National Archives of Australia

Issue 3 July 2011

Unearthed Griffin treasure returned to the Archives

Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, Castlecrag, Sydney, 1930. Courtesy National Library of Australia, vn4513629

In May, the Archives transferred into its collection a 1912 drawing by Marion Mahony Griffin – an annotated ‘key’ to the View from Summit of Mount Ainslie. The drawing formed part of Walter Burley Griffin’s winning entry to the Federal Capital Design Competition, and until its unearthing earlier this year, was considered lost. Canberra writer and researcher Ian Warden provides an insight into the rediscovery of the drawing and its reunion with the other 13 Griffin artworks held by the Archives. 

‘For the love of Mike!’ Marion Mahony Griffin remembered storming at her husband Walter Burley Griffin as the deadline loomed for entries in Australia’s 1912 Federal Capital Design Competition. ‘When are you going to get started on those Capital plans? Perhaps you can design a city in two days but the drawing takes time and that falls on me.’

Walter duly got started and Marion was able to do her sublime renderings that turned her husband’s plans into evocative pictures of their imagined city at Canberra. Their entry arrived on time and of course became the winner. But one of the drawings they sent – vital to the 1912 judging and a treasure of priceless significance in Australian history – became lost (all of Marion’s other Canberra renderings are held reverently by the Archives).

A Eureka! moment

The drawing hadn’t been glimpsed for many years and was feared destroyed. Then, suddenly this April and to much rejoicing, it was rediscovered.

The drawing’s out-of-the-blue rediscovery by Canberra historian Dr David Headon gave him what he remembers excitedly as ‘a Eureka! moment…a da Vinci Code moment’. He recalls a tear welling up.

He’d been given sundry items found at the Planning Institute of Australia national office to see if there was anything of interest. One was a nondescript-looking cardboard cylinder with something stuffed into it. It languished in his car for several days. Then one day in his study at home, he at last found time to take out and unroll the paper in the cylinder.

Thrilled, he telephoned Archives conservator Dr Ian Batterham (who had worked on the other Griffin renderings) to tell him what he thought he’d found. He heard Dr Batterham give a ‘yelp’ of high excitement. Both had known of the drawing’s existence from seeing a 1912 photograph of it, but had thought it lost for ever.

The annotated key to View from Summit of Mount Ainslie. This photograph was taken at the time of judging the Federal Capital Design Competition in 1912. NAA: A710, whole series

‘The other half of the whole’

Marion Mahony Griffin is overshadowed by her famous husband, but Griffin scholars think of them as two enormous, complementary talents. One biographer, Alasdair McGregor, says that Walter had wonderful ‘three-dimensional imaginings…yet as a draftsman he was stillborn’. By contrast Marion was probably the most gifted draftsperson–renderer of her times. McGregor believes that ‘In Marion, he [Walter] had found the perfect complement to his talents; in her skills abounded the other half of the whole.’

The loveliest of Marion’s renderings of the Canberra site plans is the dream-like ink, watercolour and gouache on silk triptych View from Summit of Mount Ainslie. Dr Headon explained that the just-rediscovered drawing is what Marion called the explanatory ‘key’ to the contents of the triptych. The grand triptych shows buildings of great ornateness but doesn’t say what they are. On her key drawing of the same view from the summit of the mountain, Marion has written labels in red ink so that we know, for example, where Walter intended things such as the Capitol and the Premier’s Residence to be.

View from Summit of Mount Ainslie by Marion Mahony Griffin, 1912. The significance of the Griffins’ design drawings was officially recognised in 2003 when they were listed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register. NAA: A710, 48

The annotated key to View from Summit of Mount Ainslie by Marion Mahony Griffin, 1912. Like the triptych above, this drawing is full of subtle beauty; there are reflections of waterside buildings in the city’s ornamental waters. NAA: A710, 51

The Griffins sent 13 drawings, including the ‘key’ rendering, with their entry but didn’t send the triptych until later. The ‘key’ drawing has in the corner what Dr Headon called ‘a lovely little excuse from Marion’, saying that this ‘key’ to the triptych’s view from atop Mount Ainslie is being sent on ahead because the triptych has been ‘delayed by accident’. The ‘accident’ was probably the fact that, because of Walter’s laconic working pace, the exasperated Marion hadn’t been able to finish the triptych on time.

Conservation challenges

It’s the knowledge of the famous and influential hands that have handled the rediscovered rendering (for example, it was used during the competition’s judging), that give it such importance and romance. Alas, all that knockabout usage has increased the conservation challenges for an anxious-sounding Dr Batterham. He can see that ‘It’s been unrolled and rolled up a lot in its lifetime, and folded, and it’s getting increasingly fragile’.

‘The [very acidic] paper used has got more and more brittle and yellow so now it’s extremely fragile…At the moment we’ve just stabilised it…We’ve mended some of the worst tears…we’ve put it between sheets of polyester to stop people poking at it. The next step is the difficult one and we’re going to have to do some research on what we can do for the long term.’

Vulnerable to handling and to light, Dr Batterham expects the drawing will only very seldom be put on display (which of course will only add to its allure and mystique when it is seen). But it is expected to feature in an Archives exhibition of Griffin treasures opening in Canberra in May 2013, the centenary year of Canberra – the city the Griffins planned and dreamed of.

Want more?

UNESCO Memory of the World: Griffin design for Canberra

Lecture by Senator Kate Lundy ‘Creating a new nation’s capital: the Griffin’s vision for Canberra

Fact sheet 60 – Design and development of the national capital

Fact sheet 95 – Walter Burley Griffin and the design of Canberra

Plan for Canberra – view from the summit of Mount Ainslie

Purchase Canberra Following Griffin: a design history of Australia’s national capital from the Archives’ online shop

One comment on "Unearthed Griffin treasure returned to the Archives"

  1. Gillian Whan says:

    Why isn’t there a memorial to the Burley Griffins in Canberra? Certainly the whole city is a memorial but I would like to see a statue in a prominent place.

Post a comment