.

After their morning visit at Camden Park, the soldiers were driven into Camden, where they were entertained at a garden party on the lawn at the Commercial Bank in Camden’s main street. They took afternoon tea and were introduced to Camden’s mayor, WF Peters, his wife, over 25 members of the Camden Red Cross and other local identities by Sibella Macarthur Onslow. Several toasts and speeches were followed by rousing cheers of thanks, after which they boarded the train for Sydney.  (Sydney Morning Herald 15 October 1917; Camden News, 18 October 1917.)  

French soldiers from the New Caledonian garrison visit Camden and are entertained for lunch by women from the Camden Red Cross at the lawn at the Camden Commercial Bank building. (Camden Images)

Sidman and French nationalism

The country press is a store of knowledge around cultural heritage and powerful local political interests especially in wartime.

Sidman was an identity of some weight in the Macarthur family strong-hold of Camden and his newspaper was a powerful voice in the town and district. He well understood the impact of the provincial press after working on a number of local mastheads in the United Kingdom and his time in Paris. So what was he up to? What was he trying to achieve with his French memoirs of war?

I would argue that while Sidman’s memoirs were really just a recollection of events at the time, their publication had a very pointed political agenda in a New South Wales country town at the outbreak of the First World War.

Sidman whimsically opened his memoirs of Paris with these comments:

memory is our only friend and true in thought and as long as a man’s memory lasts it becomes a treasure of unknown intrinsic value’

(Camden News, 27 August 1914)

What was Sidman really trying to say in his memoirs? Who was he trying to influence?

Disappointingly George Sidman did not provide insight or editorial comment in the Camden News at the time of William’s memoirs of Paris to help answer my questions.

Part of the answer might be provided by William Sidman in 1898. He wrote of his despair at the cost of warfare, the loss of resources in the nations which took part in them and the threat to world stability. (Camden News, 9 June 1898)

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Camden realism and storytelling

A local school of art tells a story

Camden realism is a style of art that has appeared in the Macarthur region in recent decades and tells the story of the local area. It was recently on display at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, where the gallery mounted an exhibition displaying the works of Nola Tegel, Patricia Johnson and others.

Artist Marion Boddy-Evans describes a school of art as

a group of artists who follow the same style, share the same teachers, or have the same aims. They are typically linked to a single location.

Local artists Nola Tegel and Patricia Johnson follow a representational style of work pioneered in the local area from the 1970s by artist Alan Baker. Tegel and Johnson were some of Baker’s students who, joined by others, and have created an impressive and vital body of local artwork.

The followers of Camden realism conduct a form of storytelling through their representational style of artwork that documents the ever-changing landscape of the Macarthur region and its cultural heritage.

Campbelltown Arts Centre

Camden realism is regularly exhibited at the Campbelltown Arts Centre and the annual Camden Art Prize.

In 2020 Tegel was commissioned by the Campbelltown Arts Centre to

develop a series of paintings that capture glimpses of Campbelltown’s history amongst an ever-changing landscape.

Then & Now Catalogue

The Campbelltown Arts Centre mounted these works in an exhibition called ‘Then and Now‘, which ran from March to May 2021.

The Campbelltown Arts Centre was established in 2005 and boasts that it is a regional creative hub.  The gallery encourages local artists to take risks using various techniques from new to traditional, including Baker’s representational style of realism.

The Tegel commission

The brief for the Tegel commission stated that she

‘develop a series of paintings that capture glimpses of Campbelltown’s history amongst an ever-changing landscape’.

Storytelling is the essence of Tegel’s artwork, and the exhibition catalogue states her body of artwork has documented

‘the built environment and landscape of the Campbelltown CBD ahead of imminent growth and continuous change’.

Storytelling is an essential element of the creative process, and artist Courtney Jordon argues that:

Storytelling often comes naturally to artists. Sometimes the story starts on a single canvas or sheet of paper and doesn’t end until a gallery full of paintings, a suite of drawings, a set of illustrations, a series of comic strips or an entire graphic novel.
Certain subject matters compel an artist to revisit them again and again, building on a concept or pushing it in different directions. The narrative can be a visible part of the artwork in the form of a written story. But oftentimes, it acts as an invisible framework that guides an artist through the creative process.

Tegel is a storyteller and she has created a narrative that fulfilled the commission brief with empathy and vision. This was based on her understanding of the area’s sense of place and community identity as a growing community on Sydney’s urban fringe. The exhibition catalogue states that

Tegel’s accomplished documentation of Campbelltown captures the artists’ attachment to familiar outlooks and awe of the growing community.

‘Then and Now’, Exhibition catalogue

The catalogue cover of the Nola Tegel Exhibition Then & Now at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2021 (I Willis)

The essence of Tegel’s artwork is storytelling as she gives a visual palette to the aspirations and expectations of the local community of local’s and new arrivals by capturing the meaning and essence of place on the canvas.  

Sydney’s urban fringe is a zone of transition where hope and loss,  and dreams and memories are shaped and re-shaped by a shifting sea of urbanisation.  Tegel has produced a body of work that tells the story of  subtle nuances across the landscape that are only understood by those who have experienced them.  She reminds us all that the border between the rural and the urban fringe is a constantly shifting feast.

Campbelltown is a landscape of change as it has been since the area was proclaimed by Governor Macquarie in 1820. Initially, as a settler society dispossessing the Dharawal of their country, and in the 20th century, urban dwellers dispossessing Europeans of their bucolic countryside.

Tegel has witnessed these challenges through her interpretation of the area’s cultural landscapes in an evocative fashion, and in the process, captured Campbelltown’s sense of place.

Visitors at the Exhibition Then & Now for Macarthur artist Nola Tegel at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2021 (I Willis)

The notes in the exhibition catalogue argue that Tegel has drawn here artistic influences from various sources. Amongst these have been working with artist Barbara Romalis and being a foundational member of artist Alan Baker’s art classes at Camden.

Camden realism and Alan Baker

Baker created what might be called the Camden Realist School of art. He was a follower of the Realist tradition and shunned sentimentalism, modernist abstract and avant-garde styles.

Baker’s influence on Tegel is evident in the ‘Then and Now’ exhibition collection, where it is represented by her ability to capture Campbelltown’s sense of place without sentimentalism or abstraction.

In the 1970s Baker encouraged a realist style amongst students at his Camden Public School art classes, which included Nola Tegel,  Patricia Johnston, Olive McAleer, Rizwana Ahmad, and Shirley Rorke.

Baker encouraged a Plein Air painting style,  a tradition that

 goes back to the French Impressionists in the mid-19th century by introducing paints in tubes. Before this, artists made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigments powder with linseed oils. 

In Australia the school of Heidelberg School of artists regularly painted landscapes en plein air, and sought to depict daily life from the 1890s.

Tegel displayed her deft skills as a practitioner of this style in her 2019 Maitland Regional Art Gallery exhibition called ‘In the Light of the Day’. Her artworks were described as coming

 from a long standing tradition of painting en plein air, artwork created ‘in the moment’, painted and worked on in situ.  

mrag.org.au/whats-on/nola-tegel-in-the-light-of-the-day/(opens in a new tab)

In 2018 Tegel documented the historic colonial Victorian homestead Maryland at Bringelly     when she was privately commissioned ‘to create 60 paintings.’ These paintings have told the story of one of the Cowpastures most important colonial mansions and farms built between 1820 and 1850. (Then & Now Catalogue)

Patricia Johnston

Another member of the Camden Realist school is Camden-based artist Patricia Johnston.

Johnston is the ‘2021 Focus Artist’ at the Campbelltown Arts Centre for the ‘Friends Annual and Focus Exhibition’.

Another prodigy of Alan Baker and a fan of the plein air tradition Johnston says that Baker

Revealed the challenge of capturing changing light conditions in open-air painting. The immediacy of this technique and the ability to analyse complex visual scenes established a groundwork that has greatly influenced my painting. The environment became by studio.

Friends Annual & Focus Exhibition Catalogue 2021

A collage of paintings by artist Patricia Johnson on display at the Campbelltown Arts Centre as the ‘2021 Focus Artist’ in the ‘Friends Annual and Focus Exhibition’. (I Willis)

Realism on display

Camden realism’s outstanding body of work is a collection of Alan Baker’s paintings, sketches, and other works at the Alan Baker Art Gallery Macaria in John Street Camden. The gallery presents the Alan Baker Collection, which is

a colourful portrayal of an artist’s life in 21st Century Australia.

Alan Baker Art Gallery Flyer

The flyer for the ‘Face to Face’ Exhibition at the Alan Baker Art Gallery Macaria Camden with artist Alan Baker’s self-portrait on the cover. The exhibition is running during 2021. (Alan Baker Art Gallery)

Camden realism is encouraged every year in the Camden Art Prize, which was established in 1975. The acquisitive art prize has a host of categories attracting a mix of artist styles, including traditional representational works.

Smaller exhibitions of Camden realism add to body of work. In 2019 local artists Patricia Johnson, Nola Tegel, Bob Gurney, and Roger Percy mounted an exhibition at Camden Library called ‘Living Waters of Macarthur’. The body of artworks told a variety of stories of the local area in a visual form and captured the essence of place for viewers of local landscapes.

Art as storytelling

The body of work that has grown around Camden realism illustrates the ability of art to tell a story about place. The art style encourages a sense of emotional attachment to a locality by telling stories about the landscapes that surround the community.

Camden realism offers a visual interpretation of storytelling of Macarthur landscapes and the communities within it. This body of work documents the changes that have taken place across the local area from pre-European times to the present, illustrating that all these landscapes are transitional.

Perhaps leaving the last word to artist Courtney Jordon, who says:

Even if they are not aware of it, visual artists often develop some sort of narrative in their work..

Camden realism is a school of art that documents the local area in a different form of storytelling.