Stephen Bowers on “The Waratah in Applied Art and in Literature”

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The mission of art to create a sense of place is certainly not new, even to a settler-nation like Australia. After Federation, there was an intense competition to identify the national flora. In the end, the wattle was victorious over the waratah. Understanding the commitment to the unique identity of Australia more than a century ago is important to the challenges faced today, as a sense of place seems washed away by the global memes that stream through our screens 24/7. 

Friends of the South Australian State Library (Australiana Publications) is republishing a gem of this period: RT Baker’s The Waratah in Applied Art and in Literature (Sydney, 1915). It is of interest not only for its bold graphic design but also its very high-quality production. Some of the plates are printed with gold and silver metallic ink. The Deluxe hardback copies will be limited to 75 numbered copies and will be hand bound by members of the Friends working with renowned bookbinder Anthony Zammit in a handsome designer binding and with decorative endpapers using the Waratah motif devised by Stephen Bowers. The Deluxe copies will have the metallic plates separately printed (as faithfully as modern practice allows) and tipped in by hand. There is also a paperback edition. Sponsors’ copies will be especially bound by Anthony Zammit and presented in a handsome slipcase. Copies can be purchased at www.australianapublications.org.au

Introduction by Stephen Bowers

RT Baker occupies a central position within the history of Australian flora, both in its scientific and industrial application and its place in applied art and design. In The Australian Flora in Applied Art, Baker appears as a kind of rapporteur for a broader movement of the nation’s Arts and Crafts societies, the “style council” of the times and passionate advocates for the use of Australian flora as the basis for a national approach to design and decoration.

The design, typography and production of this book, now a rare and collected volume, are interesting. Printed by William Applegate Gillick, Government Printer in Sydney in 1915, it was bound, with a distinctly institutional feel, in decorative cloth boards blind-stamped with floral motifs based on the waratah. As is fitting for a design handbook, representations of the waratah are abundant. Modest decorative front endpapers continue the floral reference and lead to the title page, which announces an ambitious publications pedigree, being Number 22 in the Technical Education Series, produced for the Department of Public Instruction, Technical Education Branch.

The strangely stylised title page features several different typefaces in purple ink, with a number of double ruled frames, a crest and various compartments. This typographic design embodies something of the aggregate, composite, mosaic structure of the (then) newly federated Australia. The confident title, The Australian Flora in Applied Art, is ambitiously proclaimed as Part One, a promise never realised beyond this volume, as the implied series, to deal with wattle, flannel flower and stenocarpus, failed to materialise.

This bijou and polished publication achieved a degree of high quality illustration, including the use of gold foil printing on many of the coloured plates. These were printed separately using several methods and colouring techniques, then bound in separately during a stage of the book’s production. The errata slip tipped in at the rear of the original edition suggests it must have been a collator’s nightmare.

Baker himself is a singular figure. Born in Woolwich, England, the son of a blacksmith, he gained the quite common combination of science and art certificates from South Kensington Museum. Engaged as a senior assistant master by the School Board for London in 1875, he resigned in July 1879 to emigrate to Australia. He was destined for a career within instructional institutions. After arriving in September 1879, he joined the staff of Newington College, Sydney, as science and art master in June 1880. In early 1888, he was appointed assistant curator to Joseph Henry Maiden at the Technological Museum, and in 1901 he succeeded Maiden as curator and economic botanist.

It was during this period and into the following decade that Baker initiated what was to become a series of technically detailed and highly specific works investigating the nation’s raw and natural materials. This was a significant time for Baker and for Australia. A spirit of national and patriotic fervour was generated by Federation; public interest in the Australian environment was tied to the search for a national identity and the desire for national symbols. It was also a period when thinking in the field of botany had shifted from one of discovery, enquiry, wonder and celebration to one of endangerment, protection and nostalgia.

In 1901 the volatile steam of politician’s soapbox talk condensed around ideas of nationally unifying the colonist states, with a federal system to define the nation. Ideas of what to do with old loyalties and the possibilities of a new Australian identity were debated, determined and put into action. Baker might have fallen asleep in Darwin’s beard, but he woke up in Sir Henry Parkes’ pocket.

In the newly federated Australia, assessing and promoting the nation’s natural resources was both a commercial imperative and a source of national pride. In a style that can be described as exhaustive, Baker’s writings assessed the varieties, artistic appeal and character as well as the useful application and commercial potential of various plants and rocks. In 1902 he published A Research on the Eucalypts especially in regard to their essential oils, prepared in collaboration with Henry George Smith. A remarkably thorough documentation of its subject, this work scrupulously records the testing and sampling of the phytochemistry of the extracted oils as if they were fine vintage wines.

In 1908 the first granting of armorial bearings to the Commonwealth of Australia was made; in the same year Baker published his remarkable Building and Ornamental Stones of New South Wales. In 1910, again in collaboration with Henry George Smith, he produced another valuable study, A Research on the Pines of Australia, followed by Cabinet Timbers of Australia in 1913. In 1915 two more books, a second expanded edition of Building and Ornamental Stones of Australia, superbly illustrated with colour photographs of cut stone and many photographs of historic buildings employing these materials, and Australian Flora in Applied Art appeared. Another important work, The Hardwoods of Australia and their Economics, was published with many illustrations in 1919.

Baker retired from the Technological Museum in 1921, in the same year that he received the von Mueller medal from the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. He lectured on forestry at the University of Sydney from 1913 to 1925. In 1922 he received the Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He was a member of the Royal and Linnean Societies of New South Wales, publishing dozens of papers in their journals. He was also a member of the council of the Linnean Society 1897–1922. In 1924, with HG Smith, he published Woodfibres of Some Australian Timbers. He collected both old and modern china and in 1938 joined the Royal Australian Historical Society. Baker died at Cheltenham, New South Wales, on 14 July 1941 and is buried in Rookwood Cemetery.

These days, the idea of a national style of design based on Australian botany is passé. For Baker, craft and design in Australia echoed the English Arts and Crafts Movement, with robust forms, emphasis on natural materials and the symbolic evidence of the hand made. It was an era of institutional public instruction: instruction books and manuals proliferated. Baker’s connections and museum resources allowed for high quality printing and ambitious numbers of illustrations, including a potent and surprising series of cross-sectional images of wood grain and geological specimens.

It is as if, by surgical examination and visual depiction, one might discover evidence of an innate structure or reveal a supernatural truth.

These enlargements of microscopic cross-sections suggest an interest in reaching into the secret heart of nature. It is as if, by surgical examination and visual depiction, one might discover evidence of an innate structure or reveal a supernatural truth. Baker brings both light and shade to this preoccupation. Nominally technical and instructional, yet for all his rationalism, his books exude a savant’s enthusiasm.

Unlike many of the encyclopaedic decorative arts pattern and historic ornament handbooks published in the decades around and preceding the early 1900s,

RT Baker’s The Australian Flora in Applied Art concerns itself with one particular design, the patterns derived from the waratah. Endemic to Australia, but restricted in range and to a number of varieties, the waratah’s scope, Baker admits, was of “a rather limited geographical significance”, i.e. near Port Jackson.

His work differs from other reference books in several ways. Missing are the pages of hundreds of thumbnail graphics; absent is the world-spanning cultural and historical reach of these works. Instead, Baker’s book is an intimate homage and meditation upon the waratah as he examines its distinctive form, its colour and adaptability in the field of applied design. He includes articles about the waratah extracted from papers of the day and prints the The Legend of the Waratah, an overly long prose exercise more than vaguely indebted to South Sea Islander and Indigenous sources, and to Milton (the story’s synopsis contains chapter titles including “Origin”, “Expelled”, “The Flight”, etc.). One has to forgive the suspicion that Baker included this piece as homage to its author, Lucien Henry.

Henry is a fascinating figure and essential in appreciating Baker. Born in 1850 in Provence, he went to Paris to study art in 1867 and was accepted into the Ecole des Beaux Arts. His study was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris, where Henry took a leading role in the 1871 Commune as Chef de la Légion, responsible for the defence of the 14th arrondissement. After their defeat, Henry, along with many other Communards, was sentenced to death, commuted to several years incarceration in the French penal colony of New Caledonia. In 1879 the Communards were given amnesty and Henry arrived in Sydney.

Coinciding with the movement towards federation, Henry expressed a strong desire to see the development of an “Australian Style”.

This was the year of the International Exhibition in Sydney, an era of prosperous growth for the colony. Henry successfully argued for state involvement in art education and by the end of the decade he had become a widely respected teacher and artist at Sydney Technical College. His Parisian art education had encouraged interdisciplinary work between the arts and industry, which he sought to foster locally. Coinciding with the movement towards federation, Henry expressed a strong desire to see the development of an “Australian Style”. He proposed to reinvigorate the classical language of decoration with stylised versions of Australian flora and fauna as motifs for the decoration of any construction – from a cottage to a public building. His major project was to be a book entitled Australian Decorative Arts for which he made dozens of detailed watercolour designs between 1889 and 1891, when he returned to Paris to seek a publisher. The accompanying text, however, remained largely unwritten and the economic depression of the 1890s made publication of such a lavish work impossible. Henry died in 1896. The book he envisioned remains unpublished.

Baker wrote this book at a time of coming of age for Australia. We glimpse his enthusiasm, underscoring what he sees as the book’s appeal by its wide assay of the application of the waratah in forms of architecture and building embellishment (including brackets, capitals, ceilings and columns), as well as in bookbinding, ceramics, tiles, glass ware, clocks, lace and woodcarving. For hard core devotees, there is even a waratah electric chandelier.

The book provides insight into Baker’s remarkable imaginative grasp of his subject, as, through the lens of the waratah, he pictures the field of botany as its encounter shifted from one of settler discovery, recording and enquiry, to one of wonder and celebration, and by 1915 to one of conservation and nostalgia. As Peter Timms has observed “much of what is regarded as early Australian conservation concerned art that was, in fact, already looking back, with longing to an idealised notion of the wilderness environment of Australia”.

Through this publication, aimed at teachers and students, Baker provided a diverse catalogue of the application of the waratah’s form in decorative and applied art. This, so the mantra went, would surround Australians with evocative emblems of their young nation, help forge its values and establish its identity. That the attempt failed, and that the subsequent story departed widely from the essential vision of Baker and his technical instructors is a matter of historic record. Waratahs do not condition or infuse the historical relationship Australians have to their natural and built environments, any more than images of “the Rock, the ‘Roo and the Reef” do, or, for that matter, any more than images of bronzed lifesavers, bucolic sheep, cattle, cold beer and women in swimming costumes.

The focus of Baker’s research was the adaption and application of waratah form within colonial settlement, Victorian and Federation architecture and applied design. In 1915 attitudes to Australian botany were changing. In 1916 when Edna Walling enrolled at Burnleigh Horticultural College, a fundamental shift was already under way. This looked to Australian flora, not as types dictating orders of decoration, but as elements to be appreciated and experienced in urban gardens and parks and domestic backyards. Architecture moved on as well. Baker’s Federation and academic classical forms were superseded and abandoned in the coming decades, with the shift from masonry, decorative brick, cast iron and timber to extruded steel, sheet glass and reinforced concrete of the inter- and post-war periods.

Baker’s interest in image making spans furniture, furnishings, watercolours, architecture, engraved designs, wood carving, and electrical fittings. His survey includes early colonial recordings of natural history specimens, Federation botanical motifs and Art Nouveau-style artwork, as well as modernist designs and achievements in studio pottery. The role and importance of students and women artists in this area is significant. Baker supplies several instances of women’s student designs taken up and commercially applied by Doulton, then one of the world’s leading manufacturers of ceramics.

In developing his argument in Australian Flora in Applied Art, Baker reflects political motivations of the times: of the Federation period and associated notions of statehood/nationhood and the strong desire to forge for Australia a suitably recognisable cultural design idiom to represent itself, both to itself, and to others. Those who experienced the cultural fervour of the 1980s Bicentennial interest in “Australiana” will recognise the symptoms.

Despite his background in technical science and economic botany, Baker waxes surprisingly lyrical in this book when he sees an opportunity. Deliciously enthusing about Sowerby’s 1793 watercolour representation of a waratah, as “a gem for the evolutionist, mutationist or the believer in the constancy of species”, he progresses on to another gem, “Wallpaper is a commodity which enters very largely now into the life of a civilised community…”

Baker’s book also raises questions about why people, as individuals, as groups and as a nation, have assigned to botany a highly symbolic status and cultural role, and why various forms of what might be described as ‘botanical mania’ (e.g. wattle versus waratah) grip populations across time: think of the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania, or the fern mania of the late 19th century, floral clocks and the early 20th-century popularity of Flower Days. There was also the plan by the Griffins to surround the new federal capital of Canberra with a ring of brightly coloured hills, each planted with a particular flower—a form of floral chromo-geography we can be thankful we were spared, although an echo of it lives on in plantings for the annual Floriade.

Baker wrote: “The expression ‘the land of the Waratah’, applies to Australia and no other; it is Australia’s very own. In the Wattle, Australia has not a monopoly like the Waratah, for Africa has over one hundred native wattles, and it also occurs in America, East and West Indies and the Islands. Then again it is not too much to say that throughout the whole botanical world the Waratah is probably unsurpassed as a flower for decorative purposes, and it is impossible to so conventionalise it out of recognition a great feature in a national flower”. 

However, wattle was to triumph. Archibald Campbell had founded a Wattle Club in Victoria in 1899 to promote vigorous Wattle Day demonstrations every September to encourage recognition of the flower as a symbol of patriotism. In 1908 he lectured that “by numbers, the Wattle is almost exclusively Australian, and should undoubtedly be our National Flower”. Interest in a national Wattle Day revived in Sydney in 1909. Victoria and South Australia participated in 1910, joined by Queensland in 1912, the same year that Prime Minister Andrew Fisher recommended its introduction into the design of new Australian coat of arms. However, the conflict of choice over the Australian national flower saw the inclusion of both waratah and wattle on the three golden trowels used by the Governor General, Lord Denman, the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Andrew Fisher and the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. King O’Malley, for laying the foundations of Canberra on 12 March 1913.

In the spirit of national and patriotic fervour generated by the approach of Federation, achieved in 1901, public interest in the Australian environment was awakened and the search for a national identity brought the desire for national symbols. By 1915 Baker’s work was a rear-guard action and it was all downhill for waratah. Wattle was officially gazetted as the national floral emblem in 1988, the year of Australia’s bicentenary when the Prime Minister’s wife, Hazel Hawke, planted a Golden Wattle in the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Stephen Bowers 2017

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