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The following is an edited version of a speech given by Peter Watts AM at the launch of Gardens of history and imagination: growing New South Wales, published by Sydney University Press, on 23 June 2016 at the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Thank you for inviting me here tonight to launch this really wonderful book. It’s a book with multiple themes, multiple authors and multiple ideas – all of them fascinating and full of new information.

But first I have to give you the context for doing this launch tonight.

I had hung up my hat on doing openings and launches some years back. I had had just a few too many of them in my time! So why am I here?

Just before the invitation arrived to launch this book I was catching up with a colleague I had not spoken to for many years. About 40 years ago, we had worked closely together on trying to save many of the historic towns in Victoria – places like Beechworth, Chiltern, Maldon, Yackandandah – wonderful places that are so well loved and cared for today. But it was not always so and we fought many battles together – most of which we won. Our ideals were very much aligned. I had not had any contact with him for many years but he had called to elicit my support to prevent what he said were the most terrible developments at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.
He went on to tell me the worst such disaster was the redevelopment of William Guilfoyle’s volcano – a part of the highest part of the garden that was used for water storage and reticulation into the gardens. I listened politely, but was getting increasingly uncomfortable with the ferocity of his attack. It was then that I told him that I had visited the said volcano at least half a dozen times since its conservation and that I thought it was one of the best and most exciting pieces of new gardening I had seen in Australia. I thought that, in general, it was responsive to Guilfoyle’s style and principles.

Soon after this telephone conversation, up popped the invitation to launch a book on ‘gardens of history and imagination’ – both important dimensions in the renewed volcano garden. I thought that perhaps agreeing to launch this book might ensure I read it and learnt something of the latest thinking about gardens of history and imagination and help clarify my thinking. Having read the book I now know it has taken a rather different tack. But at the time I was not to know that. I should say I have now met with my colleague in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne and we discussed the volcano at great length and came to a sensible agreement. Our difference of views turned out to be relatively minor issues of detail rather than concept.

On scholarship
Let me firstly say something about scholarship. I am not a scholar. In fact scholars rather intimidate me. However I hope I have been, and still am, a great advocate of scholarship.

That brings to mind a time in the 1980s, when the Late Jack Ferguson – a former brickie, and Neville Wran’s brilliant deputy premier for many years – was made chairman of the Historic Houses Trust when I was director. He walked into my office the first time we met, and said, ‘I’m buggered if I know what you do, comrade – but I think it its incredibly important.’ I immediately put him on a pedestal!

I think I am a bit of an advance on that (though in fact, I learned Jack was about the best-read person I have ever known). But I have the same faith and great admiration that Jack had in people who explore ideas and extend boundaries.

It’s wonderful to see that scholarly publications like this are still valued and that there are publishers – like Sydney University Press – who will take them on. It’s good to see this sort of scholarship alive and flourishing. To find a book where every element is almost perfect is a rare treat – excellence in research, elegance in writing, extensive footnotes, a meticulously ordered and extensive bibliography, the short biographies of each author, the list of illustrations perfectly referenced. The design is excellent and the paper quality perfect. Of course it’s what we expect of scholars – but that does not always mean we get it – and I congratulate everyone involved.

But it’s much more than that of course. It’s a wonderful interweaving of scholarship, imagination and ideas – what Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville calls in his Foreword the ‘intoxicating alchemy that is collections, scholars and the stimulation of colleagues, discourses and ideas’.

The book gave me much new information. It set my mind going in a thousand different directions. It traversed new territory, gave new perspectives on old information and issues. It opened new areas of research and interest and it
certainly challenged.

The study of gardens cuts across so many different disciplines – science, the arts, literature, design, taste, social history, horticulture, philosophy and so much more. But it’s rare to celebrate that diversity in a book. We are much more familiar with coffee-table garden books – mostly about design and so-called ‘good taste’. So it’s really wonderful to see such an eclectic set of approaches drawn together in a book – with ten different contributors bringing their own disciplines and their own expertise to bear on different aspects of gardens and gardening.

Man and woman standing on the front verandah of a 19th-century shingle-roof cottage

Couple on the verandah of their shingle-roof cottage in Hill End, NSW, c. 1870–1875. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

An expanding field
I could not help, as I read the book, reflecting on my own work identifying historic gardens in Victoria back in the 1970s. I was given the wonderful task, over two years, to try and identify the surviving historic gardens in the state. Then my major tools were a battered VW and the generosity of local people, many in rural communities, who passed me from one owner to the next. All I was trying to do was identify gardens that appeared to fulfil a certain set of criteria relating to the general intactness of their form, original planting, condition and character. Up to that time no one had given much consideration to the value of historic gardens in Australia – let alone there being any academic interest in the subject.

What this book demonstrates is the extraordinary advance in knowledge and interest since those times. Back in the ’70s and ’80s it was largely architects and the fledgling landscape architecture profession who were taking an interest in historic gardens – principally from a design point of view, and, I suppose, reflecting those times, through a particular British frame of reference.

How things have changed in the intervening 35 years.

It seems to me that there are now three dramatic differences.

Firstly – chucking off the British baggage and looking at gardens through Australian eyes. I won’t say more than that – but it is very different now – as so amply demonstrated in this book.

Secondly the access to information through digital and online resources. What would we do without Trove? I was recently trying to unscramble the history of, and the relationship between, the garden and the buildings at Government House, Canberra. In just a few hours on the computer, and armed with a bit of background, and having visited the place often, I was able to get a quick broad brush history of the place from the images on Trove without leaving my desk. That is a truly remarkable change.

Just an aside – on Trove I also dredged up an incredibly obscure reference to a story from when the Duke of Gloucester became governor-general in 1945. One of the housemaids at Government House, one Flora McDonald – who was in service at Government House for 55 years and had married the caretaker – did not much like the Duke and trained her pet cockatoo to squawk ‘Bugger the Duke’. Sadly it’s been edited out of the final text – thought by the editor to be a bit offensive! I mention it here not only as a way of giving the story its world premiere outing, but also to demonstrate the power of the research tools now available.

But – we need to be careful. Totally succumbing to the treasures now available through these means is dangerous too. There is still no substitute, in my view, for getting out and about and looking, feeling a place, absorbing its atmosphere, its context, talking to those associated with it, touching it, and breathing in and absorbing its spirit.
So much can now be done at a distance – and so much can be missed in the process. We see this at its worst in conservation projects where everything is analysed, documented, legislated, put into a bureaucratic and policy framework and the results – so far as conservation practice is concerned – are too often mediocre at best – and appalling at worst. This is especially the case at local government level. It’s all done for good reason but sadly I often think it has led to less courage, less imagination, less understanding, too much process – and all the potential for delight, wit and freshness is squeezed out. Perhaps this is what troubled me most about my colleague’s view of the redevelopment of Guilfoyle’s volcano.

The third major change is very well demonstrated in this book. Interest in garden history is being taken up much more broadly, and for the better in my view. In this volume we have no chapters by architects or landscape architects – instead they are by a pharmacologist turned sociologist; five historians; two anthropologists; a horticulturalist; and an artist/designer/photographer. Gardens and gardening are so ubiquitous they deserve to be examined from every possible perspective because they can shed light on so many other dimensions of our being.
I recall when I wrote the constitution for the Australian Garden History Society (which I am delighted is one of the sponsors of this book) back in 1979–1980, we enshrined in the constitution an aim to examine gardens in the ‘widest social, historic, artistic, literary and scientific contexts’ – or words to that effect. And it is one of the reasons why this book gives me such pleasure. Because that is exactly what it does. I am sure when I wrote those words I was totally unclear how they would manifest themselves. They were very broad and very aspirational – but this book fulfils them perfectly.

You will see I deliberately left out the word ‘horticultural’ from the constitution – for the simple reason that it seemed to me there were already many specialist horticultural organisations about and I thought we needed to distinguish our new organisation as being something different.

I have to confess I remembered all this – and chuckled to myself – when I read Ailsa McPhersons’s wonderful chapter, titled ‘Exhibition gardening’. She writes of the colonial power plays in the early horticultural societies in NSW. The first society was dominated by ‘practical men’ whose interest was primarily horticultural production, but its very success lead to its takeover by what McPherson calls the ‘first men’ of the colony whose interests were less horticultural and more about ‘scientific and expansionist philosophies’. Needless to say with names like Fitzroy, Macleay, Steven, Deas Thomson, Nicholson and so on – the ‘first men’ won the day. These leaders were ‘Anglophiles’ and gentlemen and wanted the then Horticultural and Floral Society to be a vehicle by which ‘the subject of taste, and the other things essential to the composition of a garden’ could be discussed and disseminated.


A fashionable crowd attends the opening of the Agricultural Society’s 1870 exhibition at Prince Alfred Park, Sydney. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

One can see it as a struggle about social and economic power played out through the medium of horticulture and gardens – and it was, in a way. For my own part, and unusually, I have some sympathy for toffs because – just as we tried to do in that constitution for the AGHS – taking the focus off horticulture was a way of elevating gardening from the purely practical, to a different status where gardens and gardening could be seen and explored through the much broader lens of the arts, philosophy, history, and so on.

The reason I chuckled was because, in an odd reversal of what had happened in mid-nineteenth-century colonial NSW – we had a push (unsuccessful as it was) to add the word ‘horticulture’ to the constitution of the Australian Garden History Society some 10 years or so after the great success of that organisation. And in another odd reversal, the move for that change came from a distinguished classical scholar! Both exactly the opposite to what had occurred in NSW 160 years earlier.

The Aboriginal landscape
I want to confess that I read this book backwards.

As I have already said, I am easily intimidated by academics so I started with something familiar. I read Stuart Read’s excellent chapter on ‘The riverine gardens of Sydney waterways’. I had been involved in the conservation and management of some of the gardens he wrote about and was very familiar with them – hence in my comfort zone. But it set a pattern for reading – so I, rather stupidly, read the whole thing backwards.

This becomes relevant when I tell you that I delayed reading the book at all until a week or so ago as I was deeply immersed in Bill Gammage’s astonishing book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia and then had to immediately read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

There are some books which are life changing and those books – which I read in quick succession - were life changing for me. I am still processing the fundamental shift they have caused my thinking about the way Aborigines managed the landscape and the way I perceive the Australian landscape. I was spellbound by the evidence – the result of amazing scholarship and two lifetimes of observation and research that uncovered an extraordinarily complex system of land management by Aboriginal people across the entire continent. If you have not read them you simply must.

So having all that in my head, as I read this book, and reading backwards, I got a little dispirited that there was little acknowledgement of the Aboriginal landscape – or the 1788 landscape, as Gammage refers to any Australian landscape still managed in its traditional way by Aboriginal people.

That is – until I got to the first chapter – last!

Here Gaynor Macdonald really knocked me for six. She synthesised much of what had been mulling about it my mind over the past few weeks since reading those two books about Aboriginal land management.

She sets out in the most eloquent way the characteristics that make a garden – noting that the common feature of all gardens is that they are ‘cultural products’.

She makes a case that the values, beliefs and practices that make a garden distinct from any other space are found in three simple interlocking ideas:

Firstly – that gardens are spaces in which people exercise control;

Secondly – they are spaces that are owned; and

Thirdly – gardens are places imbued with moral and spiritual sentiments.


Aboriginal fish traps in the Darling River, NSW, c. 1870–1880. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

After applying these broad principles to Japanese gardens she beautifully and methodically re-examines the Aborigines’ relationship with their landscape, concluding:

If a garden is an intimate, known and civilised space, a humanised space made useful, beautiful, perhaps sacred, then Aboriginal people experienced their landscapes as gardens, every part of which was imbued with social and spiritual meaning as well as playing its role in a complex economy. Alongside their spirits, Aboriginal people ordered, controlled and protected the environment through rituals of preservation. Everything is garden: intimately known, bounded, ordered, nurtured, and imbued with moral and spiritual sentiment. This is garden in its most expansive form, an outcome of active and ongoing cooperation between people and creator spirits’. (emphasis added)

Wow. Doesn’t that set lots of our preconceived notions on their head!

If you think it’s an overstatement I urge you to read Bill Gammage’s book and Gaynor Macdonald’s chapter.

The vision of gardeners past
This is but one of many dimensions to this book. There are so many trails to follow – so many unexpected adventures. There were so many things that caught my attention or sparked my interest. Its very eclectic nature makes that inevitable perhaps coming – as it does – from so many perspectives. Let me just give you a just few other thoughts I had as I read through.

What I really liked about Colleen Morris’s piece on ‘The role of the Sydney Botanic Gardens’ was the way it so beautifully demonstrated the influence of one institution – or more particularly one person (in this case a few directors who held the position for long periods) – and the way their particular interests, tastes and travels had such a wide-reaching impact. Colleen explores the influence they had way beyond the boundaries of the Royal Botanic Gardens because of their role in distributing plants to so many public gardens and places throughout the state. And if we are knowledgeable and attuned to this it can help us to read a landscape and pinpoint when it must have been created. We are more familiar with doing this with buildings – but not quite so much with gardens.

For example, take Charles Moore (director from 1848 to 1896 – almost all of the second half of the nineteenth century) and his interest in rainforests and the South Sea Islands and plants with bold subtropical foliage and architectural form. He introduced the Moreton Bay figs to Hyde Park plus many other Australian rainforest trees that continue to give this park its particular umbrageous and shady character to this day.

Or Joseph Maiden (director from 1896 to 1924). His particular liking for Phoenix canariensis – Canary Island date palm – which we can see in Macquarie Street and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – and just know they have to have been planted by Maiden while he was director in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The other extraordinary thing I learned from this chapter was the astonishing number of plants distributed from the Royal Botanic Gardens during the 1930s, to celebrate the visit of the Duke of Gloucester (1934), the 25th anniversary of the reign of George V (1935) and the sesqui-centenary of the British arrival in Sydney (1938). Over 600,000 trees were dispatched from the Gardens for these three events alone – all especially chosen for the particular places they were sent. This is a remarkable contribution to the public buildings and gardens of NSW, of which we are the beneficiaries today. Like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, also from the 1930s, our political and bureaucratic leaders seem to have had real vision in those days.

I was also particularly taken by John Ramsland’s wonderful piece on four garden suburbs – three in Sydney and one in Newcastle. Much of this was new to me. He writes extensively of the development of Daceyville – a suburb I have long admired – but I had no idea of its remarkable history and that it was named for its greatest proponent – the NSW Labor Treasurer in 1911–1912, John Dacey, who had vigorously campaigned for the 20 years prior to his becoming Treasurer for improved housing standards for the poor. Given that the NSW state budget was brought down last night, it got me thinking that it is hard to imagine such enlightened thinking resulting in a Berejiklianville today! I won’t hold my breath!

Newly completed houses line an unpaved street in suburban Daceyville

Daceyville Garden Suburb in Sydney's inner-south, c. 1914. Built by the state's first Labor government to alleviate overcrowding, the suburb was Australia's first purpose-built public housing scheme. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

From yard to garden?
Catherine Rogers has taken a single photograph of a woman standing outside the back of a large 1880s house in Burwood and built the most wonderful story of the changing role of backyards that really got me thinking. I read it sitting on the back verandah of my house, built in 1905, and which I have lived in for 35 years. When we arrived there were the ramshackle remains of several old sheds, an iron arbour, an incinerator, gully trap, hills hoist and various indeterminate old structures. The only thing that remains – in what I now describe as the back garden, not the back yard – is the Hills Hoist, that most sensible, beautiful and utilitarian thing any house can have.

When did this happen? When did I start calling it a garden and not a yard? Is it snobbish to now call it a back garden? I am not too sure when I made the change. It’s one of those subtle changes and probably happened slowly over at least 20 years, during which I used the words interchangeably.

Now I look from a furnished verandah into a garden. Despite the Hills Hoist it is definitely a garden – no longer a yard.

Catherine’s chapter was a salutary reminder of what a backyard once was – and indeed presumably why it was called a yard – and not a garden. The one she describes, behind a large house in Burwood built in the mid 1880s, existed when there were no services or utilities of any sort at all. That back yard had to: store wood and coal and other fuels used in the house; store kerosene plus whale and seed oil for lighting; house water tanks – there being no connection to the mains system; produce food – vegetables, fruit and eggs; it was the place where all water – from bathrooms and kitchen and laundry – was disposed of; drying green of some sort to dry clothes; compost heap for leaves, grass clippings, and the muck from the stables and poultry run; dispose of garbage of all sorts – rotten meat, vegetable scraps, paper, old clothes and shoes (there being no garbage service); incinerator for disposing of combustible waste; cess pit for human waste – which moved from time to time as it filled.

All this needed careful management to avoid contamination and disease which was a constant problem. As most of these needs were eliminated at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the yard was transformed into a place for pleasure – hence often becoming a garden – though the word yard lingers today.

I had never quite thought of this. It seems so obvious and I thank Catherine Rogers for shedding light on it.

I found so much poetry in Gretchen Poiner’s essay on 'A sense of place'. Much of it resonated deeply with me. But I want to make one particular comment. In the 1970s when I wandering the Victorian countryside looking for old gardens – there was one almost universal truth.

The best of those historic gardens – whether large or small, country, city or suburban – and by ‘best’ I mean those that retained that elusive mellowness, that mantle that comes from a gentle ageing, not too much change, and always in caring hands – were those gardens (and houses for that matter) that were still in the hands of the families who built them, passed through the generations.

I can think of scores of them – many now lost or spoiled (especially the country ones) by new owners with too much money, too much professional advice and too much so called ‘good taste’.

It’s one reason why I have been a great supporter of trying to keep families of important historic houses in their own places – through tax concessions or other means of encouragement – a noble ambition perhaps, but a difficult reality.

Gretchen summed up these gardens – nurtured by generations – better than I have read anywhere and I want to read it because it evokes so much – and it sends a bit of a chill up my spine.

The subjective relationships with place forged by settlers in the making of gardens can persist over time in memory and personal records. More than that, it may be asserted anew when descendants of the original makers are able to continue that association. It is as if the garden become a bequest with the pride, the privilege and the responsibility of that inheritance. It is not necessary that the original form and planting palette of the garden be ever reproduced but that in its maintenance the genius loci is preserved. These gardens … are imbued with this personal notion of heritage that is intimately imbricated in a sense of place. That many of the substantial and enduring plantings such as trees and shrubs still exist gives substance to these sentiments. With letters, diaries and journals they constitute a form of insurance against a depersonalised history and the loss of memory, bearing witness to some of the processes of settlement and the creation of place.


Tarmons in Woolloomooloo, painted by George Peacock c. 1845, showing its extensive gardens. Built for Sir Maurice O'Connell, Tarmons was later the first site of St Vincent's Hospital (now in Darlinghurst). Gardens were considered therapeutic, and many of Sydney's early hospitals were located in the grounds of former mansions. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

I have referred several times this evening to Bill Gammage’s book. He, and a few others, have opened a whole new understanding about the way Aborigines managed the environment. In finishing I want to suggest a new area of research that I hope someone in the Independent Scholars’ Association might take up. Gammage gives dozens of references of early explorers and settlers describing the landscape as being like a ‘gentleman’s estate – or parkland’.

Let me give you just a few examples.

Charles Sturt observed in South Australia in 1849: ‘In many places the trees are so sparingly, and I had almost said judiciously distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman’s residence in England.’

Thomas Walker in the Omeo Valley in 1837: ‘the sward close … the whole being intersected by lagoons: it is quite like gentleman’s park in England.’

Joseph Maiden in 1894 near Dorrigo: ‘plains which simply consist of grass-land, entirely destitute of trees, or dotted about as in a gentleman’s park.’

Robert Dawson near Port Stephens in 1826: ‘It is impossible therefore to pass through such a country … without being perpetually reminded of a gentleman’s park.’

George Haydon in South West Victoria, undated: ‘It consisted of undulating open forest-land, which has often been compared, without exaggeration, to the ordinary park-scenery of an English domain … have very much the appearance of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens’

I could give you hundreds more.

This descriptor of the Australian landscape – as being like a gentleman’s parkland – is so pervasive that these explorers and early settlors were clearly not ignorant of that very British – and most sophisticated – of cultural landscapes, the British gentleman’s estate.

The research question I pose for all you clever historians and academics is this:

Given this wide knowledge – and appreciation – of what a gentleman’s parkland was, why is it that no settlors (with the possible exception of the Macquarie’s) seem to have taken advantage of these ready-made parklands that they found right across the Australian continent, and incorporated them into their own estates? Perhaps they did. Perhaps some of you know of them. I certainly don’t. I can think of a number of examples where they were recreated, with both exotic and native trees. But I know of none that were deliberately maintained in their as-found condition. Perhaps this might be a subject for a future ISSA book, or at least an essay?

In conclusion, can I congratulate: all the authors, designers and those who put the book together; the Independent Scholars Association of Australia; Sydney University Press; the sponsors:
> The City of Sydney History Publication Scholarship Program
> The Australian Garden History Society and its Kindred Spirits Fund (a fund that was a bequest from Joan Law Smith to the AGHS in the form of a book comprising the correspondence between Joan and that great plants woman, Jean Galbraith, and beautifully illustrated by Joan’s watercolours)
> The Nursery and Garden Industry Association
> The Royal Botanic Gardens, as part of its 200th anniversary

And many others who are acknowledged in the book.

The book is full of the most wonderful quotes and references. All manner of information has been dredged from the archives. I will finish with my particular favourite. In her chapter on ‘A sense of place’, Gretchen Poiner quotes the inscription on a simple headstone set in a landscape of sand dunes and scrub, on the shore of Colsham Lake in far western NSW:

To the Memory of
Eliza Kennedy
Who died 6th January 1886
Aged 32 Years
Her charity covered a multitude of sins

It has nothing really to do with gardens, but much to do with history – and a huge amount to do with the imagination!

On that note, it’s my pleasure to declare Gardens of history and imagination: growing NSW launched.

Peter Watts AM is Emeritus Director, Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now Sydney Living Museums). He became a Member of the Order of Australia in 2007 for his contribution to the arts and to conservation. Peter is now engaged on a wide range of committees and boards engaged with conservation and the arts and consults in these and related fields.

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