Changing Faces

Oil painting looking down a city street toward a sandstone building with clock. A woman buys a newspaper from a vendor in the foreground.

DURATION: 2mins 50secs

Barrack Street, Sydney, 1942
by Roland Wakelin

oil on canvas
acquired 2016
ML 1486


I think the face of cities is constantly changing and that’s something that while we’re living in the city we perhaps don’t realise just how swiftly these changes can happen. One of the particularly interesting images that embraces this concept is the picture of the General Post Office tower in Martin Place on George Street. This building was built in the late part of the 19th century with a very tall clock tower because it was important for people in Sydney to be able to see what time it was, no matter where they were in the city. Watches actually kept very bad time in the 19th century, so people would actually use the clock tower and match against their own pocket watch, so it was an incredibly important landmark in the city.

During the Second World War there was the concern that the Japanese were targeting Sydney and targeting Australia. The first signs of this were the arrival in Sydney Harbour of midget submarines in May 1942. This immediately caused alarm with local authorities. They felt that the next stage might be aerial attack and that the tower of the GPO would be an absolute target so they immediately decided that they needed to dismantle the GPO tower.

But they still needed to keep the clock because people still needed to use the clock as a reference point. So the clock was removed from the tower and placed on the side of the building, as you see in the painting. What is particularly lovely about this painting as well is the fact that it gives you that sense of streetscape, of where you are - you’re coming out of Wynyard Station, you’re looking down Barrack Street. And Barrack Street’s a very narrow street and instead of being framed as a landscape, with sort of a horizontal plane, you’re given a portrait frame, a vertical plane, which enables you to take in that view down the narrow street to the tall profile of the GPO building and the process of the tower being dismantled.

So this is incredibly important as a painting because there are very few photographs recording this event. And it has slipped out of consciousness because even though the men who dismantled the tower spent a long time very carefully labelling each of the stones so that it could be reassembled, it took until the 1960s, it took 20 years, for that to actually happen. So there was a moment in time in Sydney, after the end of the Second World War, where the GPO clock tower wasn’t there. But luckily, with this beautiful painting by Roland Wakelin, we have that moment captured in colour. Black and white photographs, which would have documented this, take away the colour of that scene, the light in the morning, the rainy footpath, the bright cherry-coloured coat of the commuter as she ducks across the road to buy her newspaper on her way to work.