Beneath the Veneer - September Out of the Port
The September Out of the Port session, with the fitting title “Beneath the Veneer" looked at the changing trends in home decorating and furnishing in Queensland from colonial times onward and the growing acceptance of local products and craftsmanship.
The session was presented by Tracey Avery who is Director, Strategy and Policy at Heritage Victoria, a Victorian State Government agency within the Department of Planning and Community Development. She is currently a PhD candidate in Architecture at the University of Melbourne and has published on interior and object design history, most recently a chapter in The Design History Reader (Berg, 2010).
Tracey argued that until 1914, home interior fashions in Australia were almost exclusively modelled on British ideas despite a mismatch between British conditions and the climatic, lifestyle and economic conditions in Australia. Australia was seen as suitable only as the producer of raw materials and Britain as the home of craftsmen of fine quality goods and many Australians had their furniture shipped thousands of miles from England.
Australia benefited from worsening conditions in England when craftsmen migrated to Australia and brought their skills and expertise with them. Status was displayed by the selection of high class furniture. The same items would be produced with minor changes to detail and without "extras" for those who could not afford them.
Australian manufacturers developed their own simple modifications with firms like Hicks advertising “furniture to suit the climate without the hot stuffing”. Local firms also used native timbers and veneers to distinguish themselves from importers. The development of what could be called an Australian character was gradually applied to furnishings and household items.
Local manufacturers boasted their material was “equal to English manufacturing” as well as cheaper than imported products. Nobody wanted to reveal their furniture was shoddy, or had been made with inferior workmanship, but quality local producers could advertise their items were equal or superior. Fine furniture made in Australia was often stamped "European labour only". In the Queensland Parliament it was argued that furniture made for Australians should be made in Australia.
Despite growing acceptance of local products, drawing rooms remained almost completely filled with British or European furniture although in bedrooms and other private areas it became acceptable to show pride in the new country by using furniture made from local timber and craftsmen. The right choice of furniture exhibited your class and style, your knowledge of worldly fashions and showed that you were part of the elite.
Dr Judith McKay, who was in the audience, made the point that in Government buildings in Queensland much of the furniture, even from the early days of the colony, was locally made from Australian timbers. Tracey Avery conceded this point saying that this was much to do with Government backing of local manufacturers and the "selling" of business in Queensland and of products symbolising industry and creation that was unique to the colony.
Out of the Port is a free lunchtime talk, presented by the State Library's John Oxley Library and the Department of Environment and Resource Management. Join us next month on 19th October for Cyclone Mahina: Australia’s deadliest storm. In 1899, one of the most intense cyclones ever recorded smashed into the Queensland coast and killed more than 300 people. Cyclone Mahina destroyed the Thursday Island pearling fleets and is credited as being the world's highest storm surge. Journalist Ian Townsend explores some of the myths and misconceptions about this cyclone, revealing stories of the people who were there.
Out of the Port sessions are podcast and available through our website.
Librarian, John Oxley Library