HISTORY: Painting a bigger view

LASTING RECORD: Mitchell Library curator Elizabeth Ellis in Newcastle Art Gallery with the 1821 watercolour panorama of the city of Newcastle by Edward Close. Picture: Dean Osland

GO online and you’ll soon find a remarkable piece of, well, digital magic.

It’s a computer-generated aerial tour of Coal River (Newcastle) reconstructing our infant settlement in the 1830s.

While this clever 3D fly-through, prepared for Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party and first previewed by the Herald late last year, is very impressive, it is still a work in progress.

But be prepared to be amazed. Maps, paintings, survey records and sketches were used to show what our early settlement looked like as it gradually graduated from being a convict outpost to a major Australian city.

For example, Nobbys is not yet connected to the mainland and Nobbys beach simply does not exist. Instead, this once solitary nob of Coal Island sits in the ocean flanked by treacherous rocky reefs.

Harbour sandbanks threaten and there’s really only three town streets. The main one is George Street (now Watt Street) plus Church Street and Scott Street. But the latter is a lot closer to the water because today’s modern foreshore and railway line didn’t exist back then.

A little inland, viewers can also spot a remote windmill where the obelisk now points to the sky above King Edward Park. See the four-minute video produced by Eddie O’Reilly here.

Video design contractor Charles Martin, from EJE Architecture, is hopeful that with help from future sponsors, bigger town details can be added by referring to paintings of convict artist Joseph Lycett and especially Edward Charles Close.

In the words of Coal River Working Party chairman Gionni Di Gravio: “The next stage is to use the original artwork by Edward Charles Close to give the street detail, the fence posts, everything.”

Could this be the same E. C. Close regarded as the “father of Morpeth”? Indeed it is.

For detailed landscape artwork was just another skill of the multi-talented Edward Close (1790-1866).

Soldier, settler, army engineer, magistrate, church benefactor and prolific artist. No doubt about it, Edward Close wore many hats in the lifetime.

Until a few years ago, though, it was not realised what an impressive range of art attributed to artist Sophia Campbell was actually done by her relative, Edward Close.

Another surprising fact to emerge was how Newcastle was once the unlikely setting for colonial Australia’s first spontaneous art movement.

Close’s 1821 watercolour panorama of old Newcastle, measuring about 3.6 metres in length, and once thought to be done by Campbell, is an extraordinary work.

This fascinating artwork shows the town’s original humble hilltop church with steeple (today’s Christ Church site), the obelisk site (with a windmill and natives) and stretches out over a cluster of whitewashed huts to Nobbys.

What made Close so famous and relevant both in Newcastle and Sydney in recent years, however, was the discovery of his long-lost art album, kept in a linen closet in the Scottish highlands before being auctioned in Melbourne in mid-2009. The State Library of NSW paid $915,000 for it.

Until then, a Campbell family tradition had it that this sketchbook album, circa 1817, was also the work of Sophia. This belief was soon overturned by a Sotheby’s art auction expert while a companion sketchbook already held in Australia was also verified as being done by Close.

A Peninsula War veteran, Close was a lieutenant in the 48th Regiment who arrived in Sydney in 1817 and was later posted to Newcastle.

He left the army in 1822 to settle on a land grant at Morpeth, which he called “Illulang” from an Aboriginal word meaning “green hills”, or a high, dry place. This gentleman farmer became famous for building St John’s Church of England, Morpeth, fulfilling a vow he made in battle during the Napoleonic Wars that if he were spared from death he would build a church in gratitude. He did and it was consecrated in 1840.

Close is also remembered in Morpeth for building a large, Georgian-style sandstone home in 1829 called Closebourne, which he later offered to his church. It became home to the Anglican bishops of Newcastle until 1911.

Earlier, Close had been busy at the end of his military career in Newcastle, so it seems a bit surprising to learn how much he painted of old Newcastle for posterity.

Working under the command of penal commandant, Brevet-Major James Morisset, Close was the Newcastle penal garrison’s acting engineer of public works from 1821 to 1822.

He was responsible for putting down mooring chains for ships and removing hazardous shoals in Newcastle harbour.

According to Mitchell Library emeritus curator Elizabeth Ellis, Close “took to his position with alacrity”. She said he supervised the extension of the early breakwater to Nobbys Island and constructed convict barracks at the waterfront lumberyard.

As well, he created Newcastle’s first lighthouse, a coal-burning beacon on Signal Hill (today’s Fort Scratchley) to warn ships and built “a large stone windmill above Christ Church”.

“Close’s training as a military engineer included tuition in drawing, surveying and drafting . . . and he put these skills to both personal and professional use,” Ellis said.

He was also the final military officer/artist to depict Newcastle township in the Macquarie era.

She said between 1812 and 1822 an extraordinary legacy of artworks was created locally through the chance association of skilled convict painters, engravers and craftsmen and artistically inclined military officers like Captain James Wallis (of Macquarie Chest fame).

Speaking during the recent Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie Era exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery, Ellis said Close was a particularly perceptive and confident amateur artist with a sharp, observant eye.

Ellis revealed that during the first 30 years of European settlement in Australia, the majority of artworks done in the colony of NSW were by convict artists, mainly ex-forgers, or by military and naval officers.

For example, a fellow officer of Close was Major James Taylor who became the best-known artist of the 48th Regiment in NSW, due to his popular Sydney panorama.

Ellis said Close’s ambitious 1821 panorama of Newcastle with its wide sweep of settlement was the grand exit to his military career.

“Each building is carefully identified as a triumphant record of the town and its builders as it ended this phase of its history and its time as the artistic centre of the colony.”

The historic 1821 panorama was briefly on loan to Newcastle Art Gallery. Today it’s long gone, but a colourful replica of the panorama (plus a modern comparison) can be seen outside the Newcastle Maritime Centre, at Honeysuckle.

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