Eating in a restaurant last week, I overheard some locals tell a French tourist that Sydney had no history compared to Paris and not much to see as a tourist except the beaches, harbour and other natural wonders.

Not surprisingly I disagree.  Not only does Sydney have a fascinating, complex and surprising history it also has plenty of French connections.

One of these is the French revolutionary artist, Lucien Henry.  Although he had only a brief Sydney residency, he left an artistic legacy that shaped Sydney’s architectural and decorative landscape.

Lucien made his way to Sydney in 1879 via 7 years of political exile in New Caledonia, where he had been sent following the failed 1871 Paris Commune.  The Commune was brutally put down by the French army after a ten week struggle with over 30,000 killed and 10,000 arrested.  Of these, 5000 were exiled as convicts to the South Pacific.

Lucien Henry after his arrest in Paris, 1871

Granted amnesty after 7 years, Lucien decided to come to Sydney, possibly following his heart, as he married fellow exile Madame Juliet Rastoul in late 1879, six months after he arrived.  Rastoul was already well placed in Sydney society and helped Lucien establish himself as an art tutor.

Lucien arrived in Sydney just as a new sense of national identity was developing.  As the centenary of European settlement was approaching, a stirring of national pride and of NSW’s place in the nation state was building.

Lucien, bringing a revolutionaries perspective to his art, and fascinated by the wild design potential of Australian flora such as the waratah and animals like the lyrebird, set out to develop a distinctive Australian artistic style using these influences.

Lecturing at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts and being the 1st Instructor of Art at the new Sydney Technical College gave Lucien a platform for his ideas.   His manifesto included the belief that the state should provide a technical education to the people that would benefit the community as a whole rather than just a pleasant pastime or an accomplishment for the individual alone.

In the late 1880s, Lucien turned his attention to a major publication, Australian Decorative Arts, with 100 plates and illustrations he hoped would form a basis for a National School or style.  The book included ideas for wallpaper, architectural features for houses, cast iron, furniture, decorative arts, lamps, tiles, mirrors and all sorts of public and private styles featuring Australian plants and animals.

During this period he was also commissioned for a number of major commercial and public buildings, including the new hydraulic passenger lift cars in Anthony Horden’s emporium, the decorative Wunderlich ceiling of the Australia Hotel and the stained glass windows of the Centennial Hall of the Sydney Town Hall.

Waratah, Lucien Henry 1887. Art Gallery of NSW collection.

The two windows of the Town Hall represent Captain Cook on board ship in one and an allegorical figure of NSW.  These windows remain as the only example of his public commissions but also represent the culmination of his design principals.  The windows are chock full of symbolism, Australian fauna and Lucien’s revolutionary republicanism.  The figure of NSW is flanked by the words Advance Australia, placing NSW at the centre of the growing federation movement and celebrating a political identity that did not yet exist: a single Australian nation.  To top it off, the figure is standing on a globe with Oceania written across it, placing Australia at the centre of regional power, not the imperial powers of Britain or France.

In 1891 Lucien returned to Paris to promote the publication of his Australian Decorative Arts.  However, failure to gain a publisher coupled with a bankruptcy case in Australia, the collapse of his marriage and then the death of his new lover in childbirth all culminated to break Lucien’s spirit.  He decided not to return to Australia, fearing the criticism and ridicule, instead living amongst the poor of Paris under a pseudonym where he died from consumption in March 1896.

Sydney’s history then may not be as obvious as the grand palaces and galleries of Paris, but it’s not that hard to see if you look.

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