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Entry never had a sporting chance

Date

Ian Warden

National Archives of Australia senior conservator Ian Batterham says Coulter?s watercolour, while lacking perspective, is full of action.

National Archives of Australia senior conservator Ian Batterham says Coulter?s watercolour, while lacking perspective, is full of action. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

There would have been a superabundance of sporting venues in the young Canberra if entry number 10, an Australian entry, had won the international competition of 1912 for the design of the federal capital city. By contrast, the winning design, number 29, of not very sports-minded Chicagoans Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin hardly imagines any muddied or flanneled oafs needing anywhere to play.

Entry number 10, by Australians Charles Caswell, Robert Coulter and Walter Griffiths contained some panoramic paintings (renderings) by Coulter and on Thursday the largest of them went on public display for what is probably the first time ever.

It shares a gallery at the National Archives of Australia with Marion Mahony Griffin's far more bewitching renderings for her and her husband's winning entry. The contrasting renderings are neighbours at the archives' Design 29 Creating a Capital exhibition which opened on Wednesday.

Coulter's big picture contains a grand sporting cluster of a racecourse and assorted football and cricket pitches.

Coulter's and Mahony Griffin's renderings couldn't be more different. Marion's are subtle, golden, dreamy and perfect and Coulter's big picture is quite awful and chocolate-boxy. When on Wednesday archives director-general David Fricker, wearing a bright red, white and blue paisley tie, chose to use Coulter's picture as a backdrop for his opening words at the media launch, the combined effect of gaudy tie and gaudy watercolour was quite shocking. As I write, the headache they gave me just won't go away.

Archives conservator Ian Batterham agrees that the big Coulter (some smaller ones that Coulter did for the entry are in the display and are really rather pretty) is a horror.

''It's funny,'' Batterham mused ''because Coulter wasn't a bad watercolourist but with this one I don't know what happened. The perspective is wrong. [The view] is like being in an aeroplane and perhaps that was a difficult concept then … But, yes, he must have been very keen on sport [to provide all those facilities] and there are actually games going on if you look really closely. He's one of our heroes here at the archives. He was quite a character. He wrote poetry. And little plays. He seems to have been a lovely man.

''You can see [looking at the big Coulter] there's a big crack right down the middle of this. We think it must have been folded in half at some point. But its watercolour is OK. Water solubility [in watercolours] drops away over time so a 100-year-old watercolour like this is relatively stable. The big problem [with conservation] has been the size of the blasted thing. And [pointing at some nibblings] silverfish will have done this.''

To Batterham there are parts of Coulter's city that look like London and so he fancies the Australian three ''were obviously thinking of the motherland''.

This may explain why the grass of Coulter's city is so very green and pleasant.

Meanwhile, Batterham points out that the lake of the design is ''a very similar lake to Walter's and the bridges are roughly in the same spots. It is just that the thing is so ungainly and big and a kind of ugly duckling''.

But one of its virtues, methought on Thursday, comparing it with Mahony Griffin's renderings and with the exhibition's severe and scary drawings by Finland's Gotlieb Saarinen (his peopleless city, his design-winning second prize, has some Pyongyang qualities about it) is that it does depict a living city. There are no people and few if any signs of human activity in Mahony Griffin's city (although it does look a promising place to go looking for fairies and elves) but in Coulter's city there are people playing sport, there is a busy railway engine puffing steam and out on the spacious ornamental waters there are motor and sailing boats beetling about. It is a painting, Batterham and this columnist agreed, you could spend all day with and keep finding new things going on in it.

Now, museums and their displays are usually the domain of the mature and greying but everyone at the archives is very excited by what Fricker thinks may be almost a world-first innovation that may titillate the young.

Arriving at Design 29 Creating a Capital, you're invited to carry around with you an iPad that, using ''reference points'', recognises where you are in the gallery. Then, as you play with it, it will give you extra information about what it is you're looking at.

And so it is much, much more than the contraption you may wear at a gallery to be given just an audio tour.

Fricker took us to Mahony Griffin's renderings where we had enormous interactive fun.

The director-general is very hopeful that these little contraptions offering ''a 21st century view of an exhibition of 20th century [treasures]'' may ''open up a whole new demographic for us'' as ''grandkids'' revel in the high-tech cleverness of it all.

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