Helen Webberley

Helen Webberley is a lecturer in history and art history at the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne. Since November 2008, she has been writing blog articles on the art, architecture and history of Britain and its Empire, Europe, the Mediterranean and North America.

icon light bulb ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly.

A Homeland in the Southwest

Where can you go when the world turns against you? The farthest corner of the farthest island?

Critchley Parker (1911-42) was the son of a Melbourne mining magazine publisher, Frank Parker. Frank had been a very visible and public figure in his day, playing a major part in the conscription debate and election campaign of 1917. A fervent pro-conscriptionist, Frank displayed inflammatory posters in his windows and used his magazine, now the Australian Statesman and Mining Standard, to attack anti-conscriptionists and Irish Catholicism.

Rather unexpectedly Critchley Parker, a young upper middle class Anglo Saxon Christian, became a friend of the Jewish people by seeking to find a Jewish homeland in Australia. This was not as strange as it may seem.

The Kimberleys in the remote, NW corner of Australia had already been seriously considered as a possibility for a Jewish safe haven. In 1933 Dr Isaac Steinberg and his London-based Freeland League selected the Kimberleys as a place to purchase agricultural land; this was where 75,000 Jewish refugees from Europe could be reset­tled, a few years before the Holocaust even emerged. This effort became known as the Kimberley Plan and was based on the Australian governments officially-declared need to populate The North. Alas that possibility faded when the Australian Federal government later decided not to support the idea.

Critchley Parker believed a better alternative could be found in Port Davey, a rugged part of SW Tasmania. If Tasmania is the most isolated part of Australia (and the world), Port Davey is one of the most isolated parts of Tasmania. But perhaps that was the very appeal of the place to Parker.

Why did Critchley Parker get involved in a struggle that was not his own?

Helen Light (1) suggested three motives:

1] a genuine concern for the refugees,
2] a keen interest in Tasmania’s economic development and
3] his attachment to Caroline Isaacson, a journalist on Melbourne’s most important newspaper and a Jewish activist.

In 1941 Parker finally met Dr Steinberg, the Russian politician who had initially arrived in Australia to discuss the Kimberley Plan. (Pictured) Together Parker and Steinberg set off to explore the area around Port Davey in Tasmania, without detailed plans but with great enthusiasm.

On arrival, they approached the state premier, AG Ogilvy Robert Cosgrove(1939-47) who graciously welcomed the proposal; an official visit for Parker, Steinberg, Isaacson and a team of experts got underway.But 1941 was not a great year for radical proposals. The war with Japan was looking hopeless and Britain, as it turned out, could not even defend Singapore. Worse still, the Americans were not likely to become involved in World War Two at that stage. Any notion of an Australian Jewish Settlement was not given high priority in late 1941.

The issue for Jews was beyond desperate by 1941. The Germans were already well along the path of the total extermination of Jewish communities throughout central and eastern Europe. So in March 1942 Parker set out to survey his proposed homeland site in Tasmania’s remote and rugged south west. The area around Port Davey is some of the bleakest coastline in the world. There are still no roads, no towns, no people – just sheer peaks, gorges, wild rivers and wild weather. It was, and is a vast landscape.

On this journey, staff dropped him at the foot of Mount MacKenzie and told him to light a fire if he needed help. After two days, when the gales rolled in, Critchley returned to his tent and signalled for help. In doing so he used up all his matches. No help came. He retired to his tent, totally alone, and existed for three weeks on water and aspirin. He tragically died, but the notebooks and letters that he had in his tent survived. The documents included his hopes for Jewish settlement in the area, probably to be modelled on Russian collectivism.

The only writer I can find who thought Critchley Parker’s dream to save Jewish lives was not valuable was Pip McManus (2). She said Parker was a wealthy eccentric with an abiding passion for the development of the Tasmanian frontier, a deluded romantic bent on fulfilling his own neo-biblical prophesies of a New Jerusalem. Parker disregarded the advice and aspirations of his colleagues and perished, as the result of his own obsessive failings. She saw Parker’s plans to create a safe homeland for his (McManus’ word) Jewish refugees, devoid of conservationist values, as more suited to a script from a reality TV survivor programme.

The plans were doomed, as indeed were contemporary Jewish attempts to peacefully settle the Holy Land. Tasmania and Israel were both Unpromised Lands.Other Christian Australians, if they know the story of Parker at all, read it as a brave but hopelessly romantic Australian explorer who died tragically a la Burke and Wills eg Wilson’s Blogmanac (3). Jewish Australians, if they know the story, see Parker as an amazing human being. He was a Christian who went to extraordinary lengths to rescue Jewish lives from the German crematoria during the worst years of WW2.

The case is well argued in Philosemitism blog and in The Age’s Saturday Review (4).In Parker’s story, Helen Light teased out all the elements of the Tasmanian story – promise of a haven, wild landscape, dream and vision, conflict between the establishment of a settlement and concomitant industry, and its inevitable impact. A great adventure and a tragic end. I would add desperate and romantic energy in the face of an impending Holocaust on one hand vs benign neglect on the other.It is interesting that in these hideous days of pushing asylum-seeker boats back out to sea, Tasmanian politicians proudly champion those seeking asylum in their state.




An Artist in the Wilderness: Piguenit and the Australian Landscape

William Charles Piguenit (1836-1914) might have had a grim life in Australia since he was born in Hobart Town to a convict-father who had been transported to the Tasmanian penal colony. Instead, young William was fortunate that his mother valued education. She set up a school for middle class girls where she taught the most important subjects – French, music and drawing.

William lived and was educated in Hobart, and spent 22 years working in the Dep­artment of Lands survey office as a draught­sman. There was one great advantage from working in the survey office – Piguenit was perfectly placed to go on expeditions to the rugged inland of the Tasmanian islands. Certainly he was formally mapping the landscape, but he was also examining the dramatic and romantic views with an artist’s eye. Piguenit’s field diary, now held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, recorded his excitement at the rivers, skies, mountains, trees and waterfalls.

Admittedly the only formal connections he had to art in these 22 long years were a] lessons from a Scottish painter living in Hobart and b] doing lithographic illustrations as part of the survey work.

In 1872 Piguenit resigned from his career as a public servant in the Survey Office to devote himself to landscape painting – he began making sketching and photography trips to remote mountainous regions in inland Tasmania. For a largely self-taught artist, Pig­uenit started to exhibit his works in the annual Sydney and Melbourne academy shows. But giving up his day job was a brave thing to do, even for an unmarried man – he didn’t sell many of his paintings until 1887 when the government bought six of his works on the western highlands, now in the Hobart Art Gallery.

Piguenit’s impressive work, Mount Olympus, Lake St Clair, Tasmania, source of the Derwent, was one of many pieces in which he painted the state’s natural landscape. His romantic goal was to evoke the sublime majesty through a combin­at­ion of earth, water and sky writ large, and human activity writ small. We need to focus on Piguenit’s painting of Mount Olympus because it was the first work by an Australian-born artist to be acq­uir­ed, in 1875, by the Art Gallery of NSW.

Walk to the West was a book published in 1993 by The Royal Society of Tasman­ia to celebrate the walk to the West Coast of Tasmania under­taken by William Piguenit, James Backhouse Walker and others. They left Hobart in 1887. The book was based on the diary by Walker, with careful explanations of Tasmania’s conditions and environment. The text was interspersed with plates from Piguenit’s paintings, made along the trip. And a map provided information of the West Coast landscape in the 1880s.

In 1889 Piguenit joined an artists and photographers camp in the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains. And the very next year he settled in Sydney. Continued patronage by the Gallery in Sydney enabled him to tour NSW and Tasmania, providing fresh inspir­ation for his grand, sweeping landscapes. The Flood in the Darling 1890 was one of the enormous works painted by Piguenit when heavy rains half flooded inland New South Wales that year.

Like any good Rom­an­t­ic artist, Piguenit loved comb­ining the dest­ructive yet sublime powers of nature. This artist could have depicted the loss of animals, human life and rural architecture, yet he chose the post-storm calm. He depicted the vast expanse of sky, land and water as a celebration of the natural world and its elements.

I’m perfectly aware that not every art historian thought that Piguenit had a very important place in Australian art of the later 19th century. Christopher Allen (The Australian, 22/6/2013) believed that while the paintings were apparently about vastness, distance and sublime grandeur, they were in fact completely flat. They had no depth, no space and no rigour. Allen thought this criticism was even more evident when comparing Piguenit to his Heidelberg School contemporaries in Melbourne.

But did the Heidelbergers make Piguenit look old fashioned and prov­incial, largely because of the older man’s lack of formal education in art composition? I think not. If we had to reject paintings because of a lack of rigour, half the religious, historical and portrait paintings of the last 2000 years would be gone. In any case, Piguenit starred in two important elements: his magic silvery light and his glassy bodies of water.

Despite being in his 60s, Piguenit continued his successful career into the new century. In 1898 and 1900 he visited Europe, exhibiting at London and Paris. Back home he won Australia’s most prestigious landscape award, the 1901 Wynne Prize, for Thunder Storm on the Darl­ing. Then he was commissioned by the National Gallery of New South Wales trustees to paint Mount Kosciusko 1903. This was a maj­estic depiction of the continent’s tallest mountain. It was a perfect symbol for the importance of Australia’s Federation, just two years earlier.

This fine artist died in 1914.

References and Image Sources

A Passion for Nature: William Charles Piguenit in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Collection, by Sue Backhouse et al, was published by the gallery in 2012. It shows the paintings and prints from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the largest body of the artist’s work in any collect­ion. And it is well worth viewing the Catalogue Raisonne published by Tony Brown in December 2012, also for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery of Hobart.


Mount King William from Lake George, Tasmania / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia (Bib ID 358336 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2292677)

Tasmanian landscape / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia (Bib ID 324956 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2263618)

On the Craycroft [i.e. Cracroft], Tasmania / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia (Bib ID 358386 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2292673)

Mt. Olympus, Lake St. Clair, Tasmania, 1878 / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia Bib ID 354211 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2292634

Hawkesbury River with Figures in Boat : On the Nepean via Wikimedia http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:William_Charles_Piguenit

The Flood in the Darling via Wikimedia http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Piguenit_-_The_Flood_in_the_Darling_1890.jpg

Australia’s Oldest Theatre

The finest old theatres in Australia have very similar histories, although they may have been built in different states and belonged to different decades.  What was shared was that those pioneering theatres carried the cultural hopes of their backers in the earliest days of Australian society.

So what made Hobart’s theatrical experience very special?  In 1834 a consortium of Hobart Town’s business leaders was formed with the aim of establishing a permanent theatre for the rapidly expanding colony. Hobart Town must have been a rough old place in colonial days, so their leader brewer Peter Degraves asked the architect, John Lee Archer, to make the new Theatre Royal gorgeous. The foundation stone was laid in 1834 and it was up and running in 1837. Thus Hobart has the honour of being the oldest continually operating theatre in Australia.

Did the good burghers of Hobart Town mind that the theatre was placed between pubs, brothels, an abattoir, tanneries and tiny dock workers’ cottages? Apparently not, since it was given an impressive neoclassical façade and a charming interior (which was rebuilt after destruction by fire in 1984).

However, there was a price to pay. The entertainment ranged from traditional music hall to nasty cock fights. Worse still, the theatre’s own history tells, a sleazy tavern operated beneath the auditorium. Prostitutes, sailors and general riffraff would enter the pit with tankards full and create all sorts of drama of their own, much to the displeasure of the gentry in the boxes. During intervals, drunken prostitutes could be seen bounding across the seats, heading to the conveniences as fast as they could.

There were three entrances to the Hobart theatre; a grand front entrance for the well heeled, a door off the side lane for ordinary working families, and a tacky entrance from the pub in the basement that opened directly into the cheapest seats.

The addition of the gallery in the 1850s and new decoration to the auditorium in the 1890s made the site attractive. The finest renovations started in 1911, when new balconies were added, the front entrance enlarged, and plush red velvet upholstery appeared for the first time. The crème of the entertainment world have trod the boards in the Theatre Royal, including Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Sybil Thorndike.

Saved from demolition several times, the theatre survived fires, a call to demolish the building during the Second World War  and decades of wear and tear. The worst threat came in the late 1940s; it was then that the actor Sir Laurence Olivier was among the many people working to save this Hobart institution.

Again, when a devastating fire in 1984 destroyed much of the stage area and the front of the auditorium, closure seemed imminent. A fundraising appeal was launched to raise the $1 million needed to carry out repairs. The money was raised and the theatre underwent major reconstruction and refurbishment, reopening in March 1986. Today historians love the Theatre Royal, and so do fans of the performing arts.