Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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