Sydney Sketching – QVB 2-and-a-half!

February 15, 2011

Observing without sketching

Memorising music involves sitting down with the score away from one’s instrument. I’m not sure what this has to do with sketching, but I visited the Queen Victoria Building today without putting pen to paper. It’s probably “wrong” of me to focus on the detail of the building when I should be concentrating instead on tonal contrast and the general overview, but I’m attracted by the detail of the stonework and the copper domes. I was quietly perturbed by my use of dark green watercolour pencil on the weekend to suggest the colour of both copper domes – this trip and notes below are some sort of private penance! I used the dark green then to complement the red spot of the traffic light.

Rather too weary after work to try and stand and draw without support, I made notes as follows. Observing as a separate activity from drawing is certainly worthwhile.  As a prelim to my notes below, check out the photos and links in Wikipedia entry for “Queen Victoria Building”. The historic photos show the QVB in a streamlined, uncluttered way and are good references for getting the perspective correct.

The building occupies an entire city block and is 30m wide and 190m long. It’s like a small shoebox surrounded by skyscrapers. Atypically, the QVB was built of smooth-faced sandstone rather than the rugged, rock-faced stonework usually featured in this style – most of the other Sydney buildings in this style show the rock-faced stonework to advantage. The express purpose of its construction in 1898 was to employ a great number of skilled craftsmen who were out of work due to a severe recession of 1893. The arresting beauty of the sandstone masonry and stained glass fenestration remains today.

The Domes

* the copper domes are probably the most attractive aspect of the building. No other building in Sydney with similar copper cladding comes to mind, except the Sydney Observatory on Observatory Hill overlooking the Harbour Bridge; these certainly remind of St Mark’s Venice. Where domes are similarly used elsewhere in Sydney, they are a lot smaller and constructed entirely from stone instead. The architectural style is Federation Romanesque Revival, c.1890-c.1915 and other similar examples around Sydney include: the former Sydney Parcels Office (Railway Square), now a boutique hotel; Westpac Bank Broadway (Chippendale); Sydney Technical College; Bank of Australasia, 2 Martin Place; 350 George Street; Flatiron Building Railway Square, St Andrews Presbyterian Church Manly; Leichhardt Public School. These are some of the most picturesque buildings in Sydney. See for photos of these buildings and an overview of the architectural style. A dour example with distinctly French overtones is the Magistrates Court (1914), cnr of LaTrobe and Russell Streets, certainly one of my favourite Melbourne buildings. The Flinders Street Station recalls the style as well.

 * each dome has distinctly different colouring due to patina and weathering. They cannot have been restored by IPOH in the late 1980s at radically different times, but certainly their colouring varies from a bright yellow green through apple green to dark acid green and a rusty orange-yellow. The finial on the main cupola can cast shadows on the copper. I note the white metal prongs on the top of each dome finial – bird protectors and/or lightning rods. The main cupola on its northern side features some brown panels, probably newer copper panels in the process of going green, I’m not sure. These brown panels are a chocolate brown at the darkest and a white/grey at their lightest. Metallurgically, I’m not sure what’s going on there! No sketch, drawing or photo that I’ve seen so far of the QVB has accurately shown the colourwork of the copper domes, or revelled in it, or even captured much of the detail of them, which is curious. Photos and drawings appear not to adequately show the eight rings of copper cladding on each of the smaller domes. On the main cupola, each ‘slate’ of copper is held in place with two rivets – they look like single rivets from street-level; the smaller domes don’t have these rivets. On some of the smaller domes, the weathering creates crack-like patterns on the ‘slates’, which makes clear delineation between contour and surface effects quite tricky.

Here is an old photo, held in the Powerhouse Museum Collection and reproduced here because it’s out of copyright and is disseminated via the Commons process on Wikipedia. The photographer obviously wanted to include the Sydney Town Hall in the background, which I don’t believe is as visible at street level. Interestingly, where the facade is cut off at far left is almost identical to where the facade disappears also in my first sketch. So it looks as if the photo was taken from the same vantage point as my sketch done from 44 Market Street, only the photographer managed to get higher up in the same spot. He appears to have been parked by the kerb in Market Street on the top of a very tall truck or similar. I wonder where I have to stand these days in order to get the Town Hall in view. You’ll notice the photo was taken a bit late in the afternoon, with sufficiently strong sunlight to cast very strong shadows.


The Druitt Street facade

* I overlooked the tracery in the main (ABC Bookshop) window

* the upper sections of dark sandstone have not been cleaned; the lower lighter sections have

* the facade is huge and overwhelming and “in your face” from across the road; it’s totally unlike the experience of Google Maps. My quick sketch from Google is very tame by comparison. Take note of the number of three-quarter views of the building photographed during the early 20th century from roughly outside Woolies. These photos wanted to include both the Druitt St facade as well as the main cupola. There is public seating around the Sydney Town Hall but it’s a key meeting place in the city so I’d have to book a seat if I wanted to sketch it sitting down! The seats are also set a little below street level, so the perspective would change. It’s rather too busy to set up a folding stool on footpaths anywhere near the building.

* the awnings appear to be an extraneous addition, but have in fact been there from the very beginning – and the left side is a very busy outdoor cafe. It’s intriguing to consider the building’s stone structure behind the awnings.

* there are of course two statues, not just the one of Queen Victoria. The Queen’s statue  – in strong chocolate browns – is very impressive at dusk (6pm in Feb) with the play of sunlight on it; worth a sketch in its own right. The queen, arrayed on a light grey stone plinth, is the work of Irish sculptor John Hughes. It stood originally outside the Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Ireland, the Dail Eireann in Leinster House Dubln until 1947.  Nearby stands a wishing well benefitting deaf and blind children featuring a bronze sculpture of QV’s favourite dog “Islay” which was sculpted by local Sydney artist, Justin Robson. This area outside the QVB is a busy meeting place for city workers at the end of their day and is now known as the Bicentennial Plaza.

* buses at peak hour are a menace in considering the lower parts of the facade. Sketch/draw/paint out of peak hour!

Pitt Street facade

* the Pitt Street facade is under renovation, so I didn’t bother checking out the marble statuary on that side of the building today.

* the Galeries building. opposite the QVB and an example of the most contemporary style in Sydney, is not without interest. Worth considering what elements the architects might have drawn from the ‘borrowed environment’ for the facades and suggestions of awnings.

York Street facade

* these days the York Street facade is remarkably uniform with its very long awning; it is a city bus terminus. The footpath opposite, at Newton’s Pharmacy for  example, gives good vantages of the main cupola with white marble statues of three figures in front:  man holding a flame, possibly Libery, with two seated women – the one on the left looks like Science or Geography, while the one on the right looks like Art or Painting). I haven’t found details of the statues on the Web yet. Outside Abbey’s Bookshop gives a good three-quarter view of the statues. Unfortunately this is strained neck territory, jumping from statues to sketchbook! The foreshortening is extreme and the statues are quite high off the ground. Interesting to capture perhaps and a lot easier to grasp anatomically than the black granite statues of the figures in the Archibald Fountain! As suggested by at least one photo of the statuary on the Web, I think the way to go here is a close-up photograph, sketching with the surrounding sandstone and cupola by way of context. Some of the buildings close to the Town Hall in York Street date from the first decade of the 20th century, so, with the Town Hall, providing a coherent architectural context for the QVB.

Wandering down memory lane

I have memories of the QVB prior to its renovation and transformation in the late 1980s into the shopping haven it is now. I recall walking through it, with lots of plain, rough hoardings; it may have been at the time when it housed the City of Sydney Library on one of its floors in the 1970s. The French would now describe it as a sort of grande surface and the Italians would call it a palazzo. Pierre Cardin described its interior as the best shopping centre in the world. The lowest floor now connects with Myer and Centrepoint/Westfield Sydney, so it’s now possible to walk from Town Hall to St James almost entirely under cover.

Creating an extra public space

There has been talk of demolishing the Woolworths Building opposite the Town Hall and making it an open public space. Given the intensity of peak hour pedestrian traffic, it’s no wonder this is being considered. Some drawings of the current Woolworths Building, with its future deletion in mind, would be interesting! I still remember the very picturesque bottle shop/pub on the corner of Park/Pitt where the Galeries Building now stands. Long before liquor was available in supermarkets, it was one of the few places in Sydney where one could get hold of French wine and spirits! I’m talking about a time when Sydney closed down at 5pm and the only place one could buy cigarettes “after hours” was up at Kings Cross.

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