Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    While winter’s slow creep gets little love in Tasmania, there is one benefit to the end of summer: selfie season is over.

    I refer to “#selfieseason”, an inane tourism campaign which put, in prominent locations, stickers spruiking the possibility for tourists to photograph themselves in front of something beautiful.

    I won’t harp on about it for too long, but my gut feeling is that pandering to consumeristic fads is not exactly playing to our strengths as an island. Many people come here to get away from that sort of superficiality.

    Much has been said in public arenas about what might be the meaning of the cultural obsession with autoportraits. To really understand them in a Tasmanian context, though, we might want to venture into this building in New Norfolk – previously a ‘hospital for the insane’.

    Here, in 1900, a man in his 40s named Thomas Hinton was admitted to the asylum. He had sent fifteen photographic self-portraits to a young woman, Miss Headlam, and consequently was diagnosed with “a mania for having his photograph taken in all sorts of dress and without dress”.

    The tableaux for which Thomas Hinton was locked up seem to be part of a national competition to design a new flag, in the lead-up to Australia’s Federation. On one photograph, dated August 9, 1900, Hinton wrote to Miss Headlam. “I got four taken today. I am sure you will like ’em.”

    She evidently did not; Hinton was sent to New Norfolk two weeks later.

    Hinton suffered from episodes of mental illness, ending up in mental hospitals on multiple occasions, in different parts of Australia. His record from 1900 tell us that he had been working as an engineer or engine driver in the midlands of Tasmania. Returning to the asylum in Willow Court may have been traumatic: conditions were poor, with mental illnesses poorly understood, and mistreatment of inmates far from unheard of.

    The Royal Derwent Hospital was closed in 2000; life in the hospital was often described as a nightmare, right up until its closure.

    Thomas Hinton’s photographs are far more imaginative than anything I saw during ‘selfie season’. My favourite sees Hinton standing in profile before an artistic hanging with animal motifs,
    probably his own flag design: he wears nothing more than a homemade loincloth, fashioned from patterned material and tied around his waist, his arms folded over his bare chest.

    The collection of Hinton’s photographs were acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2013. They had been advertised at that time for $9,900.

    Art curator Anthea Gunn has written a fascinating analysis of Thomas Hinton’s self-portraits on The Conversation website. The images, she says, “give a response refracted by mental illness to matters of national importance.” In response I am forced to wonder what meaning will be gleaned from the millions of selfies taken in Tasmanian locales, when they are looked back upon in a dozen decades’ time.

  • A Peep at the Wilderness

    A Peep at the Wilderness

    There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.

    Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.

    Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.

    Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.

    J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”

    Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).

    But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.

    A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the 
    Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.

    Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister. 

    And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.

    Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”

     

  • Heritage and Ruins

    Heritage and Ruins

    Earlier this month, folk musicians John Flanagan and Daniel Townsend came to Launceston to listen to local stories and convert them into song. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I listened to them perform, and was most delighted to hear their ditty in praise of these small cottages, long abandoned to weeds and graffiti on the North Esk River.

    Wedged between Launceston’s Centrelink offices and the newly-reopened strip club, the Boland Street cottages were built in 1876 to the designs of prominent local architect Peter Mills. Twice during the 1990s they were gutted by fires, and so have sat for nearly two decades in a quiet state of disuse.

    Yet ‘Centrelink Cottage’ (as the musicians called it) has been the centre of plenty of debate, even as it remains unused. Like the former C.H. Smith building on the intersection of Charles and Canal streets, the Boland Street cottages are heritage-listed, and therefore potential developers of these sites have been subject to great obstacles.

    Tasmania has a very proactive Heritage Council, and with good reason: the island’s colonial architecture is preserved better than anywhere else in Australia, with a number of sites declared to be of high value when it comes to expressing vernacular styles and the community’s sense of place.

    Both the cottages and the C.H. Smith buildings represent an important part of Launceston’s waterfront industrial tapestry. But as was argued by Michael Newton, who battled for two decades to have the Boland Street cottages released from heritage listing, “How do you maintain a burnt-out and derelict property?”

    Ruined buildings like these are consistently dismissed as ‘eyesore’. But others argue that such sites have an alternative value. As British nature writer Roger Deakin wrote in his journals, “
    We need more ruins...more evidence of a past, a living past. Ruins have a special life of their own.”

    The Boland Street cottages have been sold and a significant development is mooted for the site; work is being undertaken to allow the C.H. Smith to house 20 retailers and a carpark.

    Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” writes literary critic Gillian Beer. Urban landmarks are always under more pressure to change, to be adapted. Our commercial tastes dictate this. If you were to read this town’s architectural history, you would be able to interpret what has been driving us. Today, our built spaces are being converted to whisky bars, tourism ventures, tattoo parlours – but each of these, in time, will be out of fashion and replaced by other interests, all of which will be explainable through the myriad economic and social forces around us and within us.

    There are countless changes that have occurred in my two decades living in this town. Walk around Launceston and look up: you’ll find more, from the last two centuries. “Cities here are communicative: present and past coexist in a conversation that composes layers and striations of reference.”

    As a budding adolescent photographer, oblivious to the existence of the romantic aesthetic but drawn to it nevertheless, I entered the ruins mentioned above. My eye was attracted to the exposed skeleton of the cottages and the wiry branches of buddleja; inside the C.H. Smith building, I found a shelter that seemed to have belonged to some homeless people, with cushions and stuffed toys. “The bosses here are fascists,” a note from some unknown time read. The images I took (and photoshopped to death) are of places that will belong only to the long distant past soon enough.

  • Petrarch's Poetry

    Petrarch's Poetry

    “Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”

    So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.

    It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.

    Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860.  It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.

    Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.

    A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.

    The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.

    In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.

     

    Why was George Frankland so obsessed with Greek names?

  • Gordon Country

    Gordon Country

    In 1828, Goodwin and Connolly escaped from the prison of Sarah Island. They followed the rivers east, into the Vale of Rasselas, a vast and beautiful plain, probably the result of Aboriginal fire-stick farming in the pre-European past. It had been a hellish journey for the two men: here, they caught small fish from the Gordon River, and ate possum.

    Finally they made it to the Ouse River, after five weeks together. There, they parted ways. Shortly after, Goodwin - whose real name was Cox - was apprehended by police in the township of Lincoln. The crafty convict managed to persuade the authorities not to send him back to the tortuous prison settlement of Sarah Island, and in the end, received a pardon, becoming a guide for expeditioners into the south-western wilderness.

    Connolly was never heard from again.

    (Disclaimer: the subjects of this photograph are not Goodwin and Connolly.)