Collecting things is one of the most popular pastimes in the world. Just about everyone has collected something at one stage or another-stamps, coins, art, toys, bottles, books, pencils, you name it and someone has collected it. And this is not a new phenomenon it’s been going on since there were more than two of the same things to have. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as the British extended their empire across the globe and the ideas of the enlightenment permeated the culture.
The ‘discovery’ of Australia by Europeans and in particular the arrival of the British in 1788 opened up a whole new and exotic continent to the collectors. New and curious plants, animals, fish and insects were dazzling the eyes of amateur and scientific collectors alike. Indeed collecting was responsible for the naming of one of Sydney’s harbours-Botany Bay named by Joseph Banks in recognition of the array of new botanical species discovered here.
By the 1810s collecting Australian specimens and returning them to England for sale or study was a well established business. Indeed Australian flora and fauna had become a kind of currency for favours, with antipodean settlers sending kangaroos, emus, black swans and other marvels back to England as gifts for patronage.
Collecting chests were being made in the colony on rough and finished form to house the collections and every explorer carried one. Amongst those who owned such a chest was the Governor himself, Lachlan Macquarie.
Macquarie’s chest is a glorious thing. Made of cedar wood with brass inlaid handles and hinges, it opens to reveal beautiful painted panels depicting colonial scenes around Newcastle and landscapes with birds and animals in them with drawers full of birds, insects, shells and seaweeds.
The paintings give a hint to its origin-Newcastle. The chest was made for the Governor by the Commandant of the Newcastle Penal Station, Captain James Wallis (or at least by his convict artisans).
In 1822 when Macquarie and his family returned to England the chest went with him and effectively disappeared from view until the early 1970s. Rediscovered amongst the collection in a Scottish castle, where it had been held since 1845 as part of debt payment by Macquarie’s son, the chest was finally purchased at auction by an Australian dealer and in 2004 purchased by Mitchell Library.
Amazingly, Mitchell had another chest of practically the same design which had been in its collection since the 1930s. Virtually the same paintings are on the panels of both chests but the Macquarie chest retains its collection, whereas the other is all but empty.
The Macquarie Chest is now on display at Mitchell Library as part of The Governor exhibition. It is a unique piece of Australian colonial furniture and colonial history and I would urge you to get there and have a look at it.
You are unlikely to see anything quite like it again.