Flagging a mystery in Canton

The French and United States factories at Canton, c1841. ANMM Collection 00015750. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

The French and United States factories at Canton, c1841. ANMM Collection 00015750. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

History in art

When I visit maritime museums, I am always drawn to the ‘China trade’ paintings of Canton (now Guangzhou), the southern Chinese port to which all foreign trade was restricted from 1757 under the Qing dynasty’s Canton System. There is something about their composition that is so intriguing – the merging of Chinese and European artistic traditions, the bustling river crowded with boats, and the detailed architectural rendering of the Western merchants’ hongs (factories) with their national flags proudly displayed out front.

Recently I have been researching one of the museum’s China trade paintings as part of a broader project on the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Cantonese settler Mak Sai Ying in Sydney in 1818. Our oil painting depicts the French and American hongs on the western side of the Thirteen Factories district along the Pearl River. It has been dated about 1841, or the latter stages of the First Opium War (1839–1842) between Britain and China, which would result in the abolition of the Canton System and the opening of five Chinese treaty ports to foreign trade. What I really wanted to know about our painting was: why would the British Red Ensign be flying in front of the Spanish factory?

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Sea Gypsies to Sultans: Meeting the mariners of the Java Sea

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

Thirty years ago, field-research for the museum took me to a remote little Indonesian island called Raas in the Java Sea. It was so far off regular motor-ship routes that I took passage on an engineless trading prahu propelled by a huge lateen sail. Prahus like these, called lete-lete, provided transport and livelihoods for Raas and adjacent islands, and some of them were sailed on long-haul fishing expeditions into northern Australian waters. The museum, which at that time was just beginning to develop its collections and first exhibitions, wanted to learn more about various types of maritime contacts linking Australia and Indonesia.

This autumn I returned to these same waters, leading a small group of visitors from Australia, the UK and Canada who were eager to meet some of Indonesia’s least-known maritime communities, in a region of the Java Sea where tourism has not yet arrived.

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The Batavia tapestry

Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry

Textile artist Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry. Photographer Kristina Kingston, reproduced courtesy Melinda Piesse

Last week we unveiled a new large-scale embroidered work by Melbourne textile artist Melinda Piesse at the museum. Known as the Batavia tapestry (2017), it illustrates the tragic story of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) flagship Batavia in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia, on 4 June 1629 and the sorry fate of the ship’s company.

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Man in the machine: submarines, ships, sailors and National memory

Johnnie and Mehmet concept drawing detail. Image: Alexander Knox 2015.

Johnnie and Mehmet concept drawing detail. Image: Alexander Knox 2015.

This is not a blog about the current Federal election … this is about something much more enduring and exciting – a bold new art installation that plays with the idea of animus, memory, the machinery of war, and to a degree geopolitics. It will be launched in the coming months on the forecourt at the Australian National Maritime Museum, and today, International Museums Day with its focus on cultural landscapes, seems an appropriate time to reveal something of the art work.

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It’s a Wrap: The Windjammer Sailors

What's wrapped up under the silk? Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

What’s wrapped up under the silk? Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Last week saw a Christo-like wrapping of silky black satin on the wharf at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Pyrmont. Intriguing and mysterious the form it enveloped was unreadable…

What could be under the silk? Well it’s an amazingly beautiful material, bronze. Used for millennia for public statuary, it is here applied to fuse old and new in an incredibly detailed and exacting process. This has produced a sculpture that explores something of the history of the site as a mercantile and maritime centre. Continue reading

Scrimshaw: A Whaler’s Pastime

The other day, I was walking through the Museum’s stores, when a strange object caught my eye: a neatly framed pair of odd looking dolls with very puffed up hair, which reminded me of the very elaborate 1980s hairstyles like the one Joan Collins wore on her Dynasty days.

Whale bone and human hair dolls. ANMM collection 00018316

Whale bone and human hair dolls.  ANMM collection 000018316

These dolls are part of the Museum’s scrimshaw collection. Scrimshaw are objects created by whalers from the by-product of the whale, such as bones, teeth, baleen and bones. It was first done by sailors working on whaling ships out of the coast of New England between 1745 and 1759 until the moratorium of commercial whaling in 1986.

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Godzilla meets the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in the ancient lost wax technique – the many faces of windjammer sailors

Yesterday I visited a sculpture being made at a fine art casting foundry on Sydney’s North Head at Manly. The work is being crafted using the lost wax technique, a traditional, ages-old method that will result in a timeless bronze. Each visit and each stage of the moulding and casting process brings surprises, most recently forms and colours that evoke the strangeness of a cast of characters from B-grade 1960s schlock-horror monster films such as Godzilla and even, in spirit, the hyper-real gigantic 50-foot woman.

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The Monuments Men

The first week of September sees the Blu-ray release of The Monuments Men. Imbued with an all-star cast, including George Clooney, Cate Blanchett & Matt Damon, this isn’t just another wartime drama, but the true story of the greatest art heist in history.

Julian Bickersteth of International Conservation Services tells part of that story here.

It is not often that a conservator appears in a movie – we are one of those professions that tend to operate under the radar, hidden away in the back of museums. But when we do hit the limelight we like to do it in style, so it is great to see a conservator taking a lead role in The Monuments Men, played by none other than George Clooney.

George plays the central character of George Stout (called Frank Stokes in the film) who was a key player in the Monuments Men, or to give them their full title, the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives (MFA&A) section. Set up by the Allied Forces in World War II, they were entrusted with the mission of locating and protecting works taken by the Nazi Regime. The film is based on the book of the same name by Robert Esdel, and tells their remarkable story, based around a simple job description: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.

Stout packing Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges in the mines at Altaussee, Austria, July 1945

Stout packing Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges in the mines at Altaussee, Austria, July 1945

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Persuasive Posters – A propaganda collage craft for the home

superhero poster

Don’t squeal, unless it’s a big deal!

Always say thankyou, don’t forget please, and always, always cover your sneeze!….

Who ever said propaganda was only useful for a war effort? It’s even better put to work on the “home front!”. This month our kids craft item is inspired by our exhibition Persuasion: US Propaganda posters from WW2. Full of vibrant colours, retro graphics and unashamed slogans it made us feel like making a very persuasive poster of our very own. And what better place to start than selling good manners, etiquette, hygiene and all such behaviours that distinguish your little “do bees” from your “don’t bees”. Here’s hoping a bit of poster magic can turn them into a food-eater, a bed-goer, a play-safe and a tooth-brusher! Continue reading

When in doubt, Razzle Dazzle them

The HMT ZEALANDIA in Sydney Harbour in her dazzle paint. ANMS0047[060]

The HMT ZEALANDIA in Sydney Harbour in her dazzle paint. ANMS0047[060]

We often see WW1 through a black and white lens. Images of trench life, battle scenes and soldiers are always shades of grey. The endless mud is never brown, the blood is not red and the uniforms of both sides are the same indistinguishable colour. So it was with some surprise when I came across some plans for the painting of Allied ships whilst looking at the unique “dazzle” defence of ships during the war.
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Photo story- Ansel Adams Cruise and Workshop

The view from under the cloth through the lens of an 8 x 10 deardorff camera. Upside down and back to front.

The view from under the cloth through the lens of an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera. Upside down and back to front…

It is odd under here.

The warm, almost suffocated air inside the velvety fabric tent.  Like hiding under the covers. The image- all upside down, back to front and obscured, unfocused in a gridded glass plate.  It is a concept of the life in front of the lens. While I look through this camera, a passer by, enamoured with the display of vintage technology, stops to take a photograph of a photograph being taken.


We are outside the museum for an introduction to our Ansel Adams-inspired photography workshop, learning what it is like to work with large format analogue cameras like those Adams would have used.  We’ve toured the beautiful images in the exhibition with ANMM curator Richard Wood and now it is time for our workshop with tutors Michael Waite and Benjamin Stone-Herbert  from the Australian Centre for Photography.

photography large format

ACP Tutors Michael and Ben set up large format cameras for everyone to try.

Tiny slide frames are handed around. This is how we will learn to compose our shot.  Michael suggests that even contemporary landscape artists and photographers may not have any better tool for thinking about a shot than a simple rectangular frame held up to the life around them.  The perfect photo may just be found in deciphering the best way to frame the vast chaos and disordered collection of shapes in any given environment.

frames workshop participants

It is really a perfect day to be out on the harbour. Blazing sun cut by the cool breeze flapping in from the open doors and windows of our tiny ferry as it powers down the Parramatta River. Michael encourages us to concentrate on the journey. To not see the ferry as a barrier between us and the “out there” subject but as something that could frame our images. A scratched window, a red railing, a smear of reflection all adds to the scene. This idea is inspiring and releasing to almost all the participants and they head about keenly experimenting with compositions in, on and through the ferry towards the passing vistas.

photographer river




There is no shortage of beautiful and fascinating subjects- Graffiti-ed pylons, churning water, dilapidated boats and sheds along the river, or even the other photographers.



And it is lucky we are focusing on the journey.

As we pull in towards our destination (the semi- submerged shipwrecks of homebush bay) we discover the water level is too low to go any further today. We have to be content with a long distance shot or risk being marooned on the banks of the river. But there has been so much to capture already no one seems to be worried. As Ansel Adams would say “every experience is a form of exploration” and today, it would seem, we have been explorers.





Patch-eyed pirate prints

Ahoy there landlubbers, scurvydogs and sprogs!

We be gettin excited for Pirates Ahoy family fun day this Sunday. So much so that our craft spot this ere month be dedicated to puttin a swashbucklin pirate print on everythin!

A tote, bandanna or flag as well, this ere creative caper be an excellent activity for celebratin pirates any time.

If ye be without the doubloons to get ye a scurvy silkscreen, ye can use a simple sponge roller for your pirate print instead.

final designs

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The opulent ship with a royal connection

With plenty of attention focused on the British royal family at the moment, I was delighted to discover a royal connection in a recent addition to the museum’s collection – a framed 1900 print of the Orient liner Ophir in the Suez Canal by British artist Sir Frank Brangwyn.

Ophir in the Suez Canal by Frank Brangwyn, 1900

Ophir in the Suez Canal by Frank Brangwyn, 1900. ANMM Collection. Copyright David Brangwyn

Ophir was built by Robert Napier & Sons in Glasgow in 1891 and was the first twin-screw vessel to operate on the Australian mail service. It was often described as ‘the opulent Ophir’ because of its sumptuously-decorated interiors.

In 1900 it was chartered to the British Admiralty as the royal yacht HMS Ophir for the tour of the British Empire by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary). The main task for the Duke was to open Australia’s new Federal Parliament in Melbourne, but the tour also served to thank the colonies for their assistance during the Boer War.

HMS Ophir souvenir medallion, 1901

HMS Ophir souvenir medallion issued to school children, 1901. ANMM Collection

In March 1901 the Duke and Duchess departed Portsmouth on an eight-month tour that took in the following ports: Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Albany, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Lyttleton, Hobart, Adelaide, Albany, Fremantle, Mauritius, Durban, Simonstown, St Vincent, Quebec, Halifax and St John’s.

The tour was an outstanding diplomatic success, with thousands of people turning out in each port to welcome the royal couple. The museum holds several mementos from the tour, including a breakfast menu and a souvenir copper medallion issued to school children in New Zealand.

HMS Ophir breakfast menu from the royal tour, 11 April 1901

HMS Ophir breakfast menu from the royal tour, 11 April 1901. ANMM Collection

Following the royal tour, Ophir’s popularity soared, helping to sell summer cruises to the Norwegian fjords. However the vessel continued to lose money for the Orient Line because of its high running costs and it started to spend increasing time laid-up. During World War I it was commissioned as an armed merchant cruiser and in 1918 it was purchased by the Admiralty and converted into a hospital ship. Ophir was finally scrapped at Troon, Scotland, in 1922 – a sad end for the former royal yacht.

The museum’s colourful Frank Brangwyn print captures Ophir at the height of its grandeur and popularity, surrounded by Arab traders in bumboats as it travels through the Suez Canal. Brangwyn (1867–1956) was a prolific artist whose favourite subjects included ships and life on the high seas. Like many European artists of the time, he was influenced by Orientalism and the colours of the Mediterranean and Africa.

Art historian Libby Horner writes, ‘[Brangwyn’s] paintings, whatever the title, are usually concerned with the dignity of human labour, and the working man.’ Our print certainly epitomises this – it is not a staid ship portrait but a vibrant picture of how Ophir would have been seen by the inhabitants of Port Said or Suez, when it was a regular visitor on the fortnightly Royal Mail route from London to Sydney.

The long-held belief is that Ophir was named after a gold mining town near Bathurst, NSW. However recent research by the P&O archivist Rob Henderson into the personal papers of the Anderson family (co-founders of the Orient Line) suggests that it was named after the biblical port of Ophir, thought to have been on the coast of Arabia on the Red Sea. A wonderful connection between a vessel, a shipping company and an artist so inextricably linked with the Orient and the exotic sights and delights of travel by sea!

Kim Tao
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration

Two men in a boat – Opening of 2013 Sydney Festival

According to the media reports there were 60,000 people watching.  From my position, in the back of a canoe with Matt Doyle full blast on his didgeridoo in the front, I was too busy paddling and keeping it upright to notice just how many were watching us, taking pictures or filming.

Photo of giant inflated yellow rubber duck on water

Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck enters Cockle Bay

So how does a curator end up here, in Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour, paddling his self-designed-and-built plywood version of an Arnhem Land derrka, sitting behind Matt Doyle who is painted up, wired up and playing didgeridoo? We are opening the 2013 Sydney Festival event on Darling Harbour, which is featuring Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck installation. Continue reading

Changing Pyrmont – guest post by Jane Bennett

Meet Jane Bennett, an artist whom you may see around the museum wharves from time to time. We invited Jane to contribute a guest blog post about her work and current exhibition at Frances Keevil Gallery.

Hi, Jane Bennett here.

I would like to invite you to the annual end-of-year show at the Frances Keevil Gallery where I will have three of my recent Pyrmont paintings on display.

I first started painting Pyrmont when I was in art school in the late 1970s, documenting Pyrmont’s original character that came from its industrial heritage – the workers’ cottages perched on the creamy sandstone escarpment above dark, decaying wharves and warehouses.

During the 1980s Pyrmont was discovered by developers and radically transformed from a once-neglected industrial suburb in a 19th-century time warp, to a sleek media and entertainment hub. Buildings were often demolished as fast as I could paint them. Almost everything that I have painted has either been demolished or has changed beyond all recognition – the pubs have been gentrified, working-class terraces are replaced by apartment blocks and old warehouses are converted into offices. Continue reading