Housed in the foyer of the old Parramatta Council Chambers building is an artwork significant for its relevance to Parramatta’s history. It was commissioned by Council to commemorate the opening of the new Council Chambers building in 1958 and the artist, Tom Thompson was deeply interested in Parramatta’s colonial history.
A few years before this painting was commissioned the Australian artist, Lloyd Rees, commented in a letter to Thompson that he found his work;
… most interesting…particularly in regard to the balanced use of figure and landscape. This is something that has rarely been done in Australia and I do sincerely hope you will be able to develop it. The Flemish and Venetian schools did such wonderful work in this idiom and I found echoes of these grand influences in your picture. I hope, beyond all else, that you will be able to retain the Australian viewpoint which gave such a refreshing touch to the work in question (1).
In his significance statement the Curator John Murphy commented on how the style of the mural represents a more traditional way of painting historical events but that the hierarchy of categories established for nineteenth century fine-art and ‘history’ painting were of the highest level. When assessing the mural, Murphy stated that “…Thompson invokes the nobility, scale and civic responsibility of ‘history’ painting, adapting its qualities to his Australian colonial theme (2).
The legend below makes it clear how Thompson was trying to identify the key figures, symbols and events from Parramatta’s colonial history. From Left to Right:
- Early merino sheep.
- Agricultural workers and rum drinkers.
- A consignment of cloth from the first factory.
- The early market place building.
- Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur.
- Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta.
- Governor Lachlan Macquarie with Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie.
- St John’s Steeples.
- Government House, Parramatta.
- The Reverend Samuel Marsden.
- John Macarthur.
- Sentry in early New South Wales Corps uniform.
- A composite of military personnel New South Wales Corps and 3rd Foot.
- Parramatta River where Arthur Phillip apparently landed.
- Convict road gang under guard.
- Parramatta Coat of Arms.
- Gothic Revival toll gates installed by Governor Macquarie.
- Paying the toll.
- A distant view of Sydney Cove.
The following excerpt is taken directly from the significance statement written by John Murphy;
In Parramatta Road, Thompson demonstrates technical mastery in transforming aspects of the area’s colonial history into mythic status through the work’s scale and aesthetic sensibility. His frieze of figures creates a processional quality with portions of the mural punctuated into separate sections by eucalypt saplings or posts. Thompson’s figurative technique employs strong, solid colours and simplified, naive representations that evoke aspects of colonial art and traditional folk illustrations to legends. The mural combines actual historical characters and buildings associated with Parramatta, with generic types and groups, such as convicts and members of the New South Wales Corps; agricultural workers and drunken revellers. It condenses and selects aspects of colonial history to compose a descriptive fable of the colony’s progress, which is noteworthy for its omissions as much as its inclusions.
Parramatta Road, itself, symbolises the colony’s progress. The road had fallen into a degraded state by the time of Lachlan Macquarie’s governorship, and he sought to address its repair early in his term as governor. He determined a turnpike road constructed of stone with gravel surface and bound by a ditch on either side to ensure the road’s dryness. It opened at the beginning of 1811 with toll gates at the then intersection of Sydney’s George and Elizabeth Streets, marking the beginning of Parramatta Road, and another toll gate near A’Becketts Creek bridge, Parramatta. Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie are seen at the centre of Thompson’s mural, gracefully mounted in their carriage as they may have appeared on their inaugural journey along the ‘smooth, swift road’. [i]
The painting’s subject may be read as a narrative on the theme of industry and progress. Approaching it from left to right, the theme is introduced with the distinction between two groups of individuals: the sober, industrious agricultural workers and a dissipated gaggle of figures drinking rum. The grotesque expressions of the drinkers contrast with the dignity of the workers displaying their produce. In the foreground of this section, a shepherd is positioned prominently on the edge of the painting with his sheep, rendered with a degree of luminosity that suggests their associations with Christian virtues and spirituality (John 1:29). A windmill’s silhouette also signifies industry; similarly, a consignment of cloth from the Female Factory is depicted being delivered along the adjacent road – another product of industry and commerce. The cloth derives from Parramatta’s Female Factory, both a prison and a workhouse that produced linen, wool and linsey-woolsey; the cloth became the colony’s first manufactured export.
The central section of the mural features specific historical characters and buildings. It forms a triangular composition of figures, favoured by painters of the Renaissance. The portrayal of Elizabeth Macarthur is followed by Elizabeth and Lachlan Macquarie in their carriage, while Samuel Marsden and John Macarthur confer in the foreground. The painting’s arrangement of the figures indicates their psychological disposition. Elizabeth Macarthur is portrayed in working clothes and separated from her husband as during his frequent absences she managed their properties and contributed to the success of their enterprises. Elizabeth Farm appears behind her in the background of the mural. Established by Macarthur in 1793, it was named after his wife and the homestead remains as one of Australia’s earliest surviving farmhouses.[ii]
John Macarthur is depicted in the company of his rival and sometime adversary, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, and the two shared fractious characteristics. They are distanced from the Macquaries in the mural, and both Macarthur and Marsden challenged the authority of the colony’s governors. Indeed, Marsden directly opposed Macquarie’s practice of allowing ex-convicts to resume their previous ranks, refusing to join the turnpike board of trustees for Parramatta Road as the board included two emancipists.
Elizabeth Macquarie and Lachlan Macquarie are shown elevated above Marsden and Macarthur. The harmonious partnership of the Macquaries and their superior overview of the colony are reflected in this arrangement. The twin steeples of St Johns’ church echo the Macquarie’s close, interdependent coupling and allude to Elizabeth Macquarie’s involvement in the colony’s architecture, specifically these distinctive additions to the church’s design. To the side of the church is Government House, Parramatta, the preferred residence of the Macquaries. The house’s colonial Georgian architecture expresses the qualities of order, balance, harmony that the governorship hoped to transfer to the colony. The siting of the house also indicates the function of surveillance in the penal colony and architecture’s role in reminding the inhabitants of the governor’s ever-present authority.
Nearby to John Macarthur is a group of men from the New South Wales Corps, also known as the Rum Corps owing to their trade in rum as a form of currency. Their monopoly of the trade and aspects of Macarthur’s assumed power were diminished by Macquarie’s stabilising of the currency through his introduction of the Holey dollar. Macquarie’s Turnpike Gate and Lodge are shown in the right-hand corner of the mural with a pair of mounted figures paying the toll with their coins, so reinforcing the ordered, civil conduct that Macquarie’s governorship underpinned. Beside the toll house is a chain gang of convicts, likewise paying their due to the colony through their labour – a price that would be repaid by Macquarie’s acceptance of emancipists in colonial society. In fact, the architectural details of the toll gate allude to designs by the emancipist architect, Francis Greenway, who had been transported to the colony for forgery. Thompson’s painting details the delicate, crenellated turrets of Greenway’s Gothic Revival toll gates, and invokes the refinement and ambition of Macquarie’s building programme that was realised by Greenway.
The mural concludes in its far right-hand corner with a tall ship at anchor in Sydney Cove. Thompson’s painting affords a telescoped view of Parramatta Road that condenses its Georgian history. It narrates the passage of the colony’s progress into a prosperous, orderly colony, capable of constructing sophisticated roads and buildings, and establishing agriculture and manufacturing industries suitable for export. The presence of the mural within the Parramatta’s Council Chambers suggests that the role of steering the district’s progress is now undertaken by the Council, not only maintaining the progress of its physical and practical responsibilities, but also contributing to its culture and the understanding of the area’s history.
Thompson skilfully incorporates Parramatta’s coat of arms into one of the turrets of the toll gate. The coat of arms represents a member of the Burramatta clan of the Dharug people spearing an eel. The eel was both an important food source and a symbolic totem of the clan: the term ‘burra’ means eel, and ‘matta’ equates with place. The inclusion of this image reminds us of the absence of the Burramatta from the painting ̶ their reduction to a small, symbolic device. The mural naturally reflects the period’s understanding of progress as an outcome of European, material culture, a view that would be challenged in the next decades of the 20th century through postmodern artworks and post-colonial histories. The mural’s expression of mid-20th century Australian history is itself a component of the work, and one that will continue to be analysed and interpreted by future generations.
Complied by Alison Lykissas, from a significance statement by John Murphy, Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2016
Maughan, J and Norling, R Tom Thompson, Trilogy of Masterworks, Patonga Bakehouse Gallery, 2007 (page 21)
Murphy, John A Statement of Significance and Valuation of Parramatta Road, 2015 (page 8)
[i] Malcolm Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: his life, adventures and times, Angus & Roberston, Sydney, 1958, p.199.
[ii] Both Elizabeth Farm and Old Government House, Parramatta, remain open to the public so giving the mural additional contemporary relevance.