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Curator Q&A

A quick Q&A with Shaping Australian Gardens curators Sarah Morley & Richard Aitken

A man and woman, wearing gloves, stand in front of a light box looking at slides.

Shaping Australian Gardens curators, Sarah Morley & Richard Aitken

What’s your favourite story in the exhibition?

Richard:  I’m really intrigued by the diary of James Jones and the stories it contains. Jones migrated to Australia where he enjoyed a substantial career in the late 19th century designing public gardens across NSW. His planting dreams had been fired by training in the gardens of Paris during the 1860s, a period when these were amongst the most innovative and impressive in the world. Jones kept a daily diary recording his experiences, but much of it is in shorthand. Was he pressed for time, or did he have secrets?

Sarah:  I love the Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening by Humphrey Repton. It’s a flap book from 1795! Repton was an 18th-century landscape designer who published books on garden design. He produced finely illustrated books using watercolour and aquatints to sell his landscape ideas to prospective clients. He creatively used the flaps to show before and after views.

In developing the exhibition, what has surprised or captivated you most; what did you discover that you didn’t expect or know?

Sarah: Working on this exhibition with Richard has given me the opportunity to delve deeper into our Rare Books collection. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring our herbals, for their form as much as their content. They are wonderful examples of illustration in early printing.

Another item that caught my attention was Panoramic View of King Georges Sound, part of the Colony of Swan River, 1834 by Robert Dale. It’s not the longest panorama in the exhibition, however I was captivated by its sheer length; it’s a 275 cm long, hand-coloured aquatint and is rolled on an ornate wooden scroll.

Richard:  I’m totally beguiled by a large etching by a really talented contemporary artist, Robyn Mayo. It just wasn’t the sort of work I thought would be held by the State Library. Robyn travelled to England to view dried plant specimens collected in the late 1600s by William Dampier and in 1770 by Joseph Banks, and she has rendered these like a giant abstract still life, the specimens strewn across the sheet. In an exhibition that celebrates the 200th birthday of our neighbour, the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, this work seems like a perfect fusion of science and art, rather like a miniature botanic garden.

What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

Richard: Visitors will probably be surprised that the Library holds such a fine collection of works on gardens, and so I hope the richness of the display marries with the popularity of the subject matter to conjure a memorable experience. I want to see and hear groups of visitors engaging with the works and with each other in ways that start conversations about our cultural traditions. I want visitors to understand that gardens are an integral part of our social fabric and that they transcend many boundaries. Garden making is a universal pursuit and I hope Planting Dreams will enable visitors to go forth seeking inspiration from plants and gardens.

Sarah: This exhibition shows the breadth and depth of our collection and shows that we collect more than just books. I hope that visitors are pleasantly surprised at the range of items on display, from seed catalogues and slides to rare books and large-scale oil paintings. Gardens and gardening are for everyone, and, regardless of where your interests lie, there is something in this exhibition for you.

Richard's new book  Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens is one sale in the Library shop.