Great Garden Sketchabout #3 – Palace Garden Gate

February 2, 2011

8×10″ graphite pencil, Staedtler fineliner 0.1mm pen and watercolour pencils. 20min sketch, 2pm, 2 Feb. This is not so much a sketch as a ‘note’ for a sketch. I give it a 1 or 2 out of 10 in terms of adequately representing the Gate, but I’m hopeful repeat sketches on return visits will improve! Today’s oppressive heat and lack of sleep last night mean that I’m merely a secretary taking dictation. But I was keen to get a sense of the fall of shadows and limiting the composition between the two modern sculptural bowls at either end of the sandstone gates. I like this aspect of the contemporary trying to ‘update’ or ‘modernise’ the 19th-century. I’m not sure anyone actually notices, except that these bowls were refreshing sources of water on this hot afternoon for the general public and their handkerchiefs. From this angle, the very tall palm trees are not visible, but would be a great compositional aid if they could be added. The good thing was that I was able to be seated in the shade – in this case, right next to patrons of the cafe. Despite the difficulties inherent in representing such full and varied shadow, I’d try not to minimise it. The shadows do represent the menace of Man on the “Western Front’ of this war. With Sydney fast aspiring to be Shanghai or Tokyo, I’m sure someone returning to the Gardens in forty years will see ever taller and imposing buildings; none will ever set height limits on buildings facing the Gardens.

The graphite pencil allows me to express my ‘real’ self in terms of tonal representation; the pen and colour represent a concession to the contemporary style of urban sketching/journalling, which is not really me but I’m getting used to it and besides pencil alone won’t scan/upload to the world. And modern audiences have moved beyond the Lloyd Rees/Sydney Ure Smith/Cedric Emmanuel style of pencil drawing it has to be said. Viewers have moved on, so artists must too. A sketchbook full of pencil sketches will just be condemned as old-hat ‘art school’ and I’m tired of having that moniker put on me.

I deliberately left out cool colours this time. I wanted the shadows to convey the soppy humidity, the deliquescence of the situation as well as the hot sun on the sandstone blocks. Simply adding a blue-only colour, as in the sky, would have given the impression more of autumn or winter. This is not a European scene at all, though of course the subject matter is quintessentially English. I want to convey the sense of Victorian England transplanted to Australia.



In terms of adding approach to the concept of the Garden Sketchabout, I’ve been very concerned about appearing to be only able to approach the gardens via the built environment, by the man-made. I’m using the term “man-made” very deliberately because I think my approach is heavily gendered. What good is a bunch of drawings about Gardens when they are full of man-made objects or only seen from the outside looking in?  Well, I’ve stopped worrying about that after today’s visit.

I’m interested, it’s true, in the play of Nature and Built Environment, though it is hardly a haphazardly ludic thing at all. While being liminal, I think there really is a very serious and sustained struggle going on between the gardens and their external environment. I’d like that to come through in my sketches/drawings, because there is an inherent problem involved in the gaze or the ‘view’. Firstly, there is the liminal territory of the border, of access, of the various Gates, and those feature in ‘traditional’ sketches of the Gardens. The colonials and Victorians were obsessed with keeping out the ‘wrong’ sort of people; these days, we are similarly obsessed with borders and security, whether it be post-9/11 or Afghan asylum seekers. Territory, border patrols, border controls loom very large in our consciousness. I’m very very keen to draw the Gates of the RBG in their context; for example I personally couldn’t imagine drawing the Wooloomooloo Gates without the mass of car parked on the street outside. That Macquarie Road is a carpark by day, where car parking spots are very highly sought after and contested,  has to be represented.

Secondly, on entering the gardens however, the viewer adopts a “micro” view, honing in on the aesthetic qualities of particular plants. So in sketches (and photography) this becomes an obsession with detail. Which is fine; it’s a scientific institution after all concerned with seads and buds and stems and flowers and trunks and branches. Obviously my sketches, like anyone else’s, will alternate between the ‘macro’ (gates and the Built Environment “overhang” or backdrop) and the ‘micro’ (the colour and shape of plants), but I’d also like to include some “middle” views as well. This will test my ability to draw landscape as well as test my aesthetic vision for capturing large areas of trees and shrubs in ways which might contradict the traditional approach to landscape – not just the content, but the paper format (portrait/landscape) as well. In fact, one could gear up one’s sketches along these lines – the portrait aspect (for portraying Man) for sketches involving the Built Environment, contrasting with the landscape aspect (landscape, the portrait of the land) involving subject matter inside the Garden, distanced from the man-made.

To illustrate these ideas, here are some photos I took, since it was too hot to do more than two 20min sketches today:


These represent not just the natural vs the built environment but highlight also the stylized, formalised aspects of the natural (the natural made machine-like). I like the art-commenting-on-art aspects to including the Canova statue (and I’d want to highlight its white against the dark of the tree behind).  The Palace Garden fountain is a direct comment on the Macquarie Street residents burning down the Garden Palace in 1882 and in terms of visual history, inclusion of the curve of the Renzo Piano roof is important to me (mirroring the curve of the fountain below); if I’d been sketching this in 1971 instead of 2011, obviously the State Office Block would be backdrop. What I’ll be unable to convey of course is the balconies of the Piano building full of vegetation, a curious comment on the sky garden and ‘bringing the garden inside’ for these particular residents. Unfortunately for me, these two potential sketches will mean standing and standing in the open afternoon sun. What’s particularly interesting about today’s shots is the bad air quality and the distancing of the buildings caused by the heat haze – could I but capture that!


These are what I’d call very traditional, ultra-traditional in fact, ‘landscape’ views – landscape both in terms of content and in terms of paper aspect. They could be by Capability Brown, they are so English – which again is fine, given the history of the location and ongoing links with Britain via botanical connections. Each of these two photos comments on art being imposed on the landscape, the man-made object being situated in the natural world. So they are not without interest. For me, however, they do mean sketching in the open, standing, and in the intense heat. What worries me is that these do not ‘represent’ the Royal Botanic Gardens in 2011. What is eliminated or ‘wiped away’ in these views is the real life, urgent struggle of Man and Nature, not just in terms of the preceding western boundary of the Gardens in the buildings above, but the current struggle involving the flying foxes and ibises in the Palm Grove.


No sketching of the Royal Botanic Gardens in 2011 can ignore the Palm Grove and the flying foxes’ crisis. I think any artist’s work is irrelevant if it doesn’t. Any artist who ignores the foxes isn’t being authentic. Somehow or other we, as artists, have to represent or mediate the trashing and destruction of the Grove by the foxes and ibises. Our sketc hes have to show the stinking, putrid mess for what it is. For me, it’s the centre of the Gardens because you have to pass through it to get to almost any other part of the garden. Some would argue that it is not the heart of the Gardens – that it’s heart lies elswhere. As artists we have to take a stand on the issue, as all artists have to take a stand on all the issues they portray. What strikes me is that it’s a State Government Department which runs the Gardens, in concert with other State Government Departments responsible for the trashing of the foxes habitat elsewhere in Sydney. I’m struck by the way the Gardens has inadvertently brought the problem on itself through the cackhandedness of its managers working, at a Ministerial level, in concert with other departmental Ministers. It is not a RBG problem, it’s a classic whole-of-government problem. In the backdrop of my time during the 1980s, bats used to squabble outside my window as they vied for fruit in the fig trees of Rushcutters Bay, a couple of suburbs away from the RBG. Are those fig trees still there or have they been removed for high-rise apartments? Sydney has been wholly unprepared for the invasion of birds, as  during the drought (ask anyone in Redfern or Marrickville about the ibises) and the lack of a waystation between the bat housing estates at Gordon and Wolli Creek is appalling. As the RBG signs indicate under the forlorn palms, the foxes will destroy the palms and in so doing have to move house eventually anyway. What I think the Garden Sketchabout participants have to tackle is this interface between the natural order and how Man (and for the moment I leave Women out of the equation) is fumbling around in messing up that natural order. I guess my question about the fox problem is this: where will they move to after they’ve destroyed the Palm Grove?

In terms of artistic representation, it’s difficult getting a drawing of the palms from the ground ‘accepted’ by any viewer. It breaks the traditional picture plane iconography to be looking up a tree; as a closed object. The top of the tree could be ‘disembodied’, I suppose. One could replicate the visual distortion reminiscent of photography. I’m not sure at all how one can represent the feeling of the warzone though. I don’t think it’s helpful either to withdraw into memory: my memories of this wonderful Grove from the 1970s – its dark, savage coolness – when there were no flying foxes around, have nothing to do with the current problem. Drawing from memory, from a recollection of forty years earlier, doesn’t help.


Lastly, two photos reflecting the ‘micro’ aspect of sketching in any Botanic Gardens. The Garden Sketchabout project will be ultimately full of amateur botanic illustration – at a distance from the scientific ‘objectivity’ and (art) object-making of botanic illustration proper, but full of the dilettante’s enthusiasm for the subject matter. The work will be largely ‘thoughtless’ because the gardens are a refuge and an escape. Escapist art is fine. I’d like to think though that some will take an ironic approach, including name plates in their drawings, for example. For the same reason today I photographed a groundsman’s vehicle, an object normally excluded from souvenir photos or drawings. I think it’s important sketches should show the Gardens as a workplace. For me too, I’m drawn by the wonder of shapes (left) as well as the irony of both nameplate and fall of shadow (right). The palm represents a denial of the Palm Grove problem, instead an artist’s escapist revelling in form; the tiny succulent from the Canary Islands has personal significance because I’ve been to Las Canarias (and so few Australians I’ve met have been). I like the forloren aspect of many of the plants in the Gardens; they look lonely, lost, far from home, often decrepit when not flowering or putting themselves ‘on show’, yet valued because we protect and nurture them and part of our enjoyment at looking at particular plants is their evocation of memory, whether it be of our great-aunt’s garden or of a foreign land.


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