Macfarlane’s House #1, 2010, Ipswich Art Gallery Collection. On display. IN the 1850s colonial artist Conrad Martens travelled extensively around Australia, staying with wealthy merchants and pastoralists who commissioned him to produce portraits of their homesteads and properties, symbols of their prosperity and privilege. Martens and other well known artists, such as Eugene von Guerard, successfully catered for this flourishing market of house portraiture.
Also during the 1850s, the township of Ipswich, 40km west of Brisbane, had its share of wealthy merchants building grand private homes. It was a prosperous town, once touted to be the state capital of Queensland before Brisbane took the title. As a result of this affluence, Ipswich now has many fine examples of heritage houses dating back to the 1850s, ranging from workers’ cottages to a Georgian-style sandstone villa to Victorian mansions.
‘‘ Far fewer houses in Ipswich have been lost to progress than in neighbouring cities,’’ director of Ipswich Art Gallery Michael Beckmann says. ‘‘ And although many houses appear to have survived through benign neglect rather than careful attention, they are widely regarded today as one of the city’s greatest assets.’’
Beckmann was so captivated by the city’s stock of domestic houses that in 2010 he commissioned 13 contemporary artists to examine Ipswich’s architectural heritage. One artist was Jane Burton, who chose to make a portrait of Macfarlane’s house, a late Victorian ‘‘ Queenslander’’ perched on Denmark Hill in central Ipswich with sweeping views of the city. The house was built in 1887 for John Macfarlane, mayor of Ipswich and later Queensland parliamentarian.
Burton, who was born in Brisbane in 1966, explains that when she first saw Macfarlane’s house she was ‘‘ struck by its dilapidated grandeur ... It has spectacular views from three verandas but since the mid1960s, the front view from the house has been blocked by an enormous water reservoir. This concrete aspect is incongruous; the formal entrance has lost the vista of a bush reserve opposite, and much of its former grace.
‘‘ But the house has a fragile beauty with its delicate bones of finely detailed timber fretwork, cast-iron brackets and balustrade. The deteriorating carved wood and iron fences suggest those found in a cemetery, and overall, the distressed effect of peeling painted timber creates a beautiful patina that speaks of age and the wear of time.’’
Burton says she has photographed many old houses on the brink of non-existence; many now demolished. ‘‘ By photographing the deterioration of certain sites, I hope to reveal the traces and stains of former habitation, constructing a kind of mythology or archeology of decay.
‘‘ Macfarlane’s house, standing after 100 years, inspires me to imagine the history of its habitation and the events that have occurred within its walls.’’
Beckmann says that Burton, in her series of seven photographs, seems intent on refuting the charm and nostalgia of the old house. ‘‘ The first thing people note about these pictures is the use of the cinematic language of film noir. With their muted twilight colours and dark menacing shadows, each image is cunningly composed to present Macfarlane’s house as if seen in a bad dream.
‘‘ The next thing viewers may note is what these images aren’t: melodramatic or grotesque. Much about them suggests both idioms, but it’s filtered through the artist’s stylistic intelligence so they remain pictures of a decaying old house, not of a haunted house or crime scene.
‘‘ The pictorial drama of Macfarlane’s House is in the space between culture and nature — between the old house and the encroaching vegetation, which forms a black and foreboding frame to the composition.
‘‘ Here, it seems to me, the house is the victim. The result may be a disquieting sense of just how rickety and unstable a built structure is when confronted with the unstoppable forces of nature and time.’’
Pigment print, 43cm x 43cm