THE topography of a city has an indisputable, though imponderable relation to its character and that of its inhabitants: the hills of Sydney, for example, and the flatness of Melbourne seem somehow emblematic of the very different mood and sensibility of the two cities.
Sydney is full of breaks and interruptions and transitions between quarters of the city, largely based on the succession of high and low ground, the alternation of open views and enclosed hollows, of eastern and western slopes, of good and bad aspects.
Melbourne, on the contrary, is almost completely flat. This has allowed the city to be laid out in a vast grid of primary and secondary streets with a network of alleyways, a far more rational organisation than Sydney, which is squeezed into a relatively exiguous area between natural boundaries.
Everything seems more spacious in Melbourne — visitors to both cities will have noticed that cafes in Melbourne are large and comfortable whereas in Sydney a cafe can hardly be considered chic if it has more than half a dozen tables and preferably some hard little stools footpath.
But the most distinctive and intriguing thing about Melbourne, especially from the perspective of a Sydneysider, is the lack of any boundary between different quarters. If you go for a walk through the long grid streets of Melbourne, whether through commercial or residential areas, you will pass insensibly from wealthy to poorer sections, from well-maintained houses with cared-for gardens to rundown places with gardens that have gone to seed, or from busy and lively shopping streets to seedy stretches with empty windows — and then a little further on, back again to prosperity.
One gets the impression of a city that is more discreet and private than Sydney, where differences are more nuanced and perhaps also more fluid. The rich don’t have
the better views, since there are no views to speak of; they simply have bigger and more elegant residences. The differences are inside rather than outside. And all of this suggests, at least to the flaneur who has nothing to do but ponder the mood of the city he is walking through, the conditions for a greater inner life than one expects in extroverted Sydney.
Of course the hilliness and flatness are indissociable from the most conspicuous difference between the respective topographies of the two places: Melbourne is a river city, while Sydney is built around a harbour. Or at least that is the impression one has of Melbourne until one sees the city from the air, and then it is surprising to find how close to the sea it really is. But what is undeniable is that the sea has, for all its proximity, virtually no presence in the shape of Melbourne, while it is ubiquitous in Sydney and determines the morphology of the whole inner city and many of the suburban areas.
Nonetheless, Melbourne is indeed built on the sea, or rather in the enormous bay of Port Phillip, and it is the purpose of Sea of Dreams, at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, to rediscover this fact and almost to propose a different way of thinking about the city and its environment. Perhaps the first part of the task is to constitute Port Phillip itself as a single object of the imagination, for it is so vast that we tend to think of its parts — such as Geelong or the Mornington Peninsula — as different and separate entities, when in fact they are part of the same geography, and of course part of a common history as well.
Sea of Dreams, curated by Jane Alexander, who is the director of the MPRG, began as a relatively simple idea, to document the bay through its representation by artists over the past couple of centuries. It soon became apparent, however, that there was an overwhelming amount of material available, and of outstanding historical interest. So the present show covers the period 1830-1914, and a second instalment in a couple of years’ time will deal with the sequel from 1914 to the present.
The exhibition opens with a work that fittingly evokes its subject and several of its themes: James Howe Carse’s 1871 painting of Dromana emphasises what must always have been the town’s distinctive feature, an extremely long pier — much longer than it is today — stretching out into the comparatively shallow bay to where the water was
Charles Conder’s Rickett’s Point, Beaumaris 1890