Friday, November 30, 2012

Colonial Shipwrecks

  • 30 Nov 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Tim Barlass

Museum scours seabed for sunken treasures of colonial history

IN JANUARY this year marine archaeologists from the Australian National Maritime Museum located the remains of the Royal Charlotte, wrecked in 1825. The ship had brought convicts to Sydney, and was en route to India with a contingent of British troops and their families when it ran on to a reef during a gale approximately 450 kilometres off the Queensland coast.
Now the team is attempting to repeat their success, with a search in March due to try to locate a similar vessel, the 555-tonne ship Fergusson, also bound from Sydney to India and in convoy with two other ships when it was wrecked in 1841 near the Sir Charles Hardy Islands on the Great Barrier Reef.

The passengers – 170 rankand-file of the 50th Regiment of Foot – and crew were subsequently rescued and the Fergusson remained on the reef as a warning of the peril of approaching the reef about 60 nautical miles from Fair Cape.

Maritime archaeologist Kieran Hosty said they had ‘‘a cross on the chart’’ of the possible location of the Fergusson. ‘‘Where we were looking for the Charlotte there were only two known wrecks but this area was a notorious wreck trap with over 30 vessels known to have been wrecked in the vicinity,’’ he said. ‘‘We may find something but whether we can then say it is the Fergusson is another matter.’’

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dead Man Innocent?

  • 26 Nov 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Grave injustice: fight to clear a dead man goes to unusual appeal

For the first time in Australia, a dead person could be acquitted of a crime in a very belated day in court, writes Jonathan Swan.

He was old, sick and holed up in a men’s home, but two weeks before he died, Fred McDermott was still getting hassled about the murder.
‘‘People still believe I did it,’’ McDermott told a television journalist. ‘‘They said ‘He got out on a royal commission, but that’s the bloke who knocked over Lavers’.’’

In that last interview, the old shearer looked like a hunting trophy. Leukaemia, two heart attacks and years of living rough had left him a skeleton with a pale coat of skin. When he died, in 1977, McDermott had been out of prison for 25 years. But he had never been acquitted of the murder experts say he could not have committed.

‘‘Employers all over the place know my name and I didn’t stand a chance anywhere,’’ he said.

Betty Sheelah heard about her cousin’s death on the news. ‘‘He ended up a real broken man,’’ she said. ‘‘He still had that murder thing hanging over his head.’’

If you had told Ms Sheelah then that decades later she would be in a Sydney court watching a barrister fight to make her cousin the first dead person ever to be acquitted in Australia, she would never have believed you.

‘‘It’s all because Ted Markham found that skeleton,’’ she said.

In November 2004, a Grenfell farmer, Ted Markham, spotted something white in the grass on his property. ‘‘I picked it up and turned it round and saw two open eye sockets looking at me,’’ he told ABC News.

Police found other bones in a nearby cave. DNA tests confirmed they belonged to Harry Lavers, who owned a Grenfell petrol station in the 1930s.

The last time Lavers had been seen was the morning of September 5, 1936. He woke before dawn and told his wife he was going out to feed the horses. She rose an hour later, and thinking it odd that her husband had not lit the fire, she checked out the front of their petrol station.

The hose of one of the bowsers lay on the ground. Blood and hair mingled at its base.

Tyre tracks ran across the soil in front of the bowsers and kept running along the unmade road north from Grenfell to Forbes. Residents said they had seen a noisy touring car headed north. Essie May King, who worked the show circuit as a phrenologist and psychologist, told police she had seen two men in a touring car on that road the day before Lavers disappeared. But police found nothing.

The case lay dormant until 1944, when detectives in Sydney heard that a shearer in Griffith had confessed to Lavers’s murder. This led police to McDermott, who had told his girlfriend years before that police had interviewed him about Lavers’s disappearance. When she got drunk she would sometimes accuse McDermott of killing Lavers. To shut her up he would say: ‘‘Yeah, I did it.’’

Now they had a suspect, police called Essie May King and asked her to look at some photos. They showed her a portrait of McDermott standing in the sun with his eyes closed. King identified him as one of the men she had seen in the car nine years earlier.

‘‘That identification would never be allowed in a court today,’’ said Tom Molomby, SC, who as well as defending McDermott, has written a book about the saga.
On Wednesday, Mr Molomby will tell the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal that McDermott’s conviction was based on shaky evidence, which collapsed with the discovery of the skeleton.
A state coroner called McDermott’s conviction a ‘‘gross miscarriage of justice’’. A royal commission freed him from jail in 1952 because there were too many doubts about the evidence. But he was never acquitted, because common law denies dead people the right to an appeal. Mr Molomby has found a loophole – under the Crimes (Appeal and Review) Act 2001, a relative of the accused is allowed to petition the Attorney-General.

Ms Sheelah, now 74, says she has petitioned because ‘‘it’s time Fred’s name was cleared’’.

‘‘I know it’s probably too late for Fred, but it’s not too late for the rest of the McDermotts, and it’s not too late to have it erased off our family history.’’

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Toulouse-lautrec Collection

  • 24 Nov 2012
  • Spectrum

Bohemian rhapsody

An extraordinary collection of Toulouse-lautrec’s work exposes the real Paris, writes ANDREW STEPHENS.

 Montmartre bristles with the pride of having once been an edgy place. Seedy, and a haven for avant- garde artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, it retains some rustic traces – a 1622 windmill here, a lovely vineyard on the hill over there – but it little resembles the bawdy, rough village it once was. In the late 19th century, though, Lautrec was well known amid this neighbourhood’s underbelly of cafes, cabarets and bordellos. The ‘‘Dwarf of Montmartre’’, as he was known, loved to court notoriety.
He achieved that. One reviewer, Felix Feneon, wrote in 1893 that Lautrec had ‘‘a hell of a lot of guts and nerve’’ and was unrivalled in ‘‘painting pictures of rich old buggers getting sloshed with tarts who slobber kisses all over them to get their money’’.

Lautrec was only 36 when, true to his bohemian world, he died from a confluence of alcoholism and venereal disease. Had he lived longer, it is hard to imagine how his innovative, boldcoloured work could have improved on its unusual cropping, silhouettes, blocks of colour and pareddown composition inspired by Japanese prints. It is here in Montmartre that we discover, though, why that work was, and is, so captivating: he did much more than just observe the people he saw in clubs and brothels.

According to the director of Albi’s Musee ToulouseLautrec, Daniele Devynck, this artist was more a journalist than anything else. He reported on life in Montmartre, she says, but tried to see deeper links and motivations, without contempt for his human subjects. ‘‘Lautrec, in fact, is interested in psychology and not by the artificial appearance of people,’’ Devynck says. ‘‘It is his way to want to show the reality of each personality. This is true for each thing he makes; whether it is his mother or a prostitute, it is exactly the same approach. He does not moralise.

‘‘Prostitutes were part of the entertainment in Montmartre. Yet you can tell he really respects these women.’’

The painting In Bed (1894) is set in one of Montmartre’s ‘‘houses of tolerance’’ – brothels that operated without intervention as long as their inmates did not ply their trade outside the property.

Lautrec rendered all sorts of intimate scenes from these places – women gathering for venereal disease inspections, lesbian lovers in bed together, women lounging amiably on sofas waiting for clients – and there are excellent examples of these in Devynck’s museum, which houses the world’s largest public collection of the artist’s work.

It is one of 31 institutions and private collectors sending work to the show at the National Gallery of Australia. While the Lautrec museum has the most extensive collection of the artist’s posters in the world, the NGA has been avidly collecting in the past few years and now has an excellent array of posters and lithographs, many of which were printed in small editions.

While many visitors to the Canberra exhibition might have in mind the Lautrec characters from Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), they could be surprised to discover Lautrec was from an aristocratic family: he was born only streets away from Albi’s Musee Toulouse-Lautrec at the Hotel du Bosc in the old town. The artist’s lineage, though, was more a hindrance than a privilege: while his good breeding meant he had the benefits of education, wealth and cultural nous, that same heritage of interbreeding (his parents were first cousins) is most likely responsible for his congenital health difficulties. Those problems included his famously stunted limbs, part of the rare genetic condition known as pycnodysostosisos (nicknamed ToulouseLautrec syndrome).

Growing up as a noble near the towns of Toulouse and Lautrec, from whence the family name derives, meant little when his family tried to bequest his work to the Luxembourg Museum (later absorbed by the Louvre) after Lautrec died. The work was rejected; the Albi museum took it in 1922, and it filled the building.

When the NGA’s senior curator of international art, Jane Kinsman, visited the museum to research the NGA show, she was struck deeply by the power of Lautrec’s work when standing in front of it. Again, it is his attention to the character of his sitters that caught her. ‘‘I saw his absolute facility for both drawing and for characterisation,’’ she says. ‘‘ When you see it in the flesh, in the lines of a poster, it really astonishes.

‘‘He had such an ability to scrutinise character that, in the end, even though he was a young and emerging artist, the society ladies avoided having him commissioned to do their portraits. The few examples that he did do of such women were very uncomplimentary, which caused a bit of friction.’’
Kinsman says Lautrec was not much interested in these types of commissions anyway; his favourite models were lessfortunate Parisians. He was interested in their personalities, she writes in the catalogue for Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge, ‘‘whether a laundress, a ballet dancer or a circus performer’’, and this subtle exploration of their characters was a significant contribution to the evolution of 19th-century art. Likewise in the brothels where – because of his physical disabilities – he chose to go for sex, Lautrec thrived on the lack of self-consciousness of women.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures

  • 17 Nov 2012
  • Spectrum
  • Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures opens at the Australian Museum on November 24.

Hundreds of treasures, one ancient-world superstar. RICHARD JINMAN looks on as St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum prepares an exhibition for Sydney.

‘It was hard to distinguish between man and god . . . this young man – a boy, really – became the f irst global person . . . ’

From Russia with love . . . Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Alexander and Diogenes, part of the State Hermitage Museum’s collection.
Any reservations the Hermitage might have about sending three aircraft- loads of its fragile treasures to the other side of the world are masked by Russian stoicism. The stance is bolstered by state-of-the-art transport technology, an eye-watering insurance policy and an unshakeable belief that the Hermitage has a duty to act as a global museum.

As the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, says: ‘‘Art must travel. We must share our collections with the nna Trofimova has five figurines on her desk in a library deep inside the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. One of them is Alexander the Great, a man who seized her imagination more than 30 years ago. Next to him is Napoleon, another great warrior. There’s a Buddha, a Greek idol and, rather incongruously, a replica Oscar.

‘‘Alexander, he is like a Hollywood star,’’ the museum’s head of classical antiquities says. ‘‘Like, ah, Michael Jackson. No, not Michael Jackson . . . like Marilyn Monroe!’’

The idea of Alexander, the Macedonian king who conquered the world in the 4th century BC, as the antecedent of today’s celebrity culture seems audacious. But it’s the kind of fresh perspective Trofimova, as curator, hopes the Australian Museum exhibition will inspire. 

Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures, contains more than 400 artefacts from the Hermitage’s vast collection – everything from coins and jewellery to weapons and armour, frescos and statues.

Underpinning this extraordinary display is a thesis or, rather, several. It seeks to explain how Alexander transformed the world through military conquest, spreading Greek culture and art – Hellenism – from the shores of the Mediterranean to the deserts of central Asia and the borders of India. In the process, Alexander the man became Alexander the myth: a deity to some, a tyrant to others. His image, real, imagined and invented, was stamped on coins and in the faces of statues and idols, pervading cultures and creeds. He was, to bring things up to date, the first person to go viral.

‘‘ We [the curators] ask what was before Alexander and what was after,’’ Trofimova says. ‘‘It’s not just his story, but his impact on the world. For the first time the civilisations of the East and the West met. He brought civilisation; he founded cities, new cults and brought Greek language, art and administration. This is globalisation and it is the point of origin of our civilisation.’’

With just more than a month before the Australian exhibition’s opening on November 24, activity in the Hermitage’s labyrinthine corridors is frantic. Workers are sealing a two-metre Roman statue of Dionysus into a wooden crate. Nearby, a technician sits hunched over The world. It’s a good socialist term, but art belongs to the people.’’

Trofimova says the Australian Museum secured the show against fierce competition from museums in Greece, Italy and Canada. The Sydney institution lobbied hard and won.

‘‘ We had to choose,’’ she says. ‘‘For me, Australia is exciting because it’s a new world. And the theme of the spread of civilisation is very close to this country [Australia]. It’s why we decided to concentrate on this project.’’

Trofimova was a student at St Petersburg State University when her public’s imagination: sex appeal. Cleanshaven, unlike his hirsute forebears, he had a leonine mane, a penetrating gaze and the athleticism of a professional warrior. He was 22 when he began conquering the world and 32 when he died in Babylon in 323BC from fever. The ancient world’s most famous face would remain forever young. Such a potent blend of youth, good looks and all-conquering success is something the great men who followed have struggled to match.

‘‘Louis XIV, for example – old, ugly, fat,’’ Trofimova says. ‘‘Caesar and Stalin tutor handed her a book containing portraits of Alexander. She was intrigued and began to delve deeper. As her fascination grew, she began visiting some of the sites of Alexander’s great battles, which was no easy feat given the travel restrictions imposed on its citizens by Soviet Russia.

‘‘I was struck by this phenomenon in which it was hard to distinguish between man and god,’’ she says. ‘‘And why this young man – a boy, really – became the first global person. He thought he was the first political leader and he thought in terms of the planet. And that was the first time that had happened in history.’’

Besides history and geopolitics, there is another reason Alexander fires the were old. Napoleon was not sexy. But Alexander was very sexy. He was brave, died young and believed in his glory.’’

The real Alexander is as fascinating as the myth. A master tactician whose military strategies are still studied today, he displayed great humanity to the people he conquered. But he had a dark side, too: an incandescent temper and a love of drink. The combination proved deadly for his friend Cleitus, whom he killed during a drunken brawl.

No discussion of Alexander can ignore the question of his sexuality. His lifelong companion was Hephaestion, a childhood friend and lieutenant. Some scholars believe they were lovers, while others demur. The debate is complicated by the sexual and social mores of the era, but contemporary portrayals usually err on the side of platonicism. In Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, for example, the king exchanges manly hugs and meaningful glances with Hephaestion, but the one torrid sex scene involves Alexander and his wife, Roxane.

The issue of the king’s sexuality was not part of the Alexander the Great exhibition when it was first staged at the Hermitage in 2007. Piotrovsky says: ‘‘Russian tradition is that things like this [homosexuality] do exist but it’s not to be discussed . . . That’s why it’s so important to make exhibitions in different places – there’s a different reaction to this and that.’’

What can modern people learn from Alexander the Great?

For Piotrovsky, the list starts with the difficult idea – by contemporary standards, at least – that war was once an important way of exchanging culture.

‘‘ Today it is not,’’ he says. ‘‘But we have to think how we can do this [exchange cultures] today and we don’t think about it. Also we can learn the respect for and interest in other cultures – he wasn’t just plundering. And Alexander teaches us that we need some ideal . . . some example with which we can compare ourselves. We need something better than us, a cultural hero. Alexander was this way.’’

Saturday, November 10, 2012

English Edition of Leichhardt’s Diaries

  • 10 Nov 2012
  • The Weekend Australian

Historian to migrate to study explorer diaries

AN amateur German historian of Ludwig Leichhardt has won the right to migrate to Australia so he can work on a landmark edition of the Prussian explorer’s diaries, which have been largely lost to the English-speaking world.
SAM MOOYLibrary photographer Belinda Christie with Leichhardt papers
Hans Finger, 82, little known here but acclaimed as Germany’s leading historian of Leichhardt, has won a two-year battle with immigration authorities who had refused him a ‘‘distinguished talent’’ visa.

Mr Finger will arrive in time for Leichhardt’s 200th birthday celebrations next year if he and his wife pass medical tests.

For the anniversary year, Mr Finger’s biography, Ludwig Leichhardt: Lost in the Outback, will appear in English, and the Queensland Museum is to bring out a first instalment of Leichhardt’s unpublished diaries painstakingly transcribed from old German script.

As well, the NSW State Library, home to 1.2 linear metres of Leichhardt’s papers, hopes to finish digitising his notebooks, diaries and field books before the October anniversary.

The fascination with Leichhardt, who disappeared from inland Queensland in 1848, has spread overseas, partly because of his melodramatic portrayal in the 1957 novel Voss by the Nobel prize-winner Patrick White.

Yet an enormous trove of Leichhardt’s diaries and other writings in German had been left untranslated and neglected by most English-speaking scholars since they were handed over to Sydney’s Mitchell Library in 1910.

These cover his early years in Europe, arrival in Australia and preparations for his 1844 expedition to Port Essington in the Northern Territory, when Leichhardt began to keep his journals in English.

Mr Finger, a retired economic consultant in Munich, first encountered Leichhardt during a 1992 visit to the State Library in Sydney’s Macquarie Street.

‘‘There I read some of Leichhardt’s diary and I was fascinated by this man — the deeper I went into it, the more I was fascinated,’’ he said.

The value to Leichhardt scholars of transcribing this material, translating it and putting it in its German context, was a key issue in Mr Finger’s conflict with immigration authorities.

Intertwined with this was the question of Mr Finger’s reputation, which was a closed book to researchers unable to read German.

‘‘I think part of the problem was that he’s not well known in Australia and he’s not attached to a university,’’ said Tom Darragh, an emeritus curator at Museum Victoria who laboured for two years on sections of Leichhardt’s German diaries.

Distinguished talent visas are reserved for artists, sportspeople or researchers ‘‘who have an internationally recognised record of exceptional and outstanding achievement’’.

Mr Finger lacks formal training as a historian but when he challenged the immigration authorities in a federal tribunal last year, he had no trouble finding academics willing to testify to his achievements.

Angus Nicholls, a lecturer in German and expert on 19thcentury natural science at Queen Mary University of London, said there was ‘‘probably no living scholar — and certainly no nonAustralian living scholar — who has contributed more to our knowledge of Ludwig Leichhardt’s life and deeds’’.

Dr Nicholls said publication of Mr Finger’s proposed GermanEnglish bilingual edition of Leichhardt’s diaries ‘‘will be a landmark event not only in the field of Leichhardt studies but also more generally in the discipline of 19th-century Australian history’’.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Digitised Indian Archive

  • 3 Nov 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Rescued from obscurity, India’s history enters the digital age

Two academics have created a south Asia archive, writes Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi.

‘In India, there is little appreciation of the need to preserve history. No one cares that the tropical climate and humidity can ruin paper. We had to dry sodden documents.’
Professor Boria Majumdar
A group of old India hands were sitting in a cafe in Oxford in 2005, across from the university, marvelling at the news they had just heard. 

China had marshalled 4000 pages of digital archives on its past, chronicling important events and trends. Anyone working on Chinese studies now had instant access to a treasure trove of rare documents sitting at home or in the office anywhere in the world.
Disorder . . . how the historic documents were kept before the archive.
‘‘Wow,’’ all the academics exclaimed in unison. ‘‘Why can’t India do the same thing on its colonial and post-colonial history.’’ Any academic or researcher on India or South Asia who wants to ferret out documents, magazines or rare books has to arrange funding, fly thousands of miles to India, pay for a hotel and then navigate their way through archives, often located in remote places.

‘‘The process is slow and expensive. That’s why we decided to create a unique digital South Asia Archive,’’ said Professor Boria Majumdar, one of the academics in the group, currently Adjunct Professor at Monash University and Principal Trustee of the South Asia Research Foundation.

With his wife, Dr Sharmistha Gooptu, also an academic, the two got down to work. ‘‘Frankly, when we started, we had no idea what material we were looking for,’’ says Majumdar. ‘‘All we knew was that we had to revolutionise the study of India.’’ They groped around blindly at first, raiding the homes of private collectors and scouring rare book shops. 

Their first purchases, for around $4000, were from a rare book dealer in Calcutta who instructed his ‘‘peon’’ (office boy) to show them around his shop and ‘‘take them to the bathroom’’.

‘‘In the bathroom, brick shelves reached up to the ceiling, packed with documents, magazines and pamphlets. In the Calcutta heat, with no fans, we sat for days sifting through the fantastic information,’’ said Majumdar.

Over seven years, they discovered and collected a wealth of literary material. British publisher Routledge funded the digitisation of all the pages. The Routledge South Asia Archive, to be launched next week, comprises five million pages of journals, books, census reports, laws and regulations, travelogues and reports from the mid-18th century to 1950.

Theirs was also an act of rescue. In the monsoons, the couple used to wade through flooded streets to reach a place someone had suggested only to find, when they got there, that the documents were also wet.

‘‘In India, there is little appreciation of the need to preserve history. No one cares that the tropical climate and humidity can ruin paper. We had to dry sodden documents. Some needed pest control treatment,’’ he said.
The same lack of a sense of history can be seen all over India. Centuries-old monuments are in ruins. Or used as rubbish dumps or cattle sheds. No attempt is made to preserve them for future generations.

Space in India is also at a premium. The wives of private collectors, sick of cluttered homes, used to welcome Majumdar and Gooptu with delight. ‘‘Please come in and take it all away!’’ they used to say.

The couple, aided by researchers and archivists, soon realised they were building an intellectual legacy for future generations of Indians. Bit by bit the archive assumed a distinct shape in their minds. They knew what they were looking for. And they were stunned at the range and quantity of the material they found.

Reports by civil servants minutely detailed everything under the British: population figures, cholera deaths, how many public latrines were to be found in Bombay, and how much fish rotted in Calcutta on a given day.

Former Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University Professor Brian Stoddart said the archive gave access to ‘‘a huge array of important materials’’. ‘‘The benefits will be enormous and will grow even more over time,’’ he said.