Archives senior conservator Ian Batterham has been caring for the stunning Griffin designs for the federal capital for more than 30 years. In this article, Ian takes a personal look back on the history of the designs and how the opportunity to conserve the artworks has affected him.
This centenary year has special significance for me, partly because I love Canberra, but also because I feel a special connection to the city and its landscape through my conservation work on the Griffin drawings.
I was not born in Canberra, but it is home. My family moved to Canberra in 1965, when I was aged five. In 1965, Lake Burley Griffin had just filled and the city was coming out of the post-war doldrums. The National Capital Development Commission was working on the development of satellite town centres to accommodate the growing population. My family settled in the first of these, Woden, in the newly established suburb of Hughes.
Jump forward to 1978. I had finished Year 12 at Phillip College and was trying to decide what to do with myself. A relative was an art conservator and he alerted me to a new course in materials conservation at the Canberra College of Advanced Education. This sounded interesting, so I applied and was luckily accepted. Two years later, in 1980, as a green but keen graduate, I applied for a position at the Archives as an assistant conservator on the grand starting salary of $10,558 per annum.
Early in my time at the Archives I became aware of the Federal Capital City Design Competition drawings sitting in plan drawers in our buildings at Parkes – a set of Nissen huts where the National Gallery of Australia now stands. The huts were not air-conditioned and inside could get as hot as 35 degrees in summer. You could go home if it got over 30 degrees. At the time the drawings seemed a little unloved and looked quite sad. They were in unattractive frames, had obvious tears and were quite dirty.
Over the years I have collected the story of the drawings, in particular what happened to them between the Federal Capital City Design Competition in 1911 and when I first saw them in the early 1980s.
It is a long and sad story. Damage began at the time of the competition, when a number of the drawings were torn. In subsequent years they were moved around a lot, removed from their stretchers and rolled up, put back on their stretchers, and ultimately forgotten about for around 30 years.
It was around 1953 when they were rediscovered sitting in a shed in the Canberra suburb of Kingston. Luckily, the existence of the drawings came to the notice of people who understood their significance and could do something to ensure they were saved.
In this way the drawings went to the National Library Archives Division and ultimately to the National Archives (then Australian Archives) as part of the collection.
Unfortunately this was not the end of the trials for the drawings.
Over subsequent years the Archives, aware of the fragile state of the drawings, twice had them conserved by the foremost conservator in Australia at the time, Mr Bill Boustead of the Art Gallery of NSW (this was well before the Archives had its own conservators).
Mr Boustead was apparently resentful of the job. He was very much a fine art conservator and apparently somewhat Eurocentric. The Griffin drawings would therefore have seemed to him of little importance.
This would explain why he treated them as he did: he cut off the tacking margins and white borders of the three elements of the triptych (View from Summit of Mount Ainslie) and mounted them directly onto masonite with paste. If that was not enough, the drawings were again treated under Mr Boustead in 1965.
This time the drawings were removed from their existing mounts and pasted onto chipboard. A layer of cartridge paper was first pasted to the chipboard to act as a barrier. The tacking margins were cut off as were the aesthetic plain borders of the View from Summit of Mount Ainslie triptych.
The inadequacies of this ‘conservation’ work soon became apparent and in the early 1980s the Archives again began considering conservation work – largely to undo the previous conservation work.
Where I enter the picture
I am forever grateful for the opportunity to conserve the Griffin drawings. Over long years I took each drawing, cleaned it, removed it from its unfortunate chipboard backing, mended the tears, replaced the tacking margins, reinstated the borders on the triptych, restretched the drawings and placed them in suitable frames.
In carrying out this work I came to appreciate the beauty of the drawings and became a strong advocate for them to be considered as works of art, rather than mere architectural drawings. I was particularly pleased that they became the first Archives items to be recorded on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register. The reappraisal of Marion’s work as an artist and Walter’s work as an architect continues.
Working on the drawings also increased my appreciation of my city. Although Marion and Walter had not seen Canberra when they did the drawings, they seemed to have had an intuitive understanding of the landscape. Their design nestles in the landscape and seems to emanate from it. The same cannot be said of any of the other competition entries – where the city seems ‘imposed’ on the landscape.
Most Sundays I walk around the lake and it’s always different – the heat in January, the autumn colours in May, the brilliant sun in July, the winds in August and the blossom in September. And I can look out to the mountains, just as Marion did in her mind, out towards Bimberi Peak, terminus of the land axis in their design, sometimes with a cap of snow. I feel the bond with Marion particularly in autumn and winter, when the muted colours match her palette so well: the blue of the mountains and the soft purple and green of the trees.
I am thankful for that time I spent poised over Marion’s panoramic visions, gradually revealing their beauty. It allowed me to develop a bond with Marion and the remarkable city she helped imagine.
Visit the Design 29: creating a capital website
Read the Archives’ blog on preserving the Griffin drawings
Purchase A Vision Splendid: how the Griffins imagined Australia’s capital from the Archives’ e-shop
Learn more about the Griffin drawings and the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register