Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: 1920s

The thousand violins

Hi,

I’m a violinist on the Sunshine Coast.

I wondered if you have heard the story of the Thousand Violins concerts that were given in the Brisbane Exhibition Hall on the evenings of the 18th, 19th and 20th of August 1927, and broadcast live on the radio. The event made it into the overseas press, and all the Brisbane newspapers wrote glowing reviews. It was widely considered to be an amazing success. The strings were accompanied by organ and piano, and the conductor and organiser was violinist Mr Luis Amadeo Pares, a man of great spirit, who was well known in Brisbane in those days. He founded a centre of the arts called The Hall of the Muses, located approxi­mately where the supreme and district courts are in George Street today. He trained many of the student violinists for the Thousand Violins concert free of charge and the event generated enormous interest. Many had predicted that the concert wouldn’t sound good, with 1,000 young student violinists, but somehow Mr Pares achieved the impossible and the tone and intonation was said to be excellent. Actually the real number of student performers was 1,300. Luis was also president of the then newly-formed Spanish Club of Brisbane.

I think it’s important that Queensland and especially Brisbane remembers Mr Pares and all he achieved. Interestingly, for lovers of classical music, it is also of interest that the famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler, performed in the Exhibition Hall in the 1920s.

Cheers,

Jon O’Brien

The gardeners

The Old Museum gardens are unique amongst Queensland’s institutional and public gardens in having a gardens maintenance and support area still on site and in operation. This area includes propagation facilities and potting tables, shade houses, compost facilities, and gardener’s storage and facilities building. This is a rare occurrence in Australia and an area that should be highly valued and kept intact and in operation.

Through the 20th century, the gardens had its own gardeners who were based at the gardens and worked from their yard and the bush house there. As well as maintaining the gardens and lawns, they propagated all the plants used for the seasonal changing displays in the beds. It should also be noted that there were generally not generous or even sufficient funds for the gardeners to undertake all they would have liked to do for the gardens. The lack of funds for new plants led from the early part of the 20th century to the gardeners collecting seed from their plants, taking cuttings and propagating and growing on the plants to meet the different garden beds displays. These gardening practices and traditions involved a considerable amount of work for the gardening staff.

It seems highly likely that the primary reasons these gardens remained generally intact and one of the finest gardens in Brisbane through the 20th century was the continuity of the gardeners, their attachment to this special place, the practices they passed on to the following gardeners, and the lack of funds to generate changes and extensive plant changes.

All the gardeners at the Old Museum Gardens were not recorded in the past studies. It would be wonderful to complete the list. Gardeners included: Ray Priest, Dave Dowdless from 1966, Col Harmon (who had been the head gardener at the Yungaba Migrant Centre, and retired in 1970), David Hockings there from 1970, Jack Kennedy head gardener, who passed on to Ted (Dude) Neilsen there from 1966 to 1979 and head gardener for 5 years, and John England.

In 1989 and 2000 when I was part of the team preparing the Old Museum Gardens conservation study I met the gardeners who were still working in the gardens, and contacted a couple of the retired gardeners. Col Harmon told me of the gingko tree that used to grow near the entrance to the bush house. It was 10 to 14 metres high and an original planting in the list of plants at the place prepared by Frederick Manson Bailey, the Queensland government botanist at the turn of the century.

Ted Neilsen recalled the large Moreton Bay fig tree which grew just near the lawn near the corner of the old fernery, the fishpond, and the round garden under the present demountable building. He also told of the seed beds being in the open where the spirit store building is now, and recalled the fine garden along there comprising a hedge along the fence, a line of alternating frangipani trees and palms with annuals displayed along the garden frontage. He had tended the historical beds of annuals removed for the dinosaurs, and the roses. He told me that “dozens came daily just to look at the roses”.

John England told me about the paths always being asphalt with tile drains or a raised timber edge, that he planted the macadamia tree in the lower garden, the bougainvillea hedge near the potting shed was “always there”, and there were two timber slatted ferneries—one open to the public—and much more about the gardens and the plants now gone but which were there through his time as gardener in this very special place in Brisbane.

The gardeners' work area, November 2013

The gardeners’ work area, November 2013

Do you have a photo of Mephisto?

A note from the editor:

The Queensland Museum is the custodian of Mephisto, the only First World War German tank left in the world. The tank was captured in France by Australian soldiers in 1918.

Most of the troops who captured the tank came from Queensland. They campaigned for Mephisto to be brought to Brisbane, where it was put on display at the Queensland Museum in 1919.

A group of museum curators are writing a book about Mephisto and are appealing for your help to find old photographs of the tank.

Have you got a photo of Mephisto at the old museum? If you do, the museum curators would love to hear from you. And please, share the story here too.

The German First World War tank 'Mephisto' on display outside the entrance to the Old Museum in the early 1920s. John Oxley Library

The German First World War tank ‘Mephisto’ on display outside the entrance to the Queensland Museum. The photo was taken before 1921 when an open-sided shelter was built to give it some protection from the weather. John Oxley Library

Marcel Duchamp at the Queensland Art Gallery

I dimly remember visiting the Queensland Art Gallery at Bowen Hills in the 1950s, but my strongest memory is from a little later. As high-school students in July 1968 Bev Parrish and I went to the gallery to see a Marcel Duchamp exhibition.

I think I already knew about Duchamp’s 1913 classic modernist paint­ing Nu descendant un escalier n° 2, with its references to Eadweard Muy­bridge’s sequence of photographs Woman walking downstairs. And I knew that Duchamp had caused a fracas when he tried to exhibit an ordinary porcelain urinal, with the title Fountain in New York in 1917. But that’s about all I knew about him.

I thought the exhibition at the art gallery was terrific. I don’t remember where the exhibits came from, and I don’t recall a catalog—I certainly didn’t buy one, though there could have been one available but beyond my budget. Many readymades were included. These were recent reproductions, produced in limited editions au­thor­ised by the artist. I have fond memories of these in particular:

  • Fountain—the porcelain urinal
  • Fresh widow—a model of a pair of French doors fitted with black curtains
  • 50cc of Paris air—a glass ampoule filled (we were told) with air from Paris
  • With hidden noise—a ball of string captured between brass plates, containing a small loose object (of undisclosed identity) which made a noise when the object was shaken (or so we were told)
  • Why not sneeze, Rose Sélavy—a little bird cage, containing marble blocks in the shape of sugar cubes—I think this was my favourite

These items were full of stories, jokes, multi-lingual puns, and cultural ref­er­ences—a marvelous delight for a schoolboy in the backwater that was Brisbane in the 1960s.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. SFMOMA

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. SFMOMA

Dame Nellie Melba

My maternal grandmother saw Nellie Melba sing at the old Exhibition Building Hall. I was a child when she told me about it. I think we had gone to the Art Gallery, then in that building, and she was explaining how it had changed. She loved singing and was in the old State and Municipal Choir and had great admiration for the then conductor a Mr Sampson who was also, if I remember, the organist at St John’s Cathedral.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Hannah Gartside and she lived in Gregory Terrace in a house called Preston Villa (now long demolished) but it was more or less opposite the Centenary Pool. Her grandparents lived a couple doors along in a house called Daisy Nook, also gone I think; another member of the family lived close by also.

The Gartside family were gunsmiths and had a successful business in town (Gartside and Sons). Their neighbours were the Miss Watsons whose front fence still survives but the site is now a motel.

I’ll have to check when my grandmother was born. Her father was an engineer in Queensland Railways, well respected, and her father was credited with designing the Normanton Railway Station and the first Kuranda Station.   He worked on that railway when the government had to resume control. There was a model in the old museum which my grandmother would show me. He also did work at Cooktown and must have been involved with the Cooktown to Laura railway line.

James Gartside also became Lt Colonel of the Moreton Regiment but died young of a brain tumour. There is a quite grand obelisk in Toowong Cemetery erected by public subscription.

Hannah’s mother was Miriam Costin and that family came to Brisbane in 1840s or even earlier. Later one Costin became Clerk of Parliament.

My grandmother as a young woman would accompany her father to the Easter Encampments as her mother wouldn’t go. I think my grandmother enjoyed the attention she received being the Colonel’s daughter. There must have been a dress-up dance of some kind.   I’ll have to check my grandmother’s date of birth and when she started at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar which of course was just up the road.

Unfortunately I don’t know anything more about Nellie Melba in Brisbane.

A note from the editor:

The internationally-celebrated Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) performed in five seasons in the exhibition concert hall—in October 1902, June 1909, August 1909, May 1922, and June-July 1927. The performances were described in the newspapers in lavish detail. Here is part of a typical article:

Melba’s farewell concert will be a night to be remembered by many, for the Exhibition Concert Hall was thronged to overflowing, and long before the opening time a crowd had been patiently waiting tor admission. The body of the hall and the galleries were taxed to the utmost, while on the stage and at each side of the organ accommodation was also provided for music lovers. The Diva received an ovation as she appeared on the stage in a creation by Worth of pale shell pink georgette, fashioned with straight-lined back, and pouched and draped front. At the low set waistline in the front appeared elaborate embroideries in crystal and diamante, from beneath which fell a drape of powder blue, drawn to the right side, and falling below the hemline. Diamante clasps caught the filmy sleeves, and round her shoulders the singer wore a scarf of misty pink tulle. A diamond tiara and glittering diamante shoes completed her toilette, while Melba wore her most-magnificent jewels, comprising diamond rings and bracelets, ropes of pearls, and a long slender chain of platinum-set diamonds, from which hung a sapphire pendant.

At the close of her first group of songs, and, again, later in the programme, Dame Nellie received quantities of floral gifts. Among them was a sheaf of poinsettia and spikes of gladiolus toning from palest lemon to deep red, mounted on a pedestal, the base of which was hidden in blossoming banksia and roses. From the Lyceum Club was a bouquet of pink roses and sweet peas set in powder blue tulle, and tied with blue ribbons, and other floral gifts were a sheaf of arum lilies, and bouquets of Iceland poppies, gerberas, roses, and sweet peas.

—“Melba’s farewell: gala night at exhibition”, Brisbane Courier, 14 June 1927. (The article went on to name many dozens of worthy and notable Queenslanders who were in the audience).

At her final farewell concert in Brisbane, on the evening of Thursday 7 July 1927, the performance was broadcast live on radio station 4QG. Here is a newspaper report:.

It was the first time in her wonderfully successful career that a whole concert given by Dame Melba was broadcast. The information that the  concert would be broadcast had been wired to other States, and New Zealand, and it is possible that between two and three million persons listened-in to the concert.

During the evening, Dame Melba spoke into the microphone, and said she hoped the listeners had had as much pleasure in listening to her as she had had in broadcasting the concert.

Responding to numerous requests by letter, Dame Melba sang two old favorites, “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” and “Hame Sweet Hame.”

—“Melba concert broadcast”, Daily Mercury (Mackay), 8 July 1927.

Here are recordings of the voice of Nellie Melba as she sings those two favourites. First, “Comin’ through the rye”, recorded in New York in 1913. We hear an original disc played on a 78rpm gramophone to evoke the experience many of her fans enjoyed. [source]

 

And here she is singing “Home, sweet home.” This recording has been digitally processed to remove some of the hiss and crackle.

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