This too shall pass: Reflections on mortality, vanity and the transience of life ... in Hobart Town
Some of Hobart’s haphazard streets were too steep for a horse and cart and others ran to an end on the cliff above the beach. Despite its shortcomings, New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s grid plan for the expanding township - hastily laid out on a visit in 1819 - survives to this day. [i]
Today there is a scenic walking trail that winds its way to the highest point overlooking the Derwent River. It takes me up laneways, past old seafarers’ cottages and through historic Battery Point, largely unchanged since merchants, shipbuilders and factory owners built their ornate Georgian homes here, far above the growing squaller among the sandstone warehouses, foundries and moored whaling ships along ‘New Wharf’, now Salamanca Place.
George Williams Evans' depiction of early Hobart Town in 1819 Photo: QVMAG
View from Battery Point, 1878 Photo: UTAS
New Wharf at Salamanca was a busy sight in 1895 Photo: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office
Battery Point today Photo: Visit Hobart
I was told there was an old pub to be found, the Shipwrights Arms Hotel. But disorientated from my climb, I was soon lost. I rested instead on a park bench, by a long masonry embankment that clearly bore the chisel marks of convict labour. On the face of the stone was a plaque attesting that here perhaps stood, taking in the panoramic view of the township below, the English naturalist Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin, arrived in Hobart Town in 1836, and a man who became his closest friend and colleague, Joseph Hooker, arrived four years later. It was their work, initially separately and later in collaboration, that produced the breakthrough theory of Darwin's The Origin of the Species.
Battery Point plaque Photo: Author
'HMS Beagle' by Conrad Martens Photo: UTAS
A young Charles Darwin in 1840 by George Richmond Photo: UTAS
On arrival from Sydney on the sloop, HMS Beagle, Darwin’s fascination in Tasmania's geology, plant and animal species became part of his research that became his evolutionary theory. Over twelve days, he collected local reptiles, fossilised sea life, and insect samples - many new to science - and noted geology and soil formations. His 27th birthday was celebrated in Hobart.
In the nearby historic military barracks precinct, bordered by Argyle Street, Macquarie Street, and Davey Street stands the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery - a combined museum, art gallery and herbarium which houses the State Collection of Tasmania and includes many of the specimens collected by Darwin along the banks of Sullivan’s Cove.
Its modern façade sits back inside the remnants of the barrack’s fortified walls and from which once hung in full sight of the colony’s hardworking government clerks in neighbouring offices the wretched souls who failed to impress the local judiciary, most of who were themselves corrupt.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Photo: TMAG
Twisting through the corridors - nothing seems to run straight in Hobart – I enter a huge darkened chamber. To my right is an ethnographic indigenous peoples exhibit. It is evident that much thought and respect has been paid by curators to the stories of the indigenous population, particularly with a modern day telling of the murderous horrors they faced on white settlement of their lands.
In what was once the barrack’s turn-out yard is the most spellbinding taxidermy display of wildlife and fauna, twisting its way high into the roof space. If it had been in place in Darwin’s day, he would not have needed to stray any further to inform his theories. Walking through galleries housing immersive displays of Antarctic exploration, seafaring and whaling, and colonial authority, I pass through long rooms, their walls lined with it seemed the entirety of Tasmania’s portraiture art history.
Here on display are one of the remainders of the colonial period, an extraordinary collection of portraits, faces each lined with remarkable histories of their own. This long term exhibition This too shall pass focuses on portraits, self-portraits, along with still-life paintings and artefacts that reflect on changing attitudes, on ‘mortality, vanity and the transience of life, beauty and material things’.
'This too shall pass' at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Photo: TMAG
As well as traditional colonial era paintings this rehang integrates a range of modern and contemporary artwork, such as Jacqui Stockdale’s wonderful nod to Colonial portraiture, Lady Rabbit (2005), which hangs in pride of place above a makeshift Victorian mantel by the gallery’s entrance.
Invariably, one is drawn towards the centrepiece in my view of this exhibition, James Gleeson's monumental work, ‘Nest of premonitions’ (1987).
James Gleeson, ‘Nest of premonitions’ (1987) Photo: TMAG
Chair of the Board of Trustees, Brett Torossi, at TMAG's 'This Too Shall Pass' exhibition
James Gleeson is lauded as one of Australia's most important artists. For more than six decades, his work investigated the realms and possibilities of Surrealism – an at times maligned oeuvre among Australia’s conservative art community. Gleeson sought to show that there exists, beyond the obvious and everyday, an alternative reality experienced through dreams, hallucinations, and differing mental states.
Rather than focusing on purely private fantasies, the most significant contributions made by Surrealist artists like James Gleeson, are the visionary and profound statements evident throughout their works that comment on the human condition. [ii]
Not unlike Darwin, Gleeson takes us beyond our current condition, poking the imagination and breathing new life into, and giving fresh interpretation to, prehistoric creatures.
Finding my way eventually to the Shipwrights Arms Hotel, I raised my glass to Hobart. And while it’s hilly topography may have been subjugated to Macquarie’s uncompromising grid, Hobart today offers a richly nuanced pathway, a narrative of triumph over adversity, of continual inquisition - and ultimately an understanding of the transience of all things. Darwin’s trip to Hobart was only fleeting, but its import has been long lasting.
Note: TMAG's portrait and general collections pay respect to First Nation peoples, with painted images notably interspersed throughout the gallery with scholarly notation. Indeed, the absence of indigenous peoples imagery in this exhibition is itself a salient point, not lost on the observer.
'This too shall pass' at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery runs until 30 November 2023
Main Photo: Jacqui Stockdale, 'White Rabbit' (2005)
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia
The Shipwrights Arms Hotel, Battery Point Photo: On the Convicts Trail