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Beverley Earnshaw, assisted by Janette Hollebone,
An Australian Sculptor: William Priestly MacIntosh ,
Kogarah Historical Society, Kogarah 2004
119 pages, illustrated, bibliography, endnotes, index, contents page,
ISBN 0 9593925 3 X, Dewey 730.92, $A 25.00

It is a noticeable fact that grants of arms issued by the Lord Lyon in Scotland and the Chief Herald of Canada generally acknowledge the heraldic artist who has contributed so much to the beautiful artwork in the letters patent. In Australia, by contrast, the term ‘heraldic artist’ appears to be almost unknown, despite the talent and skills evident in the work of several people today who would fit that exact description.

An Australian Sculptor begins with a brief biography of William Priestly MacIntosh, followed by fourteen chapters each detailing a particular MacIntosh sculpture or group of sculptures, followed by a brief summary of MacIntosh’s body of work.

MacIntosh was born in Scotland in 1857 and arrived in NSW in 1880 after apparently learning the sculptor’s trade in Edinburgh followed by six months studying anatomy. He quickly found work in Sydney carving ‘architectural ornaments’ for both private building contractors and the Public Works Department (PWD). In 1881 he enrolled in one of Lucien Henri’s first modelling classes at the Sydney School of Arts, and many of his known works reflect Henri’s then-radical focus on the use of Australian native flora and fauna as decorative motifs. MacIntosh worked right up to the time of his death in 1930 at his studio and home in Sydney’s suburban Kogarah.

MacIntosh’s known works can be found in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra as well as several major provincial cities. Chief among them are the figures gracing facades such as The Lands Department (1890-91), the Queen Victoria Building (1898-99) and the Commonwealth Bank (1916) in Sydney, the Government Printer’s Office (1910) and Administration Building (1920) in Brisbane, and Old Parliament House (1926) in Canberra; as well as the intricate and charming displays of native animals and flowers around the facade of the Sydney Technical College (1891) in Ultimo.

For the heraldist MacIntosh offers an interesting study of the heraldic artist at work in late 19th and early 20th century Australia, although this is not the focus of Earnshaw. Colonial Architect James Barnet recorded MacIntosh working on a Royal Coat of Arms for the Lands Department Building in February 1890 (Bent Street entrance). MacIntosh also carved the NSW Badge surmounted by a St Edward’s Crown and supported by waratah branches above the Loftus Street entrance. Both are carved in Sydney sandstone. A survey of other representations of Royal Arms and New South Wales badges on public buildings of the 1890s-early 1900s would probably reveal further examples of his work and what may be his stylistic characteristics such as the scalloped edges of the Royal shield or the oversized crown above the badge, neither of which feature in works by his contemporary James Cunningham. MacIntosh seems to have struggled with heraldic representations: both works seem a little ostentatious and unbalanced.

There is no overt heraldry among the groups of Carrara marble statuary on the Queen Victoria Building, but one group of three figures repose among an interesting mélange of heraldic charges above the George Street entrance. A beehive, mural crown and upturned anchor suggest the (then) assumed Arms of the City of Sydney; while a ram and cornucopia allude to charges often used in the popular Advance Australia Arms.

A representation of the Royal Arms in Freestone is wrapped around a corner of the Administration Building in Brisbane (1920). It is rather more restrained that in the earlier Lands Department representation in Sydney, and similar in style to that on the corner of the tower at Parramatta Courthouse (1897). Earnshaw notes that MacIntosh actually took over this commission when the original sculptor, James White, suddenly died in 1918, and this may account for the stylistic differences. MacIntosh’s “Commerce and Industry” composition above the George Street entrance features a Royal Crown similar in style to the St Edward’s Crown of the Lands Department’s NSW Badge, although here surmounting a blind cartouche rather than a Royal shield. Frustratingly, a representation of the Queensland Badge beneath this is only partly shown in the photograph, apparently within a scalloped frame reminiscent of Sydney’s Lands Department Royal Arms.

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Above: Royal Arms, NSW Department of Lands Building, Bent St façade, Sydney, carved by MacIntosh (Photo: Bruce Baskerville, 11th August 2007)

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Above: State Badge, NSW Department of Lands Building, Loftus St façade, carved by MacIntosh (Photo: Bruce Baskerville, 11th August 2007)

MacIntosh’s earliest Commonwealth Arms featured in the book are those on the Martin Place and Pitt Street facades of the Commonwealth Bank, Sydney (1915), both in beaten copper. The Pitt Street representation shows the incorrect (but occasionally used at this time) division of the shield as quarterly of six, two, two and two, and without any bordure. The kangaroo and emu supporters each possibly have a chain passing between their legs and reflexed over their backs (the picture is unclear). By contrast the Martin Place representation (likely to be the second of the two) shows the blazoned division of the shield as quarterly of six, three and three, with the bordure ermine. The supporters have been freed of their chains, but otherwise the supporters, as well as the crest, torse, motto ribbon and wattle decorations seem to be identical to those in Pitt Street. Earnshaw does not mention whether Macintosh also sculpted the State shields on the trachyte facade pilasters, although it is likely that he did so.

One of Macintosh’s destroyed works is of note. A hammered copper group of allegorical figures first cast in 1918 for the Sydney Water Board offices in Pitt Street includes Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, holding a cog wheel and ewer, and Sydney wearing her mural crown. The building was demolished in 1937, and the group was sent to a Board scrap yard before being broken up for scrap during World War Two. The Board president apparently considered the bare-breasted female figures indecent! However, it seems that their memory endured within the Board, and can be seen in the Arms assigned and granted to the Board in 1965. Hygeia, now demurely vested, stands as the sinister supporter, with her ewer held by Aquarius as dexter supporter, while Sydney¹s mural crown ensigns the crest. Hygeia and Aquarius are said to be derived from the supporters of the Board’s London counterpart, and the mural crown to represent the Board’s quasi-municipal status, but the potential influence of MacIntosh’s sculpture on the design of the 1965 Arms is hard to ignore. It may be his most original contribution to public heraldry in Australia.

MacIntosh’s last major heraldic commission was the Royal and Commonwealth coats of arms, in white Portland cement, for the facade of Parliament House in Canberra. The author provides a brief genealogy for the Arms beginning with the Arms on the Bowman Flag of c1806, leading to the short-lived First Commonwealth Arms of 1908. The Second Commonwealth Arms of 1912 featured a decoration of wattle branches and blossoms behind the Arms, a feature MacIntosh was experienced working with from his Commonwealth Bank commissions.

However, the plainer art deco architectural style of the Parliament House called for a simpler approach, and MacIntosh and the building’s architect JS Murdoch agreed upon a simplified depiction of the wattle, discretely filling the immediate background (not dissimilar to MacIntosh’s use of waratah foliage around the Lands Department’s NSW Badge 35 years before). The more notable of the artistic adaptations, however, is the depiction of the dexter supporter as a kangaroo regardant: Earnshaw refers to a letter from Murdoch to MacIntosh confirming that this was to allow both supporters to be facing the Royal Arms (to the left of the Commonwealth Arms). The Arms were installed in January 1926, and after some criticism of the detailing, the Chief Architect argued for the need to allow some degree of artistic license:

Exact reproduction of every detail … when applied to certain building works in certain materials and positions is difficult, and often not practicable, consistent with satisfactory appearance… .

The sculptor and architect’s pragmatic representation of the Arms prevailed over the precision of the blazon and the representation illustrated in the Royal Warrant – perhaps not for the first (or last) time.

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Above: The British Arms and the Australian Arms on Old Parliament House, Canberra today, neither of which are correctly coloured and with the kangaroo’s head ‘corrected’ to now face the emu.  Image http://www.aph.gov.au

Heraldry is not the major focus of Earnshaw, or even a minor theme in the book. Identifying the known works of MacIntosh, and making these known, are her main focus and the book’s strength. MacIntosh’s heraldic works are only a small part of his larger body of work, and this is reflected in the weight given to heraldry.

Aside from some technical criticisms of the book (the biographical chapter ends abruptly, without reference to MacIntosh’s Canberra works; the photograph quality is uneven; ‘British’ and ‘Royal’ Arms are used as interchangeable terms), this remains an important study, historically, architecturally and heraldically.

Heraldry is a fit subject for the sculptor, as for the printer, the painter and many other artists. However, there does not seem to be the discrete profession of heraldic artist in Australia, as there is in other civilized countries, and MacIntosh’s career suggests some historical reasons. This is not to say, however, that artists and artisans have never spent parts of their careers in producing heraldic artworks: they have, and this book should lead us to ask who these men and women were or are, and why their work remains so unappreciated.

MacIntosh is known to have had anatomical and artistic training, and his work is confident in depictions of human bodies, animals and native flora. His great teacher Henri designed some Australian Crowns using indigenous motifs, as well as representations of the Advance Australia Arms, but MacIntosh doesn’t really seem to have followed this heraldic interest.

Nevertheless, Earnshaw’s work suggests that he has influenced the course of heraldic art is Australia. Heraldic artists have often struggled with depicting the kangaroo, both pre- and post-MacIntosh. MacIntosh’s kangaroos for his various Commonwealth Arms show that it can be done. MacIntosh’s use and treatment of native flora and fauna, especially waratah and wattle, indicated their potential in heraldic design, although they remain largely confined to the heraldic fringes as assumed civic and sporting emblems. MacIntosh’s experimentations with representing the Commonwealth Arms in 1916 and 1926 illustrate the significant role the heraldic artist plays in creating the heraldry of public authority we see used and displayed everyday – especially when architectural and sculptural expertise is not matched by heraldic literacy. Australian heraldry in its three dimensional representations has been shaped by such uneven relationships, perhaps illustrated by MacIntosh’s possible inadvertent contribution to the shaping of the design of the coat of arms for the Sydney Water Board some 35 years after his death!

Australia does have its heraldic artists, and we should be celebrating their achievements, not through admiring hagiography, but in critical reflection and review that can contribute to the future development of Australian heraldry and Australian heraldic arts. The need for a biographical dictionary of heraldic artists in Australia, past and present, to identify our heraldic artists is clearly demonstrated by An Australian Sculptor.

The abject failure of British heraldic authorities to encourage the heraldic arts in Australia while continuing to exercise heraldic jurisdiction over the continent and the larger and even more overwhelming failure of Australian governments, Commonwealth and State, to patriate heraldic authority (and consequently facilitate the professional development of Australia’s heraldic artists) is evident not only in MacIntosh’s work but in that of many other artists who work in crafting representations of public heraldry in this country. As MacIntosh’s body of work demonstrates, that void is filled by well-meaning and otherwise competent professionals (such as architects) whose design expertise is unfortunately not matched by commensurate levels of heraldic literacy.

I recommend the book for the library of anyone interested in the historical development of Australian heraldry.

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

This review was originally published in Heraldry News: The Journal of Heraldry Australia Inc., No. 42, July 2006: 8-14.

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