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Mysterious, and the better for it

Date

Ian Warden

Not a placegetter, but A. E. McDonald's painting <i>Early Canberra 1913</i> is a generous, spacious work and you can walk right up close to it.

Not a placegetter, but A. E. McDonald's painting Early Canberra 1913 is a generous, spacious work and you can walk right up close to it. Photo: Canberra Museum and Gallery

One hundred years ago in this very month, in January of 1913, artists were at work in search of the federal government's just-announced prize of £250 for the best painting of the federal capital site at Canberra. The government wanted a classy picture of it as it was, sheep-sprinkled and bucolic under the noonday sun - but on the brink of being transformed by having a city plonked upon it.

There were 10 entries (the winners were announced in July 1913) and some are on display, with differing degrees of public accessibility, in Canberra.

On to them in a moment but first to the way in which, as discussed and portrayed earlier, in January 1913 the Sydney weekly The Bulletin was still sniping and scoffing at the 1908/1909 choice of the Canberra site for the city. The Bulletin, still spitting its dummy, had wanted the city built at Dalgety. It argued that thanks to the snow-fed Snowy River there was ample water at Dalgety to irrigate, hydrate and cleanse a city, while at Canberra the only waters were the capricious seasonal trickles of the Cotter Creek (The Bulletin refused to call the Cotter a river) and the miserly Molonglo.

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All Bulletin cartoonists and writers adopted this theme of Canberra as a parched, Gobi-like wilderness. In her A Woman's Letter in The Bulletin of January 23, 1913, the columnist wrote that ''the Federal Government puts up a sporting offer of £250 or something of the kind for the best picture of its bush capital at Canberra.

''The artist who waits for a rainy season is the only one likely to have a chance of getting a dash of water in his foreground. Otherwise he may have to place it there by manual labour. When the good-natured Wolinski [Joseph Wolinski, landscape painter] squatted on the emptiness of the Canberra city the month was hot and dry, and water for domestic purposes had to be dragged from the nearest wet spot in the arid landscape. Unwilling to see the women of the household do all the water carrying, the gallant Joseph volunteered to help. How many buckets he humped per day, and the effect of his ablutions on the Molonglo's summer level, or the amount of muscle he achieved as a water-carrier, is not available for publication. He merely says that he found time in between his aquatic pursuits to get some sketches of the local drought.''

Although this writer was being breathtakingly unfair to Canberra, it did come to pass that the 10 painters weren't really able to depict much water in the foreground of their Canberra paintings. The Cotter, to be the source of the new city's water, didn't run through the agreed centre of the site and so couldn't get a guernsey in the paintings. Instead, the artists had to indicate the course of the unspectacular Molonglo, a true trickle in 1913, with a ribbon of the willowy greenery along its banks.

The winner was William Lister Lister and Theodore Penleigh Boyd came second. Both of these, each sporting a green Molonglo ribbon, (and Boyd's, as if in defiance of The Bulletin, also has a mysterious pond) are on public exhibition at Parliament House on the first floor overlooking the main entry foyer.

This columnist's favourite from the competition (and one of Gang-Gang's 100 Favourite Canberra Things) is A. E. McDonald's Early Canberra 1913, apparently unplaced. It is a big (139cm x 260cm), generous, spacious work and you can walk right up close to it in the Canberra Stories gallery of the Canberra Museum and Gallery, and poke your nose into it.

Every time I visit it, I find, eerily, sheep in it that certainly weren't there last time.

One of the engaging things about it is the way in which we are down at ground-level, sheep-level, with the same breeze that is bending the grasses tousling our hair (the bald columnist wrote). The Lister Lister and Penleigh Boyd paintings look down on the site from a slightly academic, surveying distance or as if we are hang-gliding, but in McDonald's we have our feet on the ground (we are close to where Legacy Park is in today's suburb of Campbell) and may even be on our way towards nearby St John's Church.

McDonald's painting, unlike the aforementioned ones, has some living figures. There is a grazier on horseback and there are lots of sheep, some nearby and some in the far distance. There is no glimpse of any actual waters of the Molonglo but the river's willowy course is shewn nearby. As pedestrians in the picture we can walk down to the river via Blundell's Cottage (it's in the painting) for a dip in a rocky pool and perhaps a chinwag with a platypus.

Little is known about artist McDonald, which adds to the allure of his work. Almost everyone gains from having as little as possible known about them.

All that CMAG knows (it acquired the painting for us all in 1997) is that he lived in Wahroonga in Sydney at the time of the competition and that he used the nom de plume ''Molonglo'' when he submitted his work on June 25, 1913.

And yet he has signed it discreetly with his own name in the sheep-trampled bottom left-hand corner (as we face it) of his Canberrascape.

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