Great Garden Sketchabout #2 – Morshead Fountain Gate

February 2, 2011


8×10″, graphite pencil and Sharpie XF pen. Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Morshead Fountain Gate from Mitchell Library. A 20min sketch done without support, 4.30-5pm, 1 Feb, 102F degrees. The composition is interesting enough without having to add the Captain Cook statue, available but a few steps to the left (see last photo). My main problem is the rapidly changing shadows at this time of day. A remarkably poor sketch, I am not deterred; I need to go back and add more botanical detail. I have this idea of colouring the vegetation and thus ‘alienating’ the Built Environment in the process. The shapes of the palms and pines are simply wonderful but need reworking here. The whole thing needs a lot more work – it looks like a vignette from The Bulletin from the early 20th century. One thing not obvious from the b/w sketch is the brilliant light thrown on to three faces of the blocks of the fountain, which can only be highlighted if I surround that area with colour. I think the amount of work these and subsequent RBG sketches are requiring – especially in the current heat wave conditions – they are being “upgraded” to drawings very quickly.

I am chuffed that the Royal Botanic Gardens is open till 8pm in summer, thus allowing me some midweek sketching after work, at least potentially. As predicted, Macquarie Street is plunged into near-darkness in the late afternoon so the western boundary of the Royal Botanic Gardens – with its buildings, cars, palm trees and garden walls – looks as if it needs to be sketched only in the mornings. This is obvious in the photos below which show the long shadows drawn by the high-rise over the gardens. I had the idea of the Built Environment casting a long shadow over the natural environment as a metaphor for the predicament of the Gardens in the modern world. The Gardens, instead, may have to become something of a “guiding light” with the early morning sun lighting the way for Man and his buildings!

Undeterred, the obvious starting point for me in any sketching of the RBG is the Morshead Fountain Gate, opposite the Mitchell Library.  This is a view personally very familiar to me, since I’ve been visiting the RBG on and off since 1969 and entering it at this Gate. I’m determined to include the Dorchester and other highrise buildings because they not only hem in the gardens on the western side but are somewhat crucial in the history of this part of the gardens. Had this been the 1882 or so for a very short period, this particular aspect would have looked directly at the facade of the Garden Palace, that giant wooden structure, several times the size of the Queen Victoria Building still extant at Town Hall; it’s said the Macquarie Street residents were upset about the Palace blocking their view of the gardens and that they may have been responsible for burning it down. Other reasons have been posited for the demise of the Palace. I found it particularly ironic today that the Dorchester (Sydney’s first high-rise apartment block) is currently under renovation and that a giant screen has been erected in front of it, blocking all views. This particular aspect cannot take in the Renzo Piano building, the Macquarie apartments; in my day, I knew it of course as the State Government Office Block (a peculiarly 1970s/80s monicker in its own way), a giant black granite tower. I’d like to be able to conjure up the Garden Palace in my sketch somehow.

Ernest Watson would pick out the dramatic shadows and the wonderful play of greens in the view, not terribly obvious at all in the photos. I am concerned that whatever trees I draw actually convey the particular species, so I will have to not only draw more accurately but find out a bit more about what I’m drawing.  Certainly the distinctive qualities of the Norfolk Pines, which I’m passionate about, ought to shine through. There is more variety in the skyline of trees than I anticipated. The Volunteer Guides during the Garden Sketchabout in February/March might be able to come to my rescue.


To the left are the buildings of Macquarie Street, including a vignette of the top of the Harbour Bridge with its flag. The palms and Norfolk Pines behind the Morehead Fountain in centre are particularly lyrical. Fortuitously there is a wonderful play of light on the stones surrounding the fountain and some trees at far right balance up the composition. At this stage, unless I draw a very wide panorama, there is no need to include either the Macquarie Apartments of Renzo Piano (far left) or the Shakespeare Monument (far right), though that is one option at least worth testing. 

I re-visited this vantage point on Thursday 3 Feb at the same time to check my previous efforts and also to introduce some colour because I thought the black-and-white too stark and ‘in your face’. The colour has certainly softened the overall, which is the same soothing effect the trees have set amongst the bitumen and hard-edged urban context. Tourists were playing in and around the water of the fountain today, oblivious of the fact that it’s a memorial. But then I’ve seen tourists photograph themselves, with flash, in front of the high altar of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. The only thing I haven’t captured at all to my satisfaction is the gorgeous quality of the palm fronds – they look like plumped-up petunias here – so it will be worthwhile to keep coming back to get them right.

The larger Gardens Sketchbook concept

In terms of my take on the Gardens Sketchbook concept, and my mania for relevancy, I ought to be including a panel or two devoted to not just the flying fox and its predations, but also the seaweed of Wahganmuggalee (Farm Cove)  as well as the Wollemi Pine (a great plant to look at!), the Waratah and the bush foods of the Cadigal. I’ve discovered there are more formal Gates than I anticipated, and each has its own name: Rose Garden Gate, Palace Garden Gate, Morshead Fountain Gate, Opera House Gate, QE II Gate, Tarpeian Way Gate, Wooloomooloo Gate, Victoria Lodge Gate, Government House Gate.Yurong Gate. One could obviously sketch each of the gates in their own right. This concept of the walls and gates and exclusivity, and barriers to access, goes to the heart of the creation of the gardens. Established and maintained not just as a scientific entity, it was also the public domain or public “face” for colonial society. It’s fascinating to read injunctions down through the centuries about keeping rascals out and later, the need for gas lighting to deter anti-social behaviour. This backstory may become important if I want to represent humans at all in my sketches, with connotations of the Gardens being a territory for colonial/Victorian courting as well as communing with Nature.

I’m  not sure it’s my style exactly, but I have been playing with the idea of whimsy, of interpolating flowers over the naturalistic representation of the landscape. This was in part driven by the idea of the carpet, with a border of buildings and a centrepiece of flowers. There are some remarkable plants in bloom in planter boxes in nearby Martin Place which represent this idea of geometric all-over patterning, which I might pursue as a sideline sketch.


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