Well-kept secrets

Allan Gamble

Allan Gamble's sketch of the Vice-Chancellor's Courtyard

In these articles, I've written about Sydney University's landmark buildings. Blacket's Main Building and Great Hall of course. The Anderson Stuart and the original Fisher Library (now the MacLaurin Hall). This time I want to tell you about some of the University's (unintentionally) well-kept secrets; and a good place to start is with the jacaranda tree in the Quadrangle.

The tree is now admired for its spectacular display of purple flowers in Spring but early on, people queued up to kill it. When it was planted by E.G. Waterhouse, Professor of German, the sapling raised the ire of students and, it was said, even a senior staff member and was torn out. So was its replacement and the one after that. Happily, Waterhouse persevered and eventually put in a tree big enough to look after itself.

Waterhouse was not only a renowned linguist, he was also a horticulturist and garden designer of note, internationally recognised as an authority on camellias. Working in the 1920s with University Architect Leslie Wilkinson, he set out the garden in the Vice-Chancellor's Courtyard, tucked away between the Quadrangle and Science Road. Walk through here when the camellias and azaleas are in bloom and inspect the bronze statues of Mercury and Fortuna, acquired in the 1950s, and the bronze entitled Horse, a gift to the University in 1992. Then go out into Science Road and, at the top of the hill alongside the Great Hall, you will find the result of another Wilkinson/Waterhouse collaboration - the Botany Lawn.

Allan Gamble

Allan Gamble's sketch of the jacaranda tree in the Quadrangle

Trevor Howells, in University of Sydney Architecture, calls the Botany Lawn "one of the most delightful, if lesser known public spaces of the Camperdown Campus". A Chinese elm planted by Waterhouse provides shade and there is now a Wollemi pine, planted in 2006. Known previously only through fossil records, a small population of these "living fossils" was discovered in 1994 by an alert field officer of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, out bushwalking in the Wollemi State Forest 150 km from the heart of Sydney. When one of the pines was first displayed in the Botanic Gardens, a notice announced "Almost as rare as a dinosaur". They have since been cultivated extensively, here and overseas, to ensure their survival.

Looking down on this peaceful scene from a parapet of the Macleay Building are sandstone gargoyles of a kookaburra and kangaroo, a typical Wilkinson touch, placed there when he added a wing in the 1920s for the Botany Department. The building itself had been constructed in the 1880s, to house the natural history collection of the Macleays, father, son and nephew. Originally, a gallery at first-floor level ran right around an interior court, along the lines of a Victorian shopping arcade (as in the Strand Arcade which still connects George and Pitt Streets in the City). Later, two extra floors were added, Botany and Geology moved in and the Macleay collection found itself in the attic.

The Macleay Museum is still on the top floor, holding "the accumulated wonders of over two hundred years of collecting". The Historic Photograph Collection is a recent addition and includes examples obtained by almost all the techniques used since photography was introduced into Australia in the 1840s. There are daguerreotypes and glass plate negatives, from both the collodion wet-plate and gelatin dry-plate processes, along with many lantern slides from teaching collections. Insects pinned on cards may not be my thing but historic photos certainly are. My only complaint is that there is space to display no more than a small fraction of the photo collection.

Allan Gamble

Allan Gamble's sketch of the War Memorial Arch

Spanning Science Road between the Macleay Building and the Quadrangle's Northern Range is the War Memorial Arch. The War Memorial Art Gallery is located here, in a single large room where exhibitions are held of items from the various University collections. One time it might be the paintings and drawings of Chartres Cathedral by Lloyd Rees; another, photos from the Harold Cazneaux collection. The items are always carefully selected and well-presented. And on the other side of the Quadrangle, directly below the MacLaurin Hall, is the Nicholson Museum, home to the University's fine collection of Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities. The two museums and the art gallery, I should point out, are open to everyone, free of charge.

Wilkinson lantern with weathervane

Wilkinson lantern with weathervane

The sketch above captures a Wilkinson signature, a lantern with weather vane, as seen from Science Road, and below, a sketch of the Mephistopheles Fountain, sometimes called the Fountain of Pan, to be found half-way down the hill. It has been there since the 1920s, probably put in place by Wilkinson during his upgrade of Badham at that time. A modest feature, one of very few fountains on campus, but, as Howells says in University of Sydney Architecture, "a beguiling and whimsical element that makes a stroll down Science Road a memorable and enjoyable experience".

Beguiling and whimsical are words that could also be used to describe Howell's little book. Get hold of a copy and spend time wandering about the University grounds. Along the way, track down Howell's own favourite buildings, the Vet Science Round House, hiding near Oval No. 2, and the Tennis Pavilion, overlooking the tennis courts behind Manning. "Small but smart pieces of architecture" he calls them.

Allan Gamble

Allan Gamble's sketch of the Mephistopheles Fountain