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

c1790s, Na­tional Mu­seum of Australia, Can­berra. On dis­play, Aus­tralian Jour­neys gallery.

ABOUT 1789, a year af­ter the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay, John White, the fleet’s chief sur­geon, sent some planks of wood as a gift to his pa­tron in Eng­land. It may seem a strange present, but at that time Aus­tralian wood from the no­to­ri­ous pe­nal colony of NSW was con­sid­ered ex­otic and pres­ti­gious, and White was try­ing to re­tain the good favour of his main sup­porter, An­drew Snape Ha­mond.

In the late 1700s a pow­er­ful pa­tron, such as Snape Ha­mond, could make or break a ca­reer in the Bri­tish Navy. White re­lied on Snape Ha­mond to rec­om­mend him for pro­mo­tion and ad­vance­ment and it was on his pa­tron’s sug­ges­tion that White was ap­pointed sur­geon-gen­eral of the First Fleet.

White did a good job. On the voy­age from Eng­land to Australia he in­sisted that there were fresh ra­tions, ex­er­cise on deck and high stan­dards of hy­giene and san­i­ta­tion. As a re­sult, the mor­tal­ity rate for con­victs on the First Fleet voy­age was 3 per cent, com­pared with 25 per cent for the Sec­ond Fleet.

The wood that White sent to Snape Ha­mond was known as beef­wood, a col­lo­quial name given by early set­tlers to a type of tim­ber which, when cut, re­sem­bled salted beef, a sta­ple of the colo­nial diet. When the beef­wood ar­rived in London, a cab­i­net­maker sliced the pre­cious planks into thin ve­neers and made them into a small, Pembroke-style work ta­ble. This type of ta­ble was fash­ion­able among the Bri­tish rul­ing class and was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the neo­clas­si­cal style made pop­u­lar by the fur­ni­ture designs of Thomas Sher­a­ton.

For many years the ta­ble sat in the draw­ing room of Snape Ha­mond’s home in Nor­folk. It passed down to de­scen­dants who had no idea about its con­nec­tion with Australia. The ta­ble was iden­ti­fied by ac­ci­dent in 2006 when an em­ployee of the auc­tion house Bon­hams and Good­man vis­ited the home to value the fam­ily’s map col­lec­tion. While look­ing around, the em­ployee saw the ta­ble and dis­cov­ered that in­side one of the draw­ers was a la­bel, writ­ten by Snape Ham­mond, record­ing the tim­ber’s ori­gin: ‘‘ Sent from Botany Bay by Doc­tor White, Sur­geon of the Navy — in Planks of this ta­ble made up in London — Beef Wood’’.

As a re­sult of the dis­cov­ery, the so-called First Fleet ta­ble was sent to Australia for auc­tion and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Australia bought it in 2006 for nearly $300,000.

‘‘ I think it was a bar­gain,’’ says Michelle Hether­ing­ton, Na­tional Mu­seum of Australia cu­ra­tor, as we ex­am­ine the ta­ble.

‘‘ Ma­te­rial re­lat­ing to the First Fleet is hard to get hold of and much of it is al­ready in in­sti­tu­tions. And while other in­sti­tu­tions are gen­er­ous lenders, as are we, it is nice to have your own.’’

Hether­ing­ton ex­plains that beef­wood has a beau­ti­ful grain and that the early set­tlers com­pared it to oak and ma­hogany, highly de­sir­able tim­bers. ‘‘ The planks of beef­wood White sent to Snape Ha­mond were made up into this beau­ti­ful lit­tle late Georgian, neo­clas­si­cal ta­ble which would have been used for writ­ing let­ters, play­ing cards and tak­ing tea. It was at the ab­so­lute height of fash­ion­able style in the 18th cen­tury,’’ says Hether­ing­ton.

‘‘ The fam­ily used it for years and years and given that it has been used con­stantly, it is in beau­ti­ful con­di­tion ... it was a highly val­ued ob­ject. If ob­jects stay in the fam­ily they are not go­ing to suf­fer the sort of mis­treat­ment that can hap­pen dur­ing the process of mov­ing or be­ing resold. This ta­ble sur­vived as beau­ti­fully as it did be­cause it stayed in the same room for about 200 years and peo­ple in the fam­ily loved it.’’

Beef­wood (ca­sua­r­ina), tulip­wood, brass; 576mm wide, 605mm high, 423mm deep

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