Sketching Sydney. Cooks River at Tempe NSW 2044

June 27, 2012


3pm, mid-Winter. Wolli Creek high-rise apartments, with Tempe House at lower left, viewed from Kendrick Park.

One thing I like about urban sketching is its power to record something that is constantly changing. You can sketch it one day, but the scene may look radically different sometime in the future. These days, with the Internet, it’s possible to see how a building or landscape was sketched, painted and photographed in the past. Sometimes even the most boring, most unprepossessing-looking vistas can change dramatically over time. You can record something now and have absolutely no idea how much it will change in the future.

Here’s a good example: below is a composite of two photos I took, about twenty years ago, of a very ordinary-looking river bank. It’s just a few miles from Sydney. A hundred years ago it was a popular weekender tourist spot, I assume because it was quiet and rural, reminding visitors of Home, England. A villa was built and named Tempe House; Tempe is the only suburb of Sydney in the Greek language. This “vale of peace” from Antiquity has been memorialised by painters in the past, but was fairly non-descript during the 20th-century. Around the time this photo was taken, the locality was considered one of the most down-and-out in Sydney, number 212 out of a total of 214 in terms of popularity as noted by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. Only Cabramatta and Redfern had a worse reputation. 

This particular view has been drawn and painted by many artists since European invasion in 1788. Back in the 1990s, I was being introduced to the idea of plein air sketching and had the idea that a local scene might be worth trying. I was too intimated at the time by the sheer bulk of tiny detail to tackle it, either as a sketch or a painting, so I just filed it away as a future “to do” project.

Cooks River at Tempe NSW – about 1993

Far left: the concrete bridge across the Cooks River was built in 1967; in the 19th century it was a causeway made of stones. The road was the main road south of Sydney Town and had a tax collector on the southern bank; another tax collection point was back towards Sydney at Newtown, where the railway station is today. To the extreme left you can just see the top of the Airport Hilton Hotel. Out of sight (but visible in the 19th century paintings of this vista) is the reclaimed land on which the International Airport now stands. The river bank in the foreground has recently been upgraded by Marrickville Council; it’s busy with picknickers on weekends.

Centre: towards the centre, the sandstone columns of the portico of Tempe House are just visible, as is the small church next to it. At the time this photo was taken it was a retreat/aged care facility for retired Franciscan priests. Around this time too, an Open Day of Tempe House allowed locals to get up reasonably up-close-and-personal with the house and chapel. Since then, it was bought by QANTAS, ever interested in land adjacent to airport property. Later still, Tempe House and the chapel were sold into private hands and is now strictly inaccessible to the general public, despite its enormous historical value.

Right: in the river sits Fatima Island, exposed only during low tide.

Far right: the grey stanchions of the main southern railway track are just visible. There is evidence by the riverbank of local rock and sand being processed by Pioneer, a companying providing natural materials to the building industry. On the hills above in the distance sits the suburb of Arncliffe, a very good vantage point for watching the fireworks on Sydney Harbour in the distance on New Year’s Eve.

During the first decade of the 21st-century, Sydney underwent massive changes, both visually and as a place to live. The social stigma attached to living in a “unit” disappeared; low-tech industrial land was turned over to high-rise apartments and industries moved to the western suburbs; any land reasonably close to the Central Business District has since been transformed. We have a funny attitude to our architecture here in Sydney. It is the stuff of our everyday lives, but we ignore it. The great French poet Theophile Gautier lamented his lost Paris after the work of Baron Hausmann; it’s nearly impossible for any of us to imagine what Paris was like before Baron Hausmann. Similarly in Sydney, we are indebted to photos taken of the historic Rocks area of Sydney by government health officials in the wake of a breakout of plague around 1900. That led to artists like Lionel Lindsay, and later Sydney Ure Smith and Lloyd Rees, starting to draw that district which is know a tourist money-spinner for the city. 

I’ve been sketching buildings in Sydney on and off since the 1960s. I still remember going to the top floor of Sydney’s then tallest buildings, a whopping twelve storeys, to watch the construction of the Sydney Opera House from above.  My first proper paid job was in one of the largest if not the best interior space in Sydney, the Reading Room of the NSW State Library – now the Mitchell Library. I like the patina of old buildings, the potential for change in derelict buildings, curiosity engendered by building sites and how new spaces will alter the landscape. I notice an artist painted Pyrmont as it changed out of all recognition recently. I’m wondering about good vantage points to sketch the changing face of Barangaroo, the “next big thing” in Sydney’s architecture.


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