It’s interesting when you look at paintings, because you often have to think, “Why did the artist choose to paint this particular scene?” The scene of the demolition in Pitt Street has multiple themes going on. At the time it was painted, in the early part of the 20th century, there was this idea that to make the city more modern, to make it keep pace with other cities around the world, that the old buildings from the past needed to be demolished to make way for the new. Sydney was going through rapid change, change of technology, there was change of industry and shifts in population, much as we’re seeing in Sydney today in the 21st century. And a side-effect of that, apart from bringing the transport lines into the city, which is going on now with the new Metro being built, the City Circle Line was being brought in to Sydney.
And the two paintings on either side of Norman Carter’s portrait of Demolition in Pitt Street document the scene at Wynyard Park during the construction of the City Circle Line. But Norman Carter’s view is focusing on the urban streetscape, and this is focusing around trying to turn the Sydney CBD into a modern place.
Martin Place wasn’t actually an open space at the beginning of the 20th century. You had the plaza, which was in front of the General Post Office, but everything above Pitt Street going up to Macquarie Street was a mixture of old 19th century houses and old buildings. And in planning for a grand plaza looking from Macquarie Street, the street of government, down to the GPO, that grand 19th century city edifice, they wanted to create this grand walkway for pedestrians to move up and down through the city. And to do that, there was this progressive series of demolitions. Sydney rang to the sound of sledgehammers and jackhammers and the crash of masonry and the smell of the dust and people walked the streets of Sydney hearing this absolute cacophony of noise around them. It’s quite extraordinary to see how a painting painted back in the 1920s can actually still have a lot of relevance for today.
But why did Norman Carter choose to paint the demolition of this particular building, because it gives the street number – it’s 76 Pitt Street? And there is a reason for this. Norman Carter was a very successful artist, he was a teacher at Sydney University and at the TAFE, and the reason he felt so, probably, quite emotional about the demolition of 76 Pitt Street was the fact that it had been previously known as Vickery’s Chambers, where he had actually rented a studio. It was also where he had taught life classes for the NSW Royal Society and also it was the home of the Society of Artists, which had its meeting rooms there, and where he was vice-president. So there were several reasons why he would’ve been probably quite nostalgic about the fact that this building had finally fallen victim to the sledgehammers.