A not-so-familiar Father Christmas: A Merry Christmas Polka from 1847

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b3196976

Looking at Christmas music in the Rare Music collection from Victorian-era Britain, I was surprised to see an unfamiliar Father Christmas-figure—a grinning giant—at the head of a very worn copy of the sheet music of a Merry Christmas Polka from 1847. I had expected to find a Santa in a fur-edged coat and hat, with a stout pair of boots and, perhaps, a fir tree over one shoulder; what I found (here rendered in green for festive effect!) was rather different.

Just ten years into Queen Victoria’s reign is a little soon for that particular Santa to be ubiquitous. After some general reading, I discovered that other illustrators depicting Father Christmas in the 1840s use graphic elements similar to those employed by the illustrator for this piece of festive sheet music, Alfred Ashley (1820-1897). 1) The holly wreath (instead of the hat) was common then as was the raised goblet. And Ashley’s Santa has “companions” from folklore, something not unknown in the 1840s. Here a goblin-like figure pulls himself over the top of the chair and what must surely be a leprechaun dances on his outstretched hand. The element of fantasy is something often found in Victorian-era illustration in, for example, the well-established genre of fairy painting. 2) Ashley’s Father Christmas is remarkably plainly dressed, in a non-descript smock, barelegged and with no apparent footwear, but he is toasting himself by a roaring fire: a yule log perhaps? The suspended mistletoe and profusion of food and drink (here just visible on the table) are other Christmas traditions in the illustration that have stood the test of time.

Engraved illustrations were increasingly common on sheet music in the 1840s and no doubt a significant incentive to purchase. Pianos, including compact cottage (upright) pianos for home use, were luxury goods, but were owned by the well-heeled middle and upper classes in increasing numbers. 3) It is these people—particular the fashionably dressed family in the foreground—who are depicted in the illustration, dancing at home, as was then a custom. And this polka, a couples dance distinguished by a hopping step, coincides with the early years of “polkamania” in Britain. 4) With its regular repeated 8 bar phrases, this is definitely a polka written for dancing rather than listening to. To hear the distinctive polka rhythm, and to get a sense of what these simple piano dances written for domestic use were like, please listen to short excerpts from the Merry Christmas Polka Finale below—the “big finish” is a very clear signal to the dancers that the music, and the dance, is nearing its end.


With best wishes for the Festive Season from all at Special Collections.

Jennifer Hill, Rare Music Curator

  1. This is no. 113 of the Musical Bouquet series; the composer is not named. The publisher, active from 1845 to 1917, went on to issue at least 8106 numbers, producing one, then two per week. The website http://www.musicalbouquet.co.uk/  is an excellent source of information and devotes a page to Alfred Ashley, with many examples of his work.
  2. David Wootton, The illustrators: the British art of illustration, 1800-1999 (London: Chris Beetles, 1999), p. 21-28.
  3. Derek Scott, The singing bourgeois: songs of the Victorian drawing room and parlour (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1989), p. 45-49, 54.
  4. See Gracian Černušák, Andrew Lamb and John Tyrrell, “Polka” in Grove Music Online.

Wombat, wombach, whom-batt wonder: early scientific ‘trafficking’ of marsupalia to Europe

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685The unique fauna of Australia intrigued, bemused and excited the imagination of their European ‘discovers’ from the moment of the first animal sightings in the late 18th century.  One of these puzzling oddities was the wombat, which was described as a type of bear or a badger by northern naturalists grappling to classify the strange animal within existing scientific taxonomies, and said to taste of ‘tough mutton’ by sailors eager to sample fresh meat after many months at sea.

The nocturnal and retiring habits of the wombat appear to have protected it from the notice of the expeditionary voyages of James Cook, and the exploration parties associated with the first settlers.   Indeed it was almost a decade after settlement before the first wombat was sighted (February 1797), shortly ahead of the platypus (November 1797), koala (January 1798) and Tasmanian tiger (1805), though all were preceded by the discovery of the echidna (1792).  The earliest description of a kangaroo (or more precisely a wallaby) was made in Francois Pelsaert‘s 1629 account of the shipwrecked Batavia, though this report seems to have been unknown to Cook, who remarks on a kind of jumping ‘grey hound’ in his Endeavour journal of 24 June 1770.

As a group these strange pouched and egg-laying creatures presented a distinct challenge to European classifiers, as articulated by James Edward Smith (1759-1828), founder of the Linnean Society:

When [one] first enters on the investigation of so remote a country as New Holland, he finds himself as it were in a new world.  He can scarcely meet with any fixed points from whence to draw his analogies.

The first transported wombat

If you should ever find yourself in Newcastle upon Tyne, visit if you can the Great Northern Museum of natural history and archaeology, and utter a friendly ‘wombat-cough’ to a well-connected and well-travelled 218 year old stuffed Tasmanian wombat, the first specimen to be transported from Australia to Europe.

wombat-great-northern-museumAfter several wombat sightings in 1797, a live female specimen was captured on Cape Barren Island (Bass Strait) in March 1798 by a party of British naval officers (including a young Matthew Flinders).  The creature was taken by ship to Sydney and presented to amateur naturalist and Governor of New South Wales, John Hunter, where the ill-fated marsupial died after six weeks in captivity.  Hunter wrote of the unfortunate animal:

it was exceedingly weak when it arrived, as it had, during its confinement on board, refused every kind of sustenance, except a small quantity of boiled rice, which was forced down its throat.

Not wanting to let the opportunity for scientific research lapse, Hunter had the corpse preserved in alcohol and shipped to his friend Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society) in London for more detailed taxonomic examination.  In 1799 the soused specimen was barrelled onwards to the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle (of which Hunter was a corresponding member), but not before the cask broke open, almost suffocating its carrier in ‘pungent and foul-smelling spirits’.  There Thomas Bewick prepared an engraving of the wombat (based on an original drawing by Hunter) which was printed in the fourth edition of his A general history of quadrupeds (1800), becoming the first published illustration of the animal.wombat-bewick-4th-edition

The ‘traffic’ in wombat specimens

From the early 1800s an increasing number of preserved wombats were shipped to Europe for dissemination amongst scientific circles.  Several other wombat pioneers found themselves unwitting live specimens, who were met with wonder and curiosity on disembarkation.  These included a wombat collected by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) which he passed over to his friend, British surgeon and anatomist Everard Home (1756-1832), under whose watchful guardianship it lived cheerfully for two years:

It was not wanting in intelligence, and appeared attached to those to whom it was accustomed, and who were kind to it.  When it saw them, it would put up its fore paws on the knee, and when taken up would sleep in the lap. [1808]

The British were not the only nation with a thirst for scientific discovery, and the rival Pacific expeditions of the French also resulted in the capture and repatriation of marsupial specimens.  Three live wombats collected on the voyages of the Geographe and the Naturaliste commanded by Nicholas Baudin survived to arrive in France in 1803, at least one of which may have become the pet of Empress Josephine at Château de Malmaison.

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685

A recent acquisition: Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s natural history studies, 1834-1835

The Baillieu Library is fortunate to have recently acquired a copy of the 1834-1835 published studies of the distinguished French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). The volume includes two detailed papers on the platypus and echidna, and a skilfully rendered fold-out illustration of pair of wombats placed in a naturalistic setting.  As director of the Natural History Museum in Paris, Geoffroy was also administrator of the former Royal Menagerie, which had been relocated to the Jardin des Plantes after the French Revolution.  Here he could observe at first hand exotic animals which had been collected from a variety of sources, many of them previously held in private hands.  One of the more grisly directives following the 1789 revolution was that all exotic pets had to be turned over live to the former royal collection, or otherwise killed and given to the Jardin des Plantes for scientific studies, such as Geoffroy’s.  It seems that our two ‘French’ wombats were amongst the lucky survivors.

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685      L0020768 Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Lithograph by J. Boilly, 182 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Lithograph by J. Boilly, 1821. 1821 By: Julien Léopold BoillyPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Bibliography and further reading:

Australian Broadcasting Commission. ‘The wombat boy’, Australian Story Program Archives, 25 March 2002 http://www.abc.net.au/austory/archives/2002/05_AustoryArchives2002Idx_Monday25March2002.htm

Cowley, Des & Brian Hubber.  ‘Distinct creation: early European images of Australian animals’, The LaTrobe journal, no.66, Spring 2000, pp. 3-32.

‘The first wombat to leave Australia’  http://pickle.nine.com.au/2016/09/15/11/33/first-wombat-to-leave-australia

Flinders, Matthew.  A voyage to Terra Australis undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country, and prosecuted in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803… Volume 1. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and Co., and published by G. and W. Nicol, 1814.

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Etienne.  Etudes progressives d’un naturaliste pendant les années 1834 et 1835 : faisant suite a ses publications dans les 42 volumes des mémoires et annales du Museum d’Historie Naturelle.  Paris: Chez Roret, 1835.

Pigott, L.J. & Jessop, L. ‘The governor’s wombat: early history of an Australian marsupial’, Archives of Natural History, v. 34, 2007, pp. 207-218.

‘The tale of a wombat: a journey from Australia to Newcastle upon Tyne’, The Guardian, 30 December 2013 https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2013/dec/30/wombat-australia-to-newcastle-upon-tyne

Woodford, James.  The secret life of wombats.  Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2001.

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685





Metal crafts, printmaking and the acquisition of a nielli print

Looking at a work of art on paper, it can be difficult to imagine the close relationship between a print, and metal craft. Yet printmaking owes much of its legacy to metal arts and this affiliation was more apparent in early western prints as many of the masters learned their art from the metal smiths, such as Albrecht Dürer who was the son of a goldsmith and was familiar with that art. In the 15th century and early 16th century many experiments and innovations in printmaking took place in the design of metal (from which printed impressions are taken). Some of these early techniques were short-lived and are now unfamiliar to 21st century audiences.

One such technique thought to have developed in Italy is nielli printing which was practiced up to the 16th century. This is technique utilises an engraved decorative design on silver in which lines are filled with ‘niello,’ a black chemical substance, which contrasts with the silver. Before niello is applied to the metalwork, the lines are filled with ink and an impression taken, and this is a neilli print. Rare examples of niello objects and their impressions are held in the British Museum. The Baillieu Library Print Collection has acquired its first example of a neilli print and like most of these impressions it is tiny work measuring only 4.2 centimetres diameter.

Nielli print

The portrait depicts Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402) who became the first Duke of Milan. While the artist of this nielli print is uncertain, the portrait was adapted from an effigy that adorned the monastery Certosa di Pavia. Another version of this effigy was engraved by Agostino Carracci for the book Cremona fedelissima città, et nobilissima colonia de Romani published in 1585.

Another substantial example of metal craft held in the Baillieu Library is the Wilson Hall presentation set organised by the Walsh Brothers. The set comprising trowel, mallet, mortar board and their box was given to Sir Samuel Wilson on 2 October 1879 by Sir Redmond Barry, on behalf of the Council of The University for use during the ceremonial laying of the memorial stone for Wilson Hall. If the ornate silver trowel from this set were to be inked, it is easier to imagine its decorative design appearing in reverse on a sheet of paper, just as nielli prints were made directly from metal objects.

Wilson Hall presentation set

Other examples from the Print Collection displaying the relationship between metal work and prints include designs for medallions and ornamental decorations.



Further reading

Arthur M. Hind, Early Italian engraving: a critical catalogue with complete reproduction of all the prints described, London: Pub. for M. Knoedler, New York, by B. Quaritch, 1938-1948

Australian-made piano rolls – a generous donation to Rare Music

While piano (or pianola) rolls might seem the ultimate in technological obsolescence, rare music was delighted to accept a generous donation of 126 piano rolls (just part of a larger collection) last year.


Piano rolls were first available for purchase in the mid-1890s and are, surprisingly, still being produced today, though only one company remains (QRS). For those unfamiliar with them, a piano roll consists of a roll of paper, 285 mm wide, wound onto a spool, with tiny holes (perforations) punched out that encode musical information such as the notes to be played and when the “soft” and sustaining pedals are to be depressed.

Early pianolas (or player pianos) were powered by a pair of foot treadles with a “tracker bar” (visible on the photograph of Percy Grainger above) reading the roll and “playing” the piano. There was also scope for the “player pianist” to control aspects of the sounds that were made; volume and speed, for example. With technological advances, manufacturers developed high-end, high fidelity “reproducing” pianos which offered something very different: fidelity to the interpretation of the best-known virtuoso pianists of the day. The Grainger Museum’s Duo-Art piano, belonging to Percy Grainger, is one of this type. Grainger sometimes modified piano roll recordings of his performances for effect (rather than to just correct a mistake), adding additional holes to a roll, for example, and producing piano music that would otherwise be unplayable by just 10 fingers.


While Grainger, as an international pianist, recorded piano rolls overseas, the collection donated to Rare Music is all Australian-made and the music is mostly popular. Provenance-wise the rolls can be traced back to 1947 when they were located in an outbuilding on a Euroa property at the time it changed hands; just possibly, given the number of rolls, the collection functioned as a lending library of some type.


The Australian rolls in our new acquisition were produced by the Anglo-American Player Roll Co. (Melbourne) and Mastertouch Piano Roll Co. (Sydney). The former business, producing Broadway Word Rolls, was essentially, a “one man show”, established around 1921 by Len Luscombe (1893-1957), who was both the sole recording artist and business owner. 1) His taste and interest was in popular dance music and our collection is dominated by fox trots plus a handful of waltzes and one-steps. Luscombe used a number of aliases to give the impression of a larger enterprise. “Word rolls”, by the way, have the lyrics written on the paper, parallel to the lines of perforations, and reveal themselves gradually as the roll turns–ready for singing along—very much as do the lyrics during karaoke.


Sydney’s Mastertouch Company was a little different, involving a larger number of recording artists, including in-house “pianola pianists”. 2) The firm was established by George Horton in 1919 and closed as recently as 2005. 3) Lettie Keyes from Nathalia (near Shepparton) and Katoomba sisters Laurel and Edith Pardey (later Edith Murn) dominate the performer list. Keyes (active for Mastertouch from 1923-29, and from 1961) was both an accomplished pianist and a highly skilled arranger of music and editor of rolls. Keyes’s speciality was opera arrangements and our collection includes her selections from Rigoletto, Faust and Martha, which exploit that potential for a liberally “edited” piano roll to deliver a complex, almost orchestral texture.


Four-handed arrangements were the specialty of the Pardey sisters, full-time employees of Mastertouch, specialising, like Luscombe, in popular music. The sisters recorded some Australian compositions, such as “After the Dawn: Waltz” by Jack O’Hagan (of Along the Road to Gundagai fame). The collection also includes a “Gippsland March”. Our collection also includes some “classical” repertoire, recorded by, for example, Russian pianist Paul Vinogradoff. Well-known pianists would simply visit and record, leaving staffers to edit for them.


Piano rolls, like recordings made with other early technologies, are currently of interest to musicologists as a rich source of information on performance practice of a variety of types of music. Testament to that interest is the Player Piano Project at Stanford University; it was Stanford which acquired Australian Denis Condon’s massive collection of 7540 piano rolls (including only very few Australian rolls) and ten instruments in 2014. There are some fascinating videos associated with the project, including one of the Stanford Orchestra playing the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor last year with Percy Grainger as soloist per-piano roll. Or to see a pianola in action close up, and to hear the distinctive popular “pianola sound”, sample Gershwin playing the opening of “I’m forever blowing bubbles”.

Returning to the challenge of technological obsolescence, time has already overtaken an earlier plan to digitise the piano rolls by playing them on a pianola and recording them digitally in “real time”. Stanford is developing and will fabricate, a dedicated scanner for piano rolls that will allow them to derive audio from digital images; playback will be via an MP3 player or perhaps another type of player that is “e-roll” capable. Internet searches have revealed other recent advances in this area, so a “watching brief”, keeping a close eye on the Stanford project, is probably the best option for Rare Music. We shall have to be patient!

Jennifer Hill, Rare Music curator

1) See Glenn Amer, “Len Luscombe: Australia’s premier piano roll pianist and arranger” and the article on Luscombe by Barclay Wright in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

2) See Glenn Amer, “Artists of the Mastertouch Piano Roll Co. 1919-2006”.

3) The Anglo-American Player Roll Company’s stock and equipment was bought out by Horton after Luscombe’s death and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, acquired the Mastertouch Piano Roll Company collection on its closure.

Cricket on the fore-edge: finding hidden paintings within the page-ends of books


Next time you open a book from the late 18th or 19th century, take time to gently fan the pages.  If you are lucky you may be surprised to find a hidden fore-edge painting lying unexpectedly within.

Fore-edge painting

The fore-edge of a book is the long open side opposite the spine where the page edges are exposed to view, and the side from which you enter to turn the pages of the text.  The painting of decorative pictures on the fore-edge of books gained momentum in the 1750s, when it became a signature device of the Halifax, Yorkshire bookbinding firm Edwards. These watercolour illustrations were applied to the book edge whilst the fanned surface was held in a brace.  Once dry, the book was allowed to relax to its normal position with the fore-edge painting cleverly retreating inside, out of immediate view.  The closed fore-edge was often painted over in gold pigment, to cover the residual traces of watercolour that were sometimes faintly observable.

mrs-heymans-sideThe technique of using the fore-edge to record information on books can be traced as far back as the 900s.  In modern book shelving systems, the fore-edge faces towards the back of the shelf, but in the medieval period, books were commonly shelved on their side and/or in chests, with the fore-edge facing outwards and open to view.  As the heavy leather bindings were difficult to write on, the fore-edges were inscribed with the title of the book or with a rudimentary shelf mark to aid identification, in much the same way that call numbers are attached to the spines of library books today.

Felicia Hemans and her poem, Casabianca

At first glance this elegant volume of poems by Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) is no different to many of similar age and provenance in the Rare Books Collection.  But if you slowly splay the page edges and look again, a hidden image of a cricket field appears which did not seem to be there when the book was lying flat in its closed position.  The effect is curiously captivating and you find yourself fanning the pages again to make sure, and miraculously the picture reappears!


Felicia Hemans was a prolific English poet, who spent much of her life in Wales, and whose early work gained the attention of Shelley, with whom she briefly corresponded.  Her poem, Casabianca, is well known, especially for its oft repeated first line:

The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,

Shone round him o’er the dead…

The poem, which continues for another nine stanzas, tells of the heroism of a 13-year old boy, Giocante Casabianca, son of the Admiral of the Orient at the Battle of the Nile (1798).  After the ship had caught fire and all guns had been abandoned, he remained at his post, and subsequently died in the tremendous explosion when the flames reached the gunpowder store.

Parodies of  ‘The boy who stood on the burning deck’

On a more humorous note, the poem has also been much parodied since it was first published in 1826, including the following by English comedian Eric Morcombe (1926-1984):

The boy stood on the burning deck,

His lips were all a-quiver;

He gave a cough, his leg fell off,

And floated down the river.

And to accompany our cricketing scene, a contribution attributed to that great wit Anonymous:

The boy stood on the burning deck,

Playing a game of cricket;

The ball rolled up his trouser leg,

And hit his middle wicket.

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Bibliography & further reading:

Hemans, Felicia.  The poetical works of Mrs Hemans.  London : Frederick Warne, [1880?]

Weber, Carl. Fore-edge painting : a historical survey of a curious art in book decoration.

Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. : Harvey House, c1966.


Revolutionary printing: money!

In 2016 we celebrate 50 years of decimal currency and innovations in paper money such as the next generation five dollar note. In Australia before the unifying advent of Federation which occurred in 1901, currency was a more chaotic affair. Banknotes represent a nation’s economic stability and during times of war and upheaval, these crises are likewise reflected in the currency. To show both students of printmaking and financial studies, the rich links between printing and economic history, the Baillieu Library Print Collection has acquired three engraved banknotes.

French Revolution banknotes

A variety of currency which arose and fell with the French Revolution was the assignat which were only printed between 1789 and 1795. Rather than having a value assigned to silver or gold, this engraved note was instead assigned to a value of land and was interest bearing. The Domaines Nationaux (1789-93) was an organisation established from the sale of the church lands, land which became the financial basis for assignats. Controlled by the National Assembly it was responsible for printing assignats and for their circulation in France. Louis XVI is featured on the note, and would remain there until his deposition when his portrait was replaced by the cap of liberty. The acquired note also features the signature of Camberlain, a representative for La Caisse de l’Extraordinaire, a department formed to issue assignats and combat their forgery.



A British government sanctioned scheme saw economic warfare unleashed when British artists and other individuals flooded the French economy with forged assignats. These forged notes were intended to further ruin the financial stability of the French nation.[1] By 1795 an assignat was virtually worthless and they were withdrawn from use.

The British authorities showed no leniency towards its own citizens who forged the nation’s currency, however. To be found in possession of a forged banknote was a crime punishable by hanging. Forgery was not always an act of war; it was most often the crime of destitute men, women and children. In 1819 the artist George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was so disturbed by the sight of the hanged forgers wreathing the walls of Newgate prison, that he designed what is commonly referred to as the hanging note . [2] This note was influential in drawing attention to the overly harsh punishment which brought about reform and the lesser punishment for forgery offences: deportation to the penal colony of Australia.

Australian Pre-Federation banknotes

Many of the convicts sent to Australia were forgers, such as Joseph Lycett (born c. 1794). Lycett produced important colonial works of art including the book Views in Australia (1825) which is a highlight of the Rare Books collection.[3] However, he was also forging colonial banknotes: ‘unfortunately for the world as well as himself [Lycett] had obtained sufficient knowledge of the graphic art to aid him in the practice of deception, in which he has outdone most of his predecessors’.[4] Due to a shortage of British coins, a system of promissory notes, (which functioned somewhat like a cheque) was being used in the colony.  Given that the history of banknote production and that of forgery occur concurrently, printing had to evolve, and so banknotes feature very sophisticated artistry and printing techniques.

Unlike present day Australian banknotes which are a uniform set carefully overseen by the Reserve Bank of Australia, before Federation any bank could issue paper currency and all of the states colonies were printing their own notes. Not surprisingly this cornucopia of paper money was an inefficient system.

Lycett, like many other forgers, was using a copper plate to produce clever imitations. As the uncirculated Bank of Australasia five pound note states in the inscription by the lower margin, it was produced with a patent hardened steel plate by Perkins, Bacon & Co. Jacob Perkins (1766-1849) pioneered new printing innovations including one he called ‘siderography’ which is to engrave on steel. This method enabled thousands of identical complex designs to be printed from a superior metal plate and was extremely difficult to copy. Engraving on steel would be one of the products born of the Industrial Revolution.[5]

Five pounds

A great leap in the complexity and visual appeal is evident in the Bank of Victoria one pound colour trial specimen, which depicts that colony’s namesake: Queen Victoria. Several artists and equipment would have been utilised to produce this sophisticated banknote. Unlike the previous two notes, this specimen is printed on both sides, an innovation which thwarted many forgers. The verso shows a guilloche, or an intricate repeated design which is produced by a lathe. A tool called a stump engraver would have been used to print the word ‘one pound’ repeatedly. These features, together with the use of multiple colour plates form an almost impenetrable security system.

Colour trial specimen

Verso colour trail specimen

By the 1890s in Australia, approximately 64 banks were trading before a crisis in 1893 which saw many of them close. By 1910 British pounds were no longer the nation’s currency and promissory notes were not legal tender.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1] Peter Bower, ‘Economic warfare: banknote forgery as a deliberate weapon’ in The banker’s art: studies in paper money edited by Virginia Hewitt. London: British Museum, 1995, pp.46-64

[2] The story of paper money by Yash Beresiner and Colin Narbeth, Wren publishing Melbourne, 1973, pp 23-26

[3] Joseph Lycett, Views in Australia, or, New South Wales & Van Diemen’s Land delineated: in fifty views with descriptive letter press, London: J. Souter, 1824-[1825]

[4] From the Sydney Gazette 1815 quoted in Printed images in colonial Australia 1801-1901 by Roger Butler, Canberra : National Gallery of Australia, c2007, p. 51

[5] See Gary W. Granzow, Line engraved security printing: the methods of Perkins Bacon ,1790-1935; banknotes and postage stamps, London: Royal Philatelic Society London, 2012

James Cassius Williamson: A Musical and Theatrical Legacy


Rare Music has a magnificent collection of Concert and Theatre Programs including a compilation of J.C. Williamson programs covering opera, drama, comedy theatre, musical, ballet and Gilbert & Sullivan. The collection provides a wealth of research material for anyone interested in the history of theatre in Australia. The précis of Williamson and the collection here intends to stimulate curiosity and establish the historical significance of the compilation in the annals of theatre in Australia.

James Cassius Williamson (1845–1913), actor and manager, and his actress wife, Maggie Moore came to Australia from America in 1874, with a new play called Struck Oil. The play’s huge financial success was to lay the foundation for the couple. They toured the play in India, England and America and returned to Australia in 1879 to form the Royal Comic Opera Company. They also returned with the rights of the Gilbert & Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore and contracts for succeeding works by the duo. They gave their opening performance of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on 15 November 1879, both of them playing leading roles. This performance reflected Williamson’s innovativeness in modernising the Australian stage, producing stage shows that reflected the life of the time. Rather than reproduce Shakespearean drama—16th century “characters in doublet and hose”—“he brought [the stage] into intimate relation with the lives of plain people”. 1) To fill the roles Williamson brought out stars from America and England, but encouraged local talent when he could find it.


J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd was established in 1879 by Williamson in partnership with George Musgrove and Arthur Garner. They became known as “The Triumvirate”. Their theatres included: Her Majesty’s, Melbourne; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne; Empire Theatre, Sydney; Theatre Royal, Sydney; His Majesty’s Brisbane; Theatre Royal, Adelaide; His Majesty’s Theatre, Auckland; Grand Opera House, Wellington; Theatre Royal, Christchurch. By 1911 J.C. Williamson’s Theatre Ltd had become known as “The Firm”. There were many variations to the partnership over the succeeding years. 2)tittell-brune-jcw

The Concert and Theatre program collection encompasses theatre and drama beginning with a 1906 souvenir of Miss Tittell Brune as “Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall” (Box 103 a). IMAGE?? Twenty-five years after the death of Williamson—and, I imagine, to his chagrin—there was a resurgence in Shakespearean plays, performed by international companies such as: John Alden Company (Box 103 c); The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company (Box 103 b); The Old Vic Company featuring Katherine Hepburn and Robert Helpmann (Box 103 e); and The Royal Shakespeare Company featuring Judi Dench (Box 103 j). Australian plays such as Peter Scriven’s Tintookies (Box 103 f), however, were also promoted.


On 28 April 28 1928 the doors opened at The Comedy Theatre, on the historic site of The Iron Pot “bring[ing] to fruition…. an intimate theatre … form[ing] the coping stone of the worldwide organisation of J. C. Williamson Ltd …” 3) Performances ranged from solo artists such as Maurice Chevalier (Box 104 b) to plays like A Streetcar Named Desire (Box 104 d) and Australian productions as Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Box 104 f). The opera collection also encompasses The Melba Grand Opera Season of 1911 (Box 105 a), which was touted as the greatest musical occasion in the history of Australia. The Quinlan Grand Opera Season (Box 105 b–c) followed in 1912–13. The Williamson & Dame Nellie Melba Grand Opera Seasons of 1924 and 1928 (Box 105 d–g) included the 1924 farewell performance of Melba in La Boheme (Box 105 f). Further opera collaborations were formed from 1948–58. A major landmark in the establishment of opera in Australia was in 1965 with the return of Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge and the formation of the Sutherland/Williamson Grand Opera Company (Box 107).jcw-pavlova

J.C. Williamson Ltd has been instrumental in presenting some of the world’s greatest ballet dancers to the Australian public. In 1913 Adeline Genee’s company was the first to perform. Along with Pavlova’s seasons of 1926 and 1928 (Box 112 a) they laid the foundations for the development of ballet in Australia. Many international acts followed and on 8 May 1939 Edouard Borovansky established his Dancing Academy in Melbourne; coincidentally World War II provided an opportunity to train Australian dancers. The Borovansky Australian Ballet had its first season at The Comedy Theatre from 9 December 1940 (Box 11 a). After the death of Borovansky, The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in a joint venture with J. C. Williamson Ltd formed The Australian Ballet. It began its inaugural season in Sydney on 2 November 1962 (Box 11 h).jcw-ballet-sainthill-design-de-basil-copy

Her Majesty’s Theatre (Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney) was the home for numerous musical productions from The Maid of the Mountains (Box 108 a [1921]) to La Cage Aux Folles (Box 109 e [1984]). Musicals are still a major part of the cultural fabric of the theatre scene in Australia. Her Majesty’s was also the backdrop for many Gilbert & Sullivan productions (Box 110).


Williamson’s success can be found in his middle-class background, which gave him an understanding of what the public wanted to see; his very popular actress wife was also influential in the company’s triumph. Williamson’s theatrical legacy has significant cogency in the history of cultural production in Australia and New Zealand. His legacy transverses the worlds of drama, ballet, opera, comedy and musical. This historical overview endeavours to entice the reader to find out more by visiting Concert and Theatre Programs listings online.

  1. Elizabethan Trust News: J. C. Williamson’s Theatres Ltd. Centenary Year 1974 (July 1974) p. 4–5 (Box 96 k).
  2. “The History of the Firm” in The Royal Ballet [1959] (Box 112 e).
  3. Opening Souvenir Comedy Theatre [28th April 1928] (Box 104 a).

Dr Nigel Abbott

Nigel has worked on the Concert and Theatre Programs collection as a volunteer since 2012, developing and listing the collection, which now numbers well over one hundred boxes.

New website: ‘Teaching with unique collections’

Ever wondered what you could do with Shakespeare’s second folio and a bamboo pipe? These and many more objects along with innovative learning ideas are presented on a new website: Teaching with unique collections .  Made possible with a Melbourne Engagement Grant, the website provides resources, an online showcase, and a virtual setting for teaching and learning in many disciplines.

The university’s unique collections are dynamic resources brimming with opportunity to enhance student engagement, in particular, through the incorporation of object-based learning within coursework subjects. These learning opportunities range from analysing a work of art first hand to more surprising encounters, such as music to operate by.

The website features objects, books, manuscripts, works of art and other items from the university’s Prints, Rare Books and Rare Music collections, Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne Archives and Ian Potter Museum of Art. Visitors will also find information and ideas about some of the intriguing objects reproduced on the façade of the dynamic new, and object-based learning focused Arts West building.

Showcasing six objects

Kava spoon

Kava spoon, Grainger Museum
This spoon carved out of a coconut shell is of Melanesian origin, probably from the island of Papua. It is one of many ethnographic items acquired by the Australian-born composer, pianist and conductor Percy Grainger (1882–1961) over his lifetime. It could be used to investigate the drugs, such as the potent kava drink, that shaped society.

Figurine of a horse and rider

Figurine of horse and rider, Cypriot, Ian Potter Museum of Art
This equestrian figure may come from Agios Iakavos, a village in north-eastern Cyprus, and is decorated with an abstract bichrome (two-colour) pattern. One intriguing aspect of its appeal is the uncertainty of its precise function. What does it reveal about ancient life, and the afterlife?

The goldweigher

The gold weigher, by William Baillie, Baillieu Library Print Collection
Jan Uytenbogaert was the Dutch receiver-general or tax collector. It is likely that Rembrandt knew Uytenbogaert, who helped the artist secure payments for his art. Rembrandt was working during a time of flourishing trade and expanding colonial possessions, fuelled by unrivalled sea power; it was the Dutch golden age. This print can be used to illustrate financial and economic concepts such as demand, supply, and market forces.

Bamboo pipes

Bamboo pipes, Rare Music Collection
In England and France during the 1920s and 1930s there arose a pipe music education movement, which aimed to involve children in making musical instruments in class and then playing them. The movement overlapped with the Great Depression and offered an innovative and inexpensive entry into music performance. Pipes could be made using cheap materials and they offer the opportunity to develop skills for both music and health.

Grammar of ornament

The grammar of ornament, by Owen Jones Rare Books Collection
The grammar of ornament is a decorative arts source book of almost encyclopaedic scope. It gathers together ornamental designs from vastly different eras, places and cultures and has influenced many artists and architects. Designs are vividly reproduced in 100 chromolithograph plates, an innovative colour process perfected in the 19th century. It may be used to analyse buildings, places and architectural images.


Corroboree, by Tommy McRae, University of Melbourne Archives
Tommy McRae, an Indigenous artist of the Kwat Kwat people, was born near Wahgunyah in north-eastern Victoria. As well as working as a stockman, he was a prolific draftsman, filling his sketchbooks with narrative images such as Corroboree (c.1890). The drawing encourages discussion into materials and motifs in Australian art.

These are just a few of the inspiring objects and ideas to be explored on the website Teaching with unique collections http://library.unimelb.edu.au/teachingobjects.

Zodiac Man: a time capsule of weather prophecies, health predictions and popular culture in a 1616 almanac

Library catalogue entry: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b2889861

If the mobile phone has become the essential life accessory of the 21st century, the almanac can be considered the indispensable accoutrement of the early modern period, reaching an apex of popular appeal in a ‘golden age’ of the 1640s.  These annual calendars, which were published prolifically from late medieval times to the 18th century, provided cosmic guidance on the events of the year ahead – how to act, make decisions, cure diseases, solve misfortunes – according to the most propitious alignments of the heavens.

The moon’s aspect in relation to the major planets, for instance, would influence which days were best for hiring servants, beginning journeys and seeking the love of women, whilst others were fortuitous for repairing houses, putting on new clothes and conversing with old men. In an age where death and disaster were an everyday feature of life, to be without an almanac to supply forward navigation through the year could put you at risk of unseen misfortunes and potential catastrophes.  What better to have forewarning at the year’s outset, so that you could prepare for and steer a course around impending calamities.

Library catalogue entry: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b2889861A fiercely competitive publishing market developed for both general and specialist almanacs, the former printed for an avid reading public and the latter for targeted audiences such as farmers, sailors, clergymen and for particular regional areas. Mainly produced as small pocket-sized booklets which could be carried and stored for ready consultation whether at home or on the road, almanacs were also issued as wall charts in sheet form.  To minimise production costs and maximise profits, predictions and remedies contained in almanacs were necessarily short and to the point, and information was presented without detailed explanation.

An early almanac in the Rare Books Collection, A concordancy for the yeares (1616) explaining ‘the infortunate and fatall dayes of the yeare, as also of the good and happy dayes’ was written by a respected Hertfordshire astrologer Arthur Hopcroft (1588?-1614).[i]  Part astronomy, part astrology, the predictions contained in almanacs reflected a world view in which cosmology and the physical universe were harmoniously intertwined and with divinity and the workings of God.

Close reading of this pocket-sized handbook provides a fascinating encounter with a mini 400 year old time capsule, evoking the thoughts and preoccupations of the period in which it was produced. Hopcroft’s astrological calendar for October 1616 portends that the 5th will prove unhappy but the 3rd, 16th, 24th would be ‘not to bad’.  By far the most perilous month of the year would be January with eight unfortunate days and no happy ones.  Actions to be avoided on unhappy days included the beginning of ‘wordly affairs, giving birth, or being bled’.

Zodiac Man

An essential element in popular almanacs was the Zodiac Man, who was pictured prominently with the 12 astrological signs around him, each governing a different body region. Inhabitants of the early modern world had a heightened awareness of the relationship between celestial bodies and the human form.  Ill-favoured planetary alignments would result in illnesses in certain regions of the anatomy, as well as provoking calamitous events such as plagues and other natural disasters.

Library catalogue entry: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b2889861

The relative positions of the celestial bodies when a patient first became ill were very important in diagnosis and treatment – often given more weight than actual symptoms – and the Zodiac Man helped explain and reinforce the most propitious remedies. A poem from a contemporary almanac explains the powers of each sign:

[Aries] The Ramme doth rule the head and face:

[Taurus] The Necke and Throat is Taurus’s place.

[Gemini] The Twinnes the Armes and Shoulders guide:

[Cancer] The Crab the Breast, the Spleene and side.

[Aquarius] The legges T’Aquarius doth fall:

[Pisces] And Feete to Pisces last of all.

[Leo] The Heart and Back’s hold Leo’s share:

[Virgo] Of Belly and Bowels the maid takes care.

[Libra] To Libra Reines and Loynes belong:

[Scorpio] The Secrets to the Scorpion.

[Sagittarius] The thighs the Archer doth direct:

[Capricorn] And Capricorne the knees protect.[ii]

The region of the knees were at most risk in January when Capricorn was dominant in the skies, whilst persons born under the sign of Aries were more prone to diseases of the head and face ‘such as head-aches, tooth-aches, migraines, pimples and small pox’.[iii]

Gradually as new scientific knowledge increased and faith in old beliefs lost their sway over the shared imagination, parodies of some of the more outlandish forecasts of almanacs began to appear. The Owles Almanack of 1618 predicted drolly that ‘the best time to fell timber was when one needed a good fire, and to cut hair when it is too long’, listed amusing sinners days as well as saints days, and included witty chronologies ‘commemorating the farmer who tried to teach his cow rope-dancing, and the gentleman who bought a periwig for his magpie’.[iv]  Later in the century after dining out on Friday 14th June 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary ‘thence we read and laughed at Lilly’s prophecies this month, in his Almanack this year!’

Despite Hopcroft’s own respected astrological credentials, he himself was to meet an untimely demise in his 26th year in the London parish of St Dunstan’s.  Although the circumstances of his death remain unrecorded, we can only hope that he was able to find amelioration and guidance from the predictions he made in his concordances.

Library catalogue entry: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b2889861Library catalogue entry: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b2889861

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Bibliography and further reading:

Hopcroft, Arthur. A concordancy of yeares: containing a new, easie, and most exact computation of time, according to the English account. Also the vse of the English and Roman kalender, with briefe notes, rules, and tables, as well mathematicall and legal, as vulgar, for each priuate mans occasion. Newly composed, digested and augmented by Arthur Hopton, gentleman. [London] : Printed [by Nicholas Okes] for the Company of Stationers, 1616.

Bertelsen, Lance. ‘Popular entertainment and instruction, literary and dramatic : chapbooks, advice books, almanacs, ballads, farces, pantomimes, prints and shows’ in John Richetti (ed.) The Cambridge history of English literature, 1660-1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Capp, B. S. (Bernard S.) Astrology and the popular press: English almanacs, 1500-1800. London : Faber, 1979.

Curth, Louise Hill. English almanacs, astrology and popular medicine : 1550-1700. Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2007.


[i] Hopcroft, Arthur. A concordancy of yeares… [London] : Printed [by Nicholas Okes] for the Company of Stationers, 1616.

[ii] Curth, Louise Hill. English almanacs, astrology and popular medicine : 1550-1700. p.121

[iii] Op cit, p.123

[iv] Capp, B. S. Astrology and the popular press: English almanacs, 1500-1800, p. 251



The interaction of art and science in the Print Collection

Working at the University of Melbourne’s Print Collection as part of the 2016 International Museum and Collections Award was like entering a veritable Aladdin’s cave of riches for a recent Art History Graduate like me.  Although the shelves are stacked with plenty of treasures for me to feast my eyes on, I was particularly struck by The Reward of Cruelty which is part of a series of four engravings entitled ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ by William Hogarth and was published in 1751.

William Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty, 1751, engraving, plate: 38.8 x 31.8 cm, Purchased, 1995, Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne.

I was familiar with both Hogarth’s Gin Lane and A Harlot’s Progress with their satire of English 18th century life and their motive to serve as a warning to the lower classes. Each image is clearly designed to emphasis morals (or the absence thereof) and demonstrates the downfall of those who spend their lives courting vice, whether through drinking, prostitution or gambling.
In one sense, The Reward of Cruelty can be seen in a similar vein, offering a deterrent to those who may choose a life of criminality by highlighting the consequences—ultimately, a public execution and a body which will be dissected and thus denied a Christian burial and place in the afterlife.

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751, engraving, image: 35.3 x 30.2cm, Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton, 1959, Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne.

William Hogarth, Apprehended by a magistrate, (1732), engraving, plate: 22.7 x 37.9cm, Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton, 1959, Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne.

Yet this image is macabre and perhaps propagandistic to the extreme, suggesting not only an undignified end to those who submit to a life of crime but also demonstrating the then popular suspicion of surgeons and a distaste for this practice of anatomisation.

Here the dissectors at hand are portrayed as vultures surrounding a carcass, quick to begin their preparations despite the fact the hangman’s noose has not yet been removed from the body, thereby signalling that their subject may in fact still be alive. They are devoid of humanity or caring and the crowds suggest this public spectacle is one of entertainment rather than to further the pursuit of medical knowledge. Hogarth succeeds in not only creating a grim warning that plays upon the steadfast religious attitudes of the era but also an image which demonstrates public distrust of contemporary medical advancements.

This contrasts vividly with another print in the collection: that of Johannes Pieter de Frey’s etching after Rembrandt The anatomy lesson (1798). In this image the surgeons seem more focused upon the book in front of them rather than the cadaver; they appear scholarly and sensible, studying their text instead of launching into the dissection. The composition of the print draws parallels with the motif of the depiction of the lamentation of Christ and emphasises that although this body is also of a criminal denied a Christian burial, this sacrifice is necessary for the furthering of scientific knowledge.

Johannes Pieter de Frey after Rembrandt van Rijn, The anatomy lesson, (1789), etching, image: 28.1 x 36.2 cm, Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton, 1959, Baillieu Library Print Collection, the University of Melbourne.

It is this intersection between both art and science that can be traced throughout these prints and offers a different way of contemplating this collection.
These prints, alongside many other examples by artists such as Claude Lorrain, Francisco De Goya and Rembrandt, are available to study and view on request in the Baillieu Library Reading Room.

To learn more about the Museums and Collections Award please see:
Emily Robins – intern at University of Melbourne’s Collections
International Museums and Collections Award

For further reading please see:
Fiona Haslam, From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-century Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996

Emily Robins
International Museums and Collections Award Recipient 2016

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