The Governor, The Commandant and The Convict
A recent work trip to Sydney has been slightly incredible. I love living in Queensland (most of the time) but it is almost impossible to connect with the strong colonial tradition and aesthetic of natural history collecting that is such a driving force in my work here.
So when I knew I was going to be having a few days in one of the oldest settled cities on the continent, I made sure I spent as much time as I could in its finest houses (Elizabeth Bay House), as well as making a pilgrimage to the Mitchell Library, current home of one of Australia's greatest colonial treasures - The Macquarie Collectors Chest.
In one of my life's highlights, I was offered a private viewing of the chest, along with three conservators and a state librarian. In a hushed room with only the lowest of light (to protect the treasure within), the chest was gently opened to reveal the first of many layers of natural history specimens, most of them over two centuries old. As the photos above and below testify, the entomological specimens are as bright and beautiful as the day they were captured, sometime in the early 1800s.
The history of the chest and how it came into existence most definitely asks more questions that it answers, but in essence it was made for Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales, by his friend Captain James Wallis of the 46th Regiment and Commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement (1816–1819). The beautifully painted panels depicting scenes of the natural world were the work of a freed convict Joseph Lycett, and these three diverse characters illustrate the close interconnections which occurred in the small but complex colonial society of the day.
In a series of poorly documented events, the chest made it's way from its birthplace in the new land of Australia to Scotland, where it languished for over 150 years at Strathallen Castle in Perthshire (aprocryphally generations of children played with its contents, and incredibly, most specimens are intact apart from the odd broken bird claw).
The chest came back into the light in the 1980s and was sold by Sotheby's in Melbourne, eventually being acquired by the Mitchell Library In 2004, where it now forms part of the library's holdings of Governor Macquarie's personal archives.
The opportunity to connect with this piece of modern Australian history has meant the world to me, and I will continue to be enthralled by its mysteries.
Once again closed, but Its heart gleaming with long-dead beetle wings, and tucked safely in the dark undercroft of its current resting place.