Images from the past show a diffident land
Jim Davidson has plunged into the vastness of the National Library Archives, pulled out hundreds of postcard plums and arranged them in a gallery. To move through it is a delight.
Davidson is in love with his subject, a cartophile, and his comments have as much to offer as the cards: “Postcards may freeze an image, but by framing, naming and projecting it they confer a new contemporaneity, making it fresh again.” These images live and breathe. Caught by the camera, and paradoxically freed by the camera, they open up a world that seems invulnerable. The British Empire rules the globe and Australia is federated, youthful and safe.
Davidson begins Moments in Time with a brief history. The golden age of the postcard extended from 1900 to about 1920. In 1910 central Sydney had three mail deliveries a day and handled more than 12 million postcards a year. (Melbourne, still proudly dominant, had four deliveries a day.) One could send a card in the morning to arrange a meeting in the afternoon.
Edwardian business was booming, and where there are booms there are entrepreneurs. The most enterprising was George Rose, founder of the Rose Stereographic Company. First he went hiking into the country with tripod and shoulder bags carrying his plates. Later, he adapted a bus and fitted it with a photographic platform, with living quarters and a darkroom underneath. He took nearly 20,000 photographs, an extraordinary range of images over an exceptional length of time.
Though Davidson has arranged his collection of subjects alphabetically, it’s not hard to discern a narrative, an underlying theme: patriotism. In Edwardian times it was like a fever. Two cards feature Edward VII. The first, dated 1907, celebrates Empire Day, with an inscription that was to be recited at state school assemblies every Monday morning for the next 50 years: “I love God and my Country; I honour the Flag; I will serve the King, and cheerfully obey my Parents, Teachers and the Laws.”
The second shows his memorial service outside Parliament House, then in Melbourne: a crush of top hats and military helmets. Davidson’s comments are respectful, but cry out for an alternative voice. Here goes: Edward, also known as the Caresser. Interested in horseriding, shooting, eating, drinking and other men’s wives. Liked an eight-course lunch and 12-course dinner, topped off with sandwiches before bedtime.
Davidson’s postcards move on to World War I and Advance Australia, with square-jawed Diggers, rifle at the ready, under the rising sun badge. On the page before, Shrapnel Gully, Gallipoli, 1915, and next to that Gallipoli’s obverse side: a soldier giving a turbaned trader a bunch of fives. Again, Davidson is tactful: “On leave, Australians encountered Egyptians offering goods and services; it was not a pretty exchange. Callow recruits met desperation, and struck out wildly.” (In fact in Cairo the Australians left behind a reputation for loutishness that lingered.)
If wartime horrors weren’t postcard material, the Armistice certainly was. First, a triumphal parade of Australian troops through London, then a church service at Caulfield Military Hospital. At the rear of the inevitable dignitaries, a row of beds, most likely containing those who would soon be classed as TPI: totally and permanently incapacitated, condemned to operate lifts, sell joke books at street corners, or hawk shoelaces door to door.
These introduce the underclasses: shearers in singlets and braces, a bullock team dragging a house down a country road, a cork-hatted swagman inspecting what the dog actually did on the tucker box (shat on it), and a wonderful tinted photo of a family outside a house built around a huge fallen tree (“Likely,” suggests Davidson, “victims of the savage depression of the 1890s, when so many left Melbourne that its population fell by 50,000.’’)
Still there were consolations — though the beach, at least in Edwardian times, was not one of them. There are no swimmers in the tinted panorama of Queenscliff — the waters are just a backdrop to the fashionable promenade on the sand. It was the guesthouse that offered release from these whalebone proprieties. Its vogue lasted into the 1950s, notably the Mountain Grand, featured in three postcards, and styling itself the Switzerland of the South.
In wartime, in the 1940s, we were taken by our mother to one such institution, which was run on prison camp lines. Meals were announced by a bell. We all lined up at long tables while dubious viands were put before us. The lady commandant presided, alert for any misbehaviour.
In a society this conventional, erotica has