Stone and stained glass

You've walked past them many times and maybe never noticed. Near the doors into the foyer outside the lower lecture theatres are two supporting pillars. They are covered by brightly coloured ceramic pieces that form what, in passing, look like abstract designs. Small plaques identify the origins of the two mosaics. One is based on an electron micrograph of the particles in zinc oxide smoke, the other on a photomicrograph of calcium chloride crystals (photos below).

     

These decorations were put in place when the Chemistry Building was constructed in the late 1950s, an unexpected touch at a time when aesthetics had long since given way to considerations of function and cost. For another, earlier example of a chemically inspired decoration, look up as you walk through the doorway leading from Science Road to the Vice-Chancellor's Courtyard. The words ORGANIC CHEMISTRY and underneath, a benzene ring on one side and a tetrahedral carbon on the other are a reminder that Organic was once near by (photo below).

The doorway near the Vice-Chancellor

The doorway near the Vice-Chancellor's courtyard reveals its history

Earlier still, the University's founders were in no doubt about the value of embellishments in the creation of buildings "of scale and quality worthy of an institution with a great future''. Architect Edmund Blacket was encouraged to design the Great Hall and the Main Building in the style now called Victorian Gothic, with grand stained glass windows and, in the sandstone, a wealth of monograms, heraldic devices and grotesque carvings.

Strangest to our eyes are the gargoyles, intended to recall the great European cathedrals, built when it was as important to acknowledge the Devil and his associates as it was to pay tribute to the Saints and other symbols of the Christian Church. Gargoyles had another, more mundane purpose – to carry rainwater run-off clear of walls – but most on the Main Building are purely decorative, the product of "unfettered imagination".

Stonemasons at work on the Main Building, in the 1850s

Stonemasons at work on the Main Building, in the 1850s

The photo above is one of several taken in the 1850s by Chemistry professor John Smith, of stonemasons at work on the Main Building. A number of their gargoyles would never have adorned a mediaeval church – like the kangaroo, with a paw now broken, that peers out towards the City skyline from high up on the Clock Tower (circled and seen close-up in the David Moore photos below). The stonemasons could also, if they chose, send up their clients and other dignitaries; and they sometimes did. The job must have had its moments.

The famous were acknowledged more formally, however, in the stained glass windows of the Great Hall. And up there with the philosophers, writers and explorers are a couple of early chemists. Well, physicists/chemists. The difference was even hazier then than it is now. Joseph Black (1728–1799) is there (pictured below), professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University for 30 years. Black was one of the first to make the distinction between heat and temperature and his work on specific and latent heats was the starting point for the development of calorimetry.

Have you spotted the broken kangaroo gargoyle on the clock tower?

Have you spotted the broken kangaroo gargoyle on the clock tower?

Kangaroo gargoyle, with a missing paw

Kangaroo gargoyle, with a missing paw

Elsewhere in the south wall is Robert Boyle (1627–1691), seen holding an air pump of the sort he used to establish the law named after him linking the pressure of a gas with its volume. He made detailed studies of many chemical reactions and Partington notes: "Boyle's views on the elements, as expressed in The Sceptical Chymist, had a great influence on chemical thought.'' He is rightly regarded as one of the founders of modern chemistry. Standing alongside Boyle in the stained glass window is Isaac Newton (1642–1727) who, when he wasn't inventing calculus and setting out the laws of motion, spent so much of his time studying alchemy that we could (almost) get away with claiming him as an early chemist.

Left to right: Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

Left to right: Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

A word about the University's Coat of Arms. This dates from the Grant of Arms made to the University Senate by the College of Heralds in 1857, in time for it to be included in the interior decorations of the Great Hall. There is an early version on a corbel supporting a timber arch principal at the front of the Hall (photo below); and, for comparison, a recent version on the balustrade of the organ loft at the back. Both feature a stylised Southern Cross, the open book of Oxford and the lion of Cambridge. The motto, sidere mens eadem mutato, has been translated in various ways but "The same attitudes under different stars" will probably do. The same attitudes, that is, as the older British Universities. Early on, the students had their own translation: "Though the stars should change, I shall never change my mind."

The coat of arms dates from 1857

The coat of arms dates from 1857

If you think the Main Building must have cost a fortune, you're right. Mounting costs stirred up a storm not unlike the controversy that accompanied the building of the Opera House a hundred years later. But looking at the two buildings today, it's hard to imagine what the fuss was about. They were a bargain.

Sources

  • Reference Archivist Julia Mant located and reproduced the John Smith photo
  • Anne Woods took the Chemistry School photos.
  • J.R. Partington, A Short History of Chemistry, Macmillan, 3rd edn. (1957).
  • A. Gamble and T. van Sommers, University of Sydney Sketchbook, Rigby (1977).
  • A.J. Dunston, The Coat of Arms, The Gazette, University of Sydney, 4(7) (1984), 15.
  • D. Lawton and J. Steele, The Great Hall Guide, University of Sydney, 2nd edn. (1987).
  • W.H. Brock, The Fontana History of Chemistry, HarperCollins (1992).
  • D. Moore, Stones of Learning, Veritage Press (2000).