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The trouble with Floriade

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Marion Mahony Griffin would have much preferred a walk in the bush, Ian Warden writes

Yes, but can you spot Marion?

Yes, but can you spot Marion? Photo: Melissa Adams

This is an edited version of a talk ''Why Marion Mahony Griffin would have boycotted Floriade'' Ian Warden gave last week in the Centenary Chats series at the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Although as a journalist it will cause me great pain, I am going to spoil this talk with quite a few facts. However, the whole talk is set within my comfort zone, a fantasy.

That fantasy is that, by various miracles and magic of spiritualism, theosophy and time travel, Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961) is a house guest of me and my wife Sandra here in modern-day Canberra. Throughout this fantasy, Marion and I will have conversations (although I seldom get a word in edgeways) and other than some odds and ends of badinage that I've made up, all of the words I attribute to her are things she really did write, especially in her memoir/biography The Magic of America.

Yes, it's mid-September in modern-day Canberra and Marion has come to stay for a few days at our home in Garran.

I'm thrilled. I'm an enormous admirer of Marion. She was, she is, a graphic and landscape artist, a book illustrator, a muralist, a landscape architect, an interior designer and a fierce environmentalist on behalf of Australian bush places.

We get on splendidly. She's a towering genius and I'm just a hack but after all we have one very big thing in common, a great fondness for the Australian flora and some bits of botanical knowledge to go with it and a shared sadness at Australians' ignorance of and resistance to their own continent's flora. She gets on famously, too, with my wife Sandra because after all both of them are from Chicago. And, happy coincidence! My Sandra went to the fabulous University of Illinois and so did Marion's Walter, albeit not of course at the same time.

Now I come to think of it, being together with both of them, Sandra and Marion are eerily similar what with their Illinois pedigree and Chicago voices. Marion believed in reincarnation. Can it possibly be that…? I'll do the maths later.

Marion and I go for a walk along my depressingly typical suburban street in which, she notices with great sadness, my front garden is the only one that has an Australian native character. She approves of my garden, thank goodness, because it has roughly the 90 per cent natives and 10 per cent exotics that she and Walter thought appropriate for Australian gardens and landscapings.

Now, like all Canberrans who have guests from out of town (and Marion is not just from out of town but from the Other Side) we show her around the city. And, like most of us with a visiting guest, one of the places we take her is to the top of Mount Ainslie with its great overview of the city and of course in Marion's case there's a special poignancy about this place. Probably the most famous, most mystically lovely of all Marion's renderings of her husband's designs for the federal capital city competition is a view of the site from the top of Mount Ainslie. When she painted it she had never been there, had never been to Australia, but from Chicago imagined being up there using all the details of site topography supplied to entrants. While Marion is busy looking at the view let's talk about her, sing her praises.

I chose to make her the focus of my talk just to try to do my little bit to help her get some recognition, some limelight. As it is most Canberrans in my experience know so little about her they can't even do her the courtesy of spelling her name properly. Even this week I got a press release from the Chief Minister's office with an e in their ''Mahoney''. Paul Daley's new book Canberra makes a bunyip's breakfast of her name throughout. Marion is unsung. I've been contacted by a teddy-bear manufacturer who wanted my historical advice about making a Walter Burley Griffin teddy bear for the Centenary. ''Why not a companion Marion teddy?'' I wondered. But he had never heard of her.

Let's begin to honour her. After all, Griffin scholars are sure Walter's designs would never have won without Marion's mesmerising renderings of them. Some who disliked the winning entry, including losing entrants who'd paid painstaking attention in their designs to dull but important things like the management of the city's sewerage, alleged that the Griffins had won with what was, really, a seductively lovely work of art rather than a design of a real city of lavatory-using citizens living in the real world.

But shhh. Here she comes.

The visit to the top of Mount Ainslie has been a triumph. But now, here comes trouble. Remember, it's mid September and something atrocious is going on in town.

"Where to next Ian?,'' my dynamic friend demands to know.

''What's this 'Floreyade' that's on?''

Alarmed (and telling her its pronounced Floreyard) I say I really don't think she'll like it.

She scoffs ''I say Floreyade, you say Floreyard. I say perjammers, you say piejarmas. What the heck? The name's promising. Let's go!"

Reluctantly, I take her to Floriade. She is shocked by it. Already quite pale when we arrive (she is a ghost after all) the sight of all those gaudy un-Australian flowers dragooned and bullied into contrived regiments and shapes, leaves her what the tabloids, and the Canberra Times on a bad day, call "ashen-faced".

Floriade turns our stomachs. For us the delight in Australia's flora is in large part an aesthetic matter. In the bush Australia's flora is subtly lovely. But at exotic Floriade, Marion and I, aesthetes, find ourselves like that other famous aesthete, Oscar Wilde, who on his death bed found himself in an unfamiliar room with vulgar patterned wallpaper. He moaned "This is awful. One of us has to go," whereupon he died rather than put up with it any longer.

I whisk us both away. I have already thought of a Canberra treat to make up for this Canberra horror. I'm going to take her somewhere very special. We bundle her into my Barina and off we go.

We go to Black Mountain, and up and up to a discreet car park, and then walk off into the bush to some of my favourite places.

This works like a charm because, you see, it has always been a part of the tragedy of Floriade's success that at the very same time that contrived, foreign, un-Australian barbarity is under way, the native flora of Black Mountain (just a honeyeater's glide away) is at its natural, Nature-sprinkled, Nature-tinted best. Marion is in Heaven here.

We go a'rambling. Marion burbles with joy.

''Ian, of all of Lucifer's cohorts who painted this earth so magnificently, the angel who painted Australia was the greatest artist of them all. Not just the great bunches of solid green but the rich intermingling of colours in the barks, in the leaves.''

She's been disappointed by the Canberra she's seen, the lack of native plantings she and Walter had hoped for, but she's still an optimist. She has this vision, with its plea to Canberra's horticulturally ignorant, botanically unpatriotic gardeners.

''When the individual citizenry of Canberra… lose that Anglo Saxon puritanical feeling that it is immoral to express and clothe themselves in beauty, when they realise that the colours used should not be a shock in the garden but in accord with the colours of nature about them… then what a breathtaking thing Canberra, the heart of Australia will have become!''

Moved by this, the honeyeaters all around us that have been cackling, stay tight-beaked for a few moments,

Marion thanks Sandra and I for our hospitality but says that it's time for her to go. Being from the Other Side there's no need for her to be taken to an airport.

I find it very hard to describe her leave-taking from me because it has supernatural elements. But, if you've been to see the film The Life of Pi you'll remember the moving passage where Richard Parker, the tiger, walks away from Pi, walks up the beach right up to the edge of the Mexican jungle, pauses, and then without looking back at Pi, melts away into that jungle and out of sight.

Up on Black Mountain, Marion walks towards a dense copse of stringybarks and indigoferas but unlike Pi and Richard we keep up a little badinage. And so at the very last moment I call out to her back ''Hey, Marion. Will we see you again for next year's Floriade?''

Without looking back over her shoulder she laughs, derisively but melodiously.

Then the wildflower-bespangled bush swallows her up, and she's gone.

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