Adelaide, Autumn

Adelaide’s original vegetation

Barr-Smith Library, University of Adelaide, South Australia

October 23rd – November 22nd, 2009

This exhibition is presented by the University of Adelaide. It came about as a result of a challenge by the curator of the exhibition program to produce a collaborative body of work that relates specifically to the University. These small pen and watercolour drawings are entirely different from Robertson’s usual dramatic oil paintings.

This site-specific exhibition is designed to evoke, through a suite of watercolour and pen drawings, some of the native vegetation that would have grown for untold millennia on the site of the present city of Adelaide, including that of the Barr-Smith Library where the work is exhibited. This vegetation was almost all cleared at the time of first settlement, with the result that much of it is unfamiliar today even to the people of Adelaide.

The style and presentation of the exhibition is intended to be reminiscent of the large format books of hand-coloured engravings of the early 19th century Europe which would have been familiar to the early colonists, utilising materials and techniques that are similar to those that would have been in use at that time.

The process of city-building requires a thorough transformation of the landscape, during which the fractal geometry of the natural landscape is systematically replaced by the dominant Euclidean geometry of European land division, and building plans based on the rectangle and right angle. This exhibition is intended to highlight that transformation through a comparison of the plants and their natural order with the geometric repetition of the framing format and presentation.

Christian Clare Robertson grew up in Adelaide, but like many others was unfamiliar with the native vegetation of her home town, because by that time there was very little left. This group of drawings is intended to reconnect with her formative years. She majored in painting at the South Australian School of Art in the 1960s, and subsequently worked during the early 1970s at the Art Gallery of South Australia as an Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, where she regularly came into contact with historical prints such as those by George French Angus.

The Adelaide Plains vegetation was described by early colonists as being park-like and beautiful, but it was regretfully and systematically destroyed nonetheless. As the settlers were predominantly farmers the land on the rich river plains had to be cleared and water made available for crops and stock. No doubt these hardworking men and women thought that the bush was endlessly vast, only to discover, as one cleared area eventually broke into the next, that it was finite.

A few isolated and small patches of original vegetation remain, although these are under constant threat from introduced plants and excessive human use. One of these is Ferguson Conservation Park on Hallett Road, Stonyfell, and it was from this area that many of the plant samples originated as photographs.

The plant samples have been depicted as if they had been collected by a settler during that early period, using painting techniques that would have been used for documentation before photography became commonplace. Sharp detail, which is a response to the clear, brilliant light of Adelaide, contrasts with the soft light of the early settlers’ previous homes in Great Britain or Europe. No botanical names have been given because the plants were not described at that time; it would have been an anachronism to include them. The works are presented as the pages from a book, in sequence, and framed in the ubiquitous rectangle of our culture, which is almost invisible due to its constant use. This contrasts with the natural condition of the bushland, where all these plants coexist simultaneously.

The images of the plants are drawn so that the viewer can study them as if they are real; one can look ever more closely for detail. Subjective aspects of the art-making process have largely been removed; these would otherwise act as a barrier to the intended illusion of being there at that earlier time oneself. This also allows the contemporary viewer to more readily identify these plants.

The plants are not, as in the case of botanical drawings, in full bloom and with perfect leaves and seeds. Instead they are drawn exactly as they were on the day, with all their imperfections. Together they make up a snapshot of one particular day in spring [26th Sep ‘08] and another in the following autumn [13th March ‘09].

Christian Clare Robertson is not a botanist, therefore accurate selection of plant material was critical to the success and veracity of this project. She is indebted to Ken and Margaret Preiss, both of whom are Friends of Ferguson Conservation Park, without whose expert advice the project would not have been possible.

All images are from plant material sourced from Ken and Margaret Preiss’ private garden or from photographs taken at Ferguson Conservation Park.

Thanks are due to Darrell Kraehenbuehl and Gilbert Dashorst for assistance at the planning stages of the project.

History of the Ferguson Conservation Park

Ferguson Conservation Park, to the east of Hallett Road, Stonyfell, is an undulating foothills park of some eight hectares in area. The Park has a natural woodland aspect and is frequented by several native bird species, particularly during the flowering of the Blue Gum which dominates the park.

Since about 1880 various owners have contributed toward the conservation of the native vegetation and associated bird life. In 1879 and 1881 Simpson Newland purchased two parcels of land which together now comprise St Peter’s Girls’ School and Fergusson Park. In 1881 he sold a portion of one [now the school] and in 1902 his son Henry Simpson Newland acquired an interest in the balance of the land, now Ferguson Park.

In 1926 Alexander Melrose became the proprietor of this land and on his death in 1944 it was his wish that his niece, Miss Alice Effie Ferguson, be offered the land. Miss Ferguson purchased the land from his estate and shortly before her death in 1949, at the suggestion of Sir Henry Simpson Newland, she gave the land to the South Australian Government ‘for the benefit of the public in perpetuity’. Some of the introduced plant species that Mr Melrose planted can still be seen in the park.

The Park was initially managed by the South Australian Government Tourist Bureau and in 1972 came under the control of the National Parks and Wildlife Service who manage the Park to control unwanted plant species and to restore and maintain the natural vegetation.

Ferguson is a typical open woodland. Eucalypts, native pines and sheoaks are dotted throughout, but it is in the shrub and understorey layers that most of its plant species are to be found. Over 145 native plant species have been recorded from the park, including 17 species of grasses, 23 species of orchids and 14 species of lilies. Spring is the best time to visit the park to see native plants in flower.

Ferguson Park has an active Friends group and is notable for being the first Friends of Parks group established in South Australia. The group has developed significant expertise in bush regeneration and weed management.

[All the information above was sourced from an article by Ken Preiss, reprinted from the Burnside Historical Society Newsletter, Vol 1, No 4 of September 1981, and from the brochure Ferguson Conservation Park Guide, published by National Parks and Wildlife SA]

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Further reading:-

Darrell N. Kraehenbuehl: Pre-European Vegetation of Adelaide: a Survey from the Gawler River to Hallett Cove.

Gilbert R. M. Dashorst and John Jessop: Plants of the Adelaide Plains and Hills.

Ann Prescott: It’s Blue with Five Petals – Wildflowers of the Adelaide Region.

Phil Bagust and Lynda Tout-Smith: The Native Plants of Adelaide

Photography: Michael Haines – Kevin Killey Photographics

Chris Knight – Digifilm Australia