THE FEDERATION OF AUSTRALIA, A PLASTER RELIEF PLAQUE2b
By Frederick Winchester Grant (1858-1938) circa 1903
Depicting the Inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia and the swearing in of Lord Hopetoun as the first Governor General on 1st January 1901
72 cm (28 1/2 in.) wide; 12 cm (4 3/4 in.) deep; 120 cm (47 1/4 in.) high
On the 1st of January 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated. As part of the celebrations in Sydney a parade, beginning at Farm Cove, where Lord Hopetoun, was to land, and ending in Centennial Park, made its way through the city under a series of triumphal archways, colonnades and various street decorations. Some of these had been designed and co-ordinated by Walter Liberty Vernon, the New South Wales Government Architect from 1890 to 1911, and his office.
The culmination of the parade was at the octagonal Federation Pavilion erected in Centennial Park. Here, on the first day of the twentieth century, Lord Hopetoun took the oath of office as the Commonwealth's first Governor General. He then swore in the first federal ministry under the prime ministership of Edmund Barton.
The pavilion was surrounded by seating for 7,500 invited guests, 300 press. 10,000 schoolchildren, a choir of 400 with a chorus of 1,000, and a further 150,000 spectators filled the natural amphitheatre in which the pavilion was set.
Designed by Vernon, and built by the Sydney firm of plaster modellers Grant and Cocks, the pavilion, like other similar celebratory architecture, was built for effect not permanence. Made of wood and plaster, it glistened whiter than marble. The interior was hung with floral garlands. Photographs clearly show an impressive example of belle epoque colonial architecture, in which plaster imitates what might have been made in stone and bronze, if sufficient forward planning had been allowed to build the 'enduring monument' Sir Henry Parkes had originally envisaged.
Sadly these photographs are all that remains of the plaster pavilion. They show rising from a set of steps an octagon of clustered arches supporting a domed roof surmounted by an elaborate flagpole. The British coat of arms decorates the pediment beneath which the names of the Australian states are lettered and the crisp plaster sculptural decoration features a variety of peculiarly Australian flora.
The firm of Grant and Cocks, of 6-8 Brumby Street, Sydney, advertised itself as specialising in the elaborate plaster ceilings and cornices that were part of every interior, public and private, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also boasted of creating 'plastic art work' like the Federation pavilion and the arch entrance to the New South Wales Court of the New Zealand Exhibition.
These creations were meant to be temporary and survive only as drawings and photographs. However, as a memento of its part in this historic event, Frederic W. Grant (1858-1938) made five plaster plaques, one of which was sent as a memento to Lord Hopetoun.
The plaque features the view of the Federation pavilion most popular with photographers and illustrated newspapers, and shows the document signing. A mass of Australian flora, including flannel flowers, waratahs, palms and ferns, frames the accurately depicted pavilion. A cartouche beneath the steps of the pavilion and amongst the flora incorporates a portrait head of Queen Victoria and the text: Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth, Sydney, January 1901.
The central image is surrounded by a border featuring the names and portrait heads of famous men and state crests. Depicted in the corners past and present figures of politics and government, including Sir Henry Parkes, William Charles Wentworth, the Hon H.R. Reid, and the Hon Edmund Barton, in the corners. Within the arched top of the plaque the portrait of Lord Hopetoun, surmounted by a crown, is supported by a kangaroo and an emu and flanked by the coats of arms for New South Wales and Victoria and the motto Advance Australia. Across the base is the motto: One flag, one people, one destiny.
The Federation of Australia plaque is one of those rare objects which encapsulate a stylistic period and an historical moment. Documenting and celebrating Australia's federation and self-government the plaque possesses the characteristic style of belle epoque Australian decorative arts in which Australian flora and fauna helped identify the object as peculiarly Australian.