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Public art and a mural

Mural art and the Camden pioneer mural

Camden Pioneer Mural with the Camden Hospital wishing well, and associated landscaping and gardens. (I Willis, 2020)

 

One of the most important pieces of public art In the Macarthur region is the Camden Pioneer Mural. The mural is located on the corner of the Old Hume Highway and Menangle Road, adjacent to Camden Hospital. Thousands of people pass-by the mural and few know its story.

Public art is an important part of a vibrant community and adds to its cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality. Public art promotes

‘a sense of identity, belonging, attachment, welcoming and openness, and strengthen community identification to place. [It creates] a tangible sense of place and destination’.

The pioneer mural does all these and more. The mural makes a public statement about Camden and the stories that created the community we all live in today.

Murals according to Stephen Yarrow of the Pocket Oz Sydney  

 reflect the social fabric of communities past and present – visual representations of their dreams and aspirations, social change, the cultural protests of an era, of emerging cultures and disappearing ones.

Public murals have recently gone through a revival in Australia and have turned into tourist attractions. Murals have become an important part of the urban landscape of many cities including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Launceston and other cities around the world. Mural art in the bush has been used to promote regional tourism with the development of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

The Camden pioneer mural is visual representation of the dreams and aspirations of its creators.

The creators

The mural was originally the idea of the town elders from the Camden Rotary Club.  The club was formed in halcyon days of the post-war period (1947) when the club members were driven by a desire for community development and progress.  Part of that vision was for a tourist attraction on the town’s Hume Highway approaches, combined with a wishing well that would benefit the hospital.  (Clowes, 1970, 2012)

Camden Pioneer Mural with the ceramic artwork completed by Byram Mansell in 1962 (I Willis, 2020)

 

The next incarnation of the vision was a mural with a ram with a ‘golden fleece’ to ‘commemorate the development of the wool industry by the Macarthurs’.  The credit for this idea has been given to foundation Rotary president Ern Britton, a local pharmacist. (Clowes 1970, 2012)   

Club members were influenced by the mythology around the exploits of colonial identity and pastoralist John Macarthur of Camden Park and the centenary of his death in 1934. Macarthur was a convenient figure in the search for national pioneering heroes. The ‘golden fleece’ was a Greek legend about the adventures of a young man who returned with the prize, and the prize Macarthur possessed were merino sheep.

The ‘golden fleece’ was seared into the national psyche by Tom Roberts painting The Golden Fleece (1894), the foundation of the petrol brand in 1913 and Arthur Streeton’s painting Land of the Golden Fleece (1926).  

The Camden mural project gained momentum after  the success of the 1960 Camden festival, ‘The Festival of the Golden Fleece’,  celebrating the 150th anniversary of wool production in Australia.

By 1962 the project concept had evolved to a merino sheep and a coal mine, after the Rotary presidencies of Burragorang Valley coal-baron brothers Ern and Alan Clinton (1959-1961)  (Clowes, 2012)

The plaque on the mural wall commemorating the official opening in 1962 (I Willis, 2020)

 

The artist

Club secretary John Smailes moved the project along and found ceramic mural artist WA Byram Mansell. (Clowes, 2012)

Mansell was a well-known artist and designer, held exhibitions of his work in Australia and overseas and did commissioned mural works for businesses, local council and government departments. (ADB) He adopted what the Sydney Morning Herald art critic called a form realism that a synthesis of traditional European styles and ‘the symbolic ritual and philosophy of the Australian Aboriginal’. Mansell’s work was part of what has been called ‘Aboriginalia’ in the mid-20th century ‘which largely consisted of commodities made by nonindigenous artists, craftspeople and designers who appropriated from Aboriginal visual culture’.  (Fisher, 2014)

Mural themes

The scope of the mural project had now expanded and included a number of themes: the local Aboriginal tribe; local blackbirds – magpies; First Fleet arriving from England; merino sheep brought by the Macarthur family establishing Australia’s first wool industry; grapes for a wine making industry; dairy farming and fruit growing; and development of the coal industry. (Clowes, 2012)

Mansell created a concept drawing using these historic themes. (Clowes, 2012) The club accepted Mansell’s concept drawings and he was commissioned to complete the mural, creating the ceramic tiles and firing them at his studio. (Clowes, 2012)

The mural concept seems to have been an evolving feast, with Mansell refusing to supply the Rotary Club with his interpretation of his artwork. (Clowes, 1970)

The plaque with the inscription from the official programme of the opening in 1962. (I Willis, 2020)

 

The artist and the meaning of the mural

 To understand the meaning what the artist intended with the design this researcher has had to go directly to Mansell’s own words at the 1962 dedication ceremony.

 Mr Mansell said,

‘I was happy to execute the work for Camden and Australia. We are a great land, but we do not always remember the early pioneers. But when I commenced this work there came to me some influence and I think this was the influence of the pioneers.

Mr Mansell said,

‘The stone gardens at the base is the symbol of the hardships of the pioneers and the flowers set in the crannies denote their success.’

‘The line around the mural, represents the sea which surrounds Australia.

‘To the fore is Capt Cook’s ship Endeavour and the wheel in the symbol of advancement. The Coat-of-Arms of the Macarthur-Onslows, pioneered sheep, corn, wheat, etc are all depicted as are the sheep which were first brought to this colony and Camden by John Macarthur.

‘Aboriginals hunting kangaroos are all depicted and so on right through to the discovery of coal which has been to us the ‘flame of industry’. Incorporated in the central panel is the Camden Coat-of-Arms, and the Rotary insignia of the wheel highlights the panel on the left.

‘Colours from the earth have been used to produce the unusual colouring of the mural.  (Camden News, 20 June 1962)

Further interpretation

According to Monuments Australia the mural ‘commemorates  the European pioneers of Camden’ and the Australian Museums and Galleries Online database described the three panels:

There is a decorative border of blue and yellow tiles creating a grape vine pattern. The border helps define the triptych. The three panels depict the early history of Camden. The large central panel shows a rural setting with sheep and a gum tree in the top section. Below is a sailing ship with the southern cross marked on the sky above. Beside is a cart wheel and a wheat farm. There are three crests included on this panel, the centre is the Camden coat of arms bearing the date 1795, on the proper right is a crest with a ram’s head and the date 1797, and on the proper left is a crest with a bunch of grapes and the date 1805. The proper right panel of the triptych, in the top section depicts an Aboriginal hunting scene. Below this is an image miner’s and sheafs of wheat. The proper left panel depicts an ornate crest in the in the top section with various rural industries shown below. (AMOL, 2001)

Specifications

The mural has three panels is described as a ‘triptych’ constructed from glazed ceramic tiles (150mm square). The tiles were attached to wall of sandstone blocks supported by two side columns. The monument is 9.6 metres wide and 3 metres high and around 500mm deep. There is a paved area in front of the mural 3×12 metres, associated landscaping works and a wishing well. (AMOL, 2001; Clowes, 1970)

The official programme from the opening and dedication of the mural in 1962. (Camden Museum)

Tourists visit mural

Tourists would stop in front of the mural and have their picture taken as they travel along the Hume Highway.

The pioneer mural was a local tourist attraction and visitors stopped and had their picture taken in front of the artwork. Here Mary Tinlin, of Kurri Kurri, is standing in front of the mural and fountain. Mrs Tinlin is standing on the side of the Hume Highway that passed through Camden township. The prominent building at the rear on the right is the nurses quarters. Immediately behind the mural wall is Camden District Hospital before the construction of Hodge building in 1971. (George & Jeannie Tinlin, A Kodachrome slide, 1964))
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John Macarthur the legend

1934 Australian Commemorative Postage Stamp
1934 Australian Commemorative Postage Stamp

The Legend

In school textbooks for decades, at least up the 1960s, John Macarthur has been written about as the father of the Australian wool industry. Writers have maintained that his vision for New South Wales was for fine wool to become the staple industry of the state and the country.

Postage Stamps

On the anniversary of John Macarthur’s death in 1934 the Commonwealth Government’s Postmaster-General’s Department issued a special commemorative series of postage stamps to celebrate the his centenary of his death and his role, according to the Sydney press, ‘for being responsible for the introduction of the merino breed of sheep into Australia, and the consequent establishment of Australia as the greatest wool-producing country in the world’.

1966 Australian $2 note
1966 Australian $2 note

$2 Note

In 1966 John Macarthur’s image and the merino ram appeared on the first Australian $2 note. More than this he is a character in Eleanor Dark’s semi-fictional Australian classic trilogy ‘The Timeless Land’ (1941). John Macarthur also features in American writer Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Tongues of Serpents (2010). In 1949 the Federal electoral Division of Macarthur, taking in Camden, was named in honour of John and Elizabeth Macarthur.

Festivals

In Camden the town celebrated the legacy of the John Macarthur in 1960 with the 4-day Festival of the Golden Fleece (22-30 October). The festivities celebrated the 150th anniversary of wool production in Australia.

While John Macarthur was important in the importation of Spanish merino sheep from South Africa and the early development of the Australian wool industry, he was not alone in this story. There are a host of other individuals in the story including his wife, Elizabeth, and other wool producers like Reverend Samuel Marsden and William Cox and folk like Governor Hunter, and Captains Waterhouse and Kent. Although for many, particularly in the early 20th century, John Macarthur single-handedly was responsible for the foundation of the wool industry at Camden Park.

John Macarthur (Wikimedia)
John Macarthur (Wikimedia)

The anniversary of the death of John Macarthur in 1934 was a time of reflection on his contribution to the story of farming in Australia. The country was looking for heroes and pioneer figures who conquered the colonial frontier and John Macarthur fitted the bill. The enormous wealth generated by the wool industry in the 1920s and 1930s contributed the feeding frenzy around the legend of John Macarthur.

Wool’s enormous wealth

The wool industry during the interwar period was of immense importance to Australia. By the mid-1920s the United Kingdom purchased about 50% of Australia’s total wool exports, and wool exports accounted for about three-quarters of all pastoral export income. By the late 1920s Australia’s 103 million sheep were 17% of the world’s sheep numbers and Australia produced half of the world’s merino wool. In the 1930s wool exports were 30% of the total value of the Australia’s exports. (ABS)

Commemorative anniversary

In 1934 the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate claimed under a headline ‘Australia supplies most of the World Wool’ with a sub-heading ‘John Macarthur’s Work’. It went on the John MacArthur (sic) ‘laid the foundation of the merino wool industry at Elizabeth Farm, at Rose Hill, near Sydney in 1796’. In a second article on ‘John Macarthur, Father of the Wool Industry’, the author wrote that ‘there were no band playing, no celebrations’ and ‘perhaps that is how he would have wished it. His great monument stands in the record wool return that has come to Australia this year; a record that has turned the tide of depression, a record that may yet come in the flood of prosperity fully restored’. The newspaper felt ‘it seems strange that a man who did so much to make the wealth of the country should be so little honoured’. The author felt that there had been ‘ a hundred years in silence – now a few stamps – how typical of the casual Australian’.

The Braidwood Review and District Advocate ran a headline ‘The Golden Fleece, Late John Macarthur’s Vision’. Parramatta’s Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate in 1934 felt confident is stating that ‘Australia lives on the sheep’s back’. RAHS historian James Jervis wrote an article for the Argus called ‘John Macarthur – An Appreciation’ and said his memory ‘to all good Australians’.

Various members of the rural press reported on an address given by James Walker the president of the NSW Graziers’ Association which traced the history of the wool industry in Australia and Dr Roland Wilson, the economist of the Commonwealth Statistician Department, who dealt with the importance of the wool industry to Australia and the legacy of John Macarthur.

Father of the colony

Earlier in 1931 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article written by WRS called ‘John Macarthur, the Father of the Colony’ claiming he came from ‘a warrior ancestry’ and should be remembered ‘in the respectful admirations of Australians from the beginning of the drama of civilisation here’.

Even from the early 20th century there was a recognition by some of the reality of Macarthur’s contribution. JHM Abbott acknowledged in The World’s News in Sydney in 1926 that Macarthur was the first to realise the potential of wool production in the colony and he backed his opinion with his financial resources. Abbott states that ‘it is often erroneously stated that Macarthur introduced sheep to Australia, but that is not the case’.

While John Macarthur’s role made an contribution to the foundation of the Australian wool industry today we have a nuanced understanding of the important contribution made by many people to the story and Camden’s role in that story.

Read more

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 12 October 1934, page 12 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17119037
The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate @ The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW : 1894 – 1954), Saturday 27 October 1934, page 10 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131580256 &
The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW : 1894 – 1954), Saturday 28 April 1934, page 9 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131582903
The Braidwood Review and District Advocate (NSW : 1915 – 1954), Tuesday 24 April 1934, page 5 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article119333871
The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Monday 9 April 1934, page @ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article104578328
The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Thursday 3 May 1934, @ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article104577152
The World’s News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 1955), Saturday 11 December 1926, page 10 @ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131461348
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Saturday 20 June 1931, page 9 @ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16787537