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Swanning Around Perth: An exploration of the Black Swan in our City

Four Gables Press, Kardinya 2014, 104 pp, illustrated, index, $A20.00

Second Edition 2016, 112 pp, illustrated, index, $A22.00

This review was originally published in Heraldry News, Journal of Thew Australian Heraldry Society Inc., November 2016, No 73, pages 17-20

Among my Christmas presents last December was an interesting little book depicting representations of the black swan in Perth, including heraldic displays of Western Australia’s official bird emblem and unofficial symbol of Western Australian or ‘Westralian’ cultural identity and patriotism.  It was a particularly apposite gift, coming as I had just finished a thesis chapter on the use of black swan imagery in Westralian culture as a metaphor for the crown.

Since I wrote this review, a revised edition of the book has been released and I have corresponded with the authors.  Rather than blend two reviews into one, Part 1 of the review refers to the original edition, and Part 2 to the revised edition.  I have kept the two separate to reflect the developing research interests in civic symbols of Western Australian identities.

Part 1

Swanning Around Perth, compiled by eminent botanist Dr Alexander George and graphic designer Charmaine Cave, is densely illustrated with photographs of black swans in architecture, public works, military badges, trophies, statuary, fountains, school emblems, hospital and emergency services badges, commercial branding, works of art, religious buildings, and civil society symbols and emblems, as well as official State and municipal heraldry.  It briefly refers to Nyoongar Dreaming (the Nyoongar are the Aboriginal people of southwestern Western Australia) and symbolic associations with the black swan, and concludes with a brief overview of ‘expatriate’ black swans in Britain and France.

The focus for this review is on the heraldic uses and displays, which basically fall into two groups, the Crown in right of Western Australia and State agencies, and municipal or local council heraldry.  Some well-known landmarks are traversed with the adoption of a blue ensign in 1875 defaced with a black swan on a bezant in the fly, and the assigning of arms to the City of Perth in 1926 (Argent a Cross Gules, in the first quarter a Swan Sable upon water proper, with black swan supporters).  Preceding uses of a black swan as a symbol of the colonial government are covered.  A picture is shown of a magnificent mayoral chain made in 1886 with a collar of 16 sterling silver black swans with an enameled shield pendant very similar to the 1926 blazon, suggesting a Westralian livery collar reminiscent of a 15th century Lancastrian Collar of Esses with a swan jewel pendant.

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Top: City of Perth Coat of Arms, granted by the Kings of Arms, 2 December 1926. Image: http://www.perthone.com/pbdg.html

Bottom: City of Perth Coat of Arms, with new 4th quarter of 1949 recognising its Scottish namesake.  Image Wikipedia

A history of several attempts to obtain a grant of arms for the Crown in right of Western Australia commences with a 1938 design with the principal charge of a black swan on a gold field and other charges and colours symbolizing the founding governor James Stirling and Westralian sacrifice in the Great War, that was “praised but not adopted”.  A 1952 design with a black swan and allusions to the Fremantle family was then revised in 1955 by replacing two lion supporters with wallabies.  Neither was accepted, and Garter King of Arms then proposed a design replacing the black swan with other charges representing the State’s industries and a Southern Cross.  However, the removal of the black swan as a charge “was not well received by the public”.  In 1964 a committee of senior public servants devised several designs that reinstated the black swan but which were rejected by the State government.  The committee again consulted Garter and in 1967 a design that essentially copied the first quarter of the arms granted to the City of Perth in 1926 was finally accepted.  Its blazon seems convoluted compared to the blazon of the 1926 city arms: Argent on a base wavy Azure charged with a barrulet wavy Argent a Black Swan naiant proper.  By this time, Liberal Party Premier David Brand, already affronted from public controversies over the destruction of Aboriginal and convict heritage sites he saw as impediments to his development agenda, disliked the helm and mantling which he worried would provoke ridicule and “Ned Kelly jokes”.  When the arms were assigned by royal warrant in 1969 these were omitted from the depiction.  Fortunately, the original 1967 design, with helm and mantling, is depicted in the book, the first time I have seen such an illustration.  The production of a Ned Kelly film, starring amongst others Mick Jagger and Frank Thring, was attracting much controversy and derision in the late 1960s, and the 1967 design makes clear the potential allusions in the over-sized helm design to a Ned Kelly helmet.


Top right: The Great Seal of Western Australia

 Top left: Design for the proposed State Arms with helm and mantling in Or and Sable, 1967

 Bottom: Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Western Australia, granted by the Kings of Arms 17 March 1969.  Low states that Garter consented to the arms being used without the helm and mantling, which suggests they are blazoned in the original royal warrant assigning the arms (Low 1971: page 51)

 Images: George & Cave, page 18, both editions

Unfortunately, for all the authors’ passion for their subject, they are not heraldists, and this leads to some mistakes.  There is loose and confusing use of terms such as coat of arms, crest and emblem.  This is common enough in our heraldically illiterate times, but nevertheless annoying.

The earliest official use of black swan emblems of which I know is in the colonial Great Seal, which is illustrated but misunderstood by the authors as an informal decoration.  The image shown in the book is that of a Newfoundland-style seal, with a back swan swimming on reed-framed water beneath the Royal Arms.  This seal design was widely used on Western Australian Government property and documents before 1969 (I remember it printed on the cover of my State school exercise books!).  Unfortunately, no histories of the Great Seal of Western Australia comparable to those of the Great Seal of New South Wales (Gullick, 1907), the Canadian provinces (Swan, 1977), Virginia (Walne, 1958), Georgia (Marsh, 2012) or the several treatises on English great seals (Jenkinson, 1936, 1943, 1968) have yet been produced to reliably date the seal or document its design evolution.[1]

There are no footnotes or direct citations, and although a limited bibliography is provided, much of the information on official arms seems likely to have come from the State archives.  Lack of referencing makes it difficult to follow these sources and develop more detailed heraldic histories.  For instance, a close reading indicates there are two principal historical blazons (1) Argent a Cross Gules, in the first quarter a Black Swan naiant and (2) Or, a Black Swan naiant, suggesting at least two (contested) imaginings of ‘Westralian’ identity.  From this insight it might be argued that the State arms granted in 1969 are a compromise between these two heraldic traditions, but the lack of referencing makes it impossible to deduce such a conclusion, or explore the tantalizing hints that there were, even in mid-twentieth century Western Australia, some heraldic cognoscenti and a population with some degree of heraldic literacy.  Another problem with the lack of citations is the dating of the first attempt to obtain a grant of arms by the State to 1938.  One archival source gives a date of 1926, which is consistent with the plans for the State’s approaching centenary in 1929, but without a reference it is not possible to check the veracity of the 1938 date.[2]

There are also some notable omissions from the book’s coverage, such as philately (Western Australia was a rarity among British colonies in that almost all its stamp issues between 1854 and 1913 featured a black swan rather than a royal effigy), and the public controversy of the early 1950s over the ‘correct’ way the for swan on the State flag to face (to the hoist or the fly), a controversy that was only resolved by an appeal to Garter for advice.  The issue is briefly discussed, but a heraldic reader may wish for more detail.  As with the design of the State arms referred to earlier, the role of proper heraldic authority is central to understanding these issues, although perhaps not critical to the purposes of the book.

The main weakness of the book, possibly because its ‘catalogue’ style does not really require it, is the lack of a thorough discussion and analysis of the black swan as a symbol of Westralian culture.  The mythical and esoteric imaginings of the black swan are occasionally hinted at, and the bibliography includes at least one reference to such a work, but the lovely images in the book would have been greatly enhanced by a more detailed discussion of meanings and symbolism.

On the other hand, almost all of the representations, heraldic and otherwise, have their artists and craftsmen identified, which shows a respect for the herald painter not always evident in heraldic publications.  The motto used on the Great Seal (but not the arms), Cygnis Insignis (Renowned for Swans), is attributed to Henry Prinsep, the then Chief Protector of Aborigines, and scion of a renowned British India dynasty of that name, in 1890.  This is the first time I have seen an author attributed to the motto, and the date places it firmly within the context of the moment the colony finally achieved self-government that year, forty years after the other Australasian colonies.  It is also on a cusp in which Western Australia’s earlier renown for failed immigration schemes and for convictism was fading, but its later renown for gold was only just emerging.  The black swan, indeed, became the enduring symbolic bridge between these historical periods.

Part 2

The second edition of Swanning Around Perth looks much the same as the first edition, but with a number of additional illustrations, extra information, and some minor corrections occasioned by the removal of elements during the recent mining boom, such as the mosaics at The Swan Bells for the development of Elizabeth Quay.  Of most interest to the heraldist will be the additional municipal Arms now included for the City of Canning and the City of Gosnells.  The Canning Arms are heraldic is design, and were assumed in 1962 rather than granted, while those for Gosnells were granted by the College of Arms in 1977.  Both include black swans as charges, and Canning has a black swan dexter supporter.  The designs could be said to be typically municipal.  The emblem of the Town of Cambridge, although a ‘logo’, was adopted in 1997 after a public competition.  The description of the elements, including the stylised black swan, however, could easily be blazoned to form a coat of arms of some distinction within Western Australia’s municipal heraldry (all the armigerous municipalities in the metropolitan area are now included).

The other notable addition is a page on Western Australian postage stamps, issued between 1854 and 1913.  Almost all the stamps featured a black swan naiant within a decorative frame, with the usual colour changes for each denomination.  The first issue was a 1d black, appropriate for the black swan.  The most famous is the ‘inverted swan’ (or ‘inverted frame’ as the authors correctly state) 4d blue issued in 1855, of which only 14 authentic copies, all used, are known to exist (for which auction prices have varied from $37,500 to $80,000).  This addition directly counters a weakness in the first edition noted above.


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Top: An ‘inverted swan’ of 1855.  Image Wikipedia;

Middle: A 3d Brown, 1872-1912, framed by reeds, reviewer’s collection

Bottom: £10 Revenue stamp, 1941-1950, image http://www.ozrevenues.com/Judging-Papers/wa_revs.htm.

Although none of the stamps use a heraldic style or frame, their designs all reflect the swan on the Great Seal.

Like the first edition, the second maintains the very good production qualities and beautiful images, and the heraldist will no doubt also enjoy the pages devoted to school and educational arms, the army, navy and air force badges for Western Australian-named vessels or units, emergency services badges and sporting club badges and emblems, many of which are heraldic or quasi-heraldic.  The heraldist might also note with some apprehension what seems a typical story of our times in the badge of the Royal Automobile Club of WA (RACWA) which from 1910 featured a black swan and crown.  The black swan went in 1956, the crown and the initials ‘WA’ in c2013.  The current anonymous, anti-heraldry dark blue lozenge with yellow ‘swooshes’ and RAC initials seems an impoverished substitute.  It’s a melancholy story with which every heraldist will be all too aware.


Swanning Around Perth, in both editions, although small in size, is packed with beautiful images of representations of the black swan in the Perth metropolitan area, and much of the information will be new in the public domain.  Scholarly attention to the symbols and emblems of Australia’s states and territories is evident mainly by its absence, and this is perhaps most true for Western Australia (although some other states and territories may contest that claim).  It is a book long overdue, and has the potential to encourage new research in the field.  Swanning Around Perth will be of value too Australian heraldists, those with an interest in localist identities and federalism, and those who simply enjoy the beauty and enigma of the black swan as either (or both) a natural or a heraldic bird.  I have enjoyed both editions of this small but packed book, and recommend it for the library of any heraldically-minded reader.

[1] William Gullick, The New South Wales Coat of Arms with Notes on the Earlier Seals, Government Printer, Sydney 1907; Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo 1977; Peter Walne, ‘The Great Seal Deputed of Virginia’, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 66, No 1, January 1958, pages 3-21; Benjamin Marsh, ‘The Signification of Georgia’s Eighteenth-Century Great Seals’, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol 96, No 2, August 2012, pages 195-232; Hilary Jenkinson, ‘The Great Seal of England: Deputed or Departmental Seals’, Archaeologia, Vol 85, January 1936, pages 293-340, ‘What Happened to the Great Seal of James II?’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol 23, No 1-2, January 1943, pages 1-13, Guide to Seals in the Public Record Office, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London 1968

[2] see State Coat of Arms – Files, Acc 1495, 1920-1961, AN 2, State Records Office, Perth