Seeing the Light

The use of light figures prominently in two of the exhibitions currently at the Museum of Brisbane. One, Robyn Stacey’s ‘Cloud Land’, draws us inside her artworks as images of Brisbane from a camera obscura (pinhole camera) are captured on the walls engulfing the viewer. It’s certainly a new way of looking at our city, even if the images are necessarily upside down. As part of the Open House in Brisbane recently, I attended a practical demonstration of the camera obscura in a bedroom in the Hilton Hotel. Lying on the bed made viewing the images more comfortable, but unfortunately the day was cloudy and the images were difficult make out. Well, I suppose the exhibition was called Cloud Land.

Camera obscura image of Brisbane's CBD projected onto the ceiling of a room in the Hilton Hotel
Camera obscura image of Brisbane’s CBD projected onto the ceiling of a room in the Hilton Hotel

The second ‘light’ exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane was a collection of paintings by William Bustard, an Englishman who came to Brisbane in 1921 and, unlike his compatriots of a century earlier who painted the Australian landscape in dark European colours, was profoundly impressed by the distinctive sense of light here. It figures prominently in many of his paintings. However, the biggest surprise I had was to find in a corner of the exhibition, encased in glass, an open book ‘Robinson Crusoe’ showing one of his illustrations.

An illustration by William Bustard in the book 'Robinson Crusoe'
An illustration by William Bustard in the book ‘Robinson Crusoe’

For me, it was a case of remembering things I didn’t even realise I’d forgotten. I had once owned a copy of this book myself, but all memory of it had been submerged by the intervening 60 years. I wonder what ever happened to it? Perhaps it was my own book I was now privileged to look at once more?

Colours of the Past

While researching my latest book project “WW1 Heroes of the Redlands” (due for publication in August), I was struck by how much my mental picture of life in the Redlands at that time was influenced by photographs. In those days, all photos were in black and white, because colour photography had not then been invented. So I found it difficult to visualise the landscape then in anything other than black and white.

Cleveland Central railway station 1890 (Qld Govt Railways)
Cleveland Central railway station 1890 (Qld Govt Railways)

Was this how the Redlanders saw their lives then? As if through a filter of monochromatic drabness? Maybe the whole world had been monochromatic up until the invention of technicolour. But then I thought of Napoleon, and my visuals of him are all in full colour. Why? Because I have only ever seen portraits of him done by artists, and these were always colourful (this was even before the invention of photography). So people could see things in colour!

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

But what about the Redlands a century later? Did they still view life monochromatically? Then I came across a painting of Ormiston Station by Gwen Bruce in the early 1930s. She has confirmed that we Redlanders are no different from the rest of the world.

Ormiston Railway Station early 1930's (painting by Gwen Bruce)
Ormiston Railway Station early 1930’s (painting by Gwen Bruce)