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Forging the Future

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Black and white oil painting. An interior of a foundry. Men with sledge hammers work on a large circular piece of metal on the floor.

DURATION: 4mins

The Atlas Works Sydney — making the first locomotive engine, 1881
by Arthur Collingridge
oil on canvas
presented 1920
ML 584

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Curator

I’ve always been interested in this painting because it is so different from many of the others in the library’s collection. For one thing, it’s in black and white, which is incredibly unusual for an oil painting. And it’s actually of an industrial scene, which is another thing that’s unusual. So, it actually shows the works that were located down in the Haymarket of the Atlas engineering company and it was painted in about 1880.

At that time, Australia and New South Wales were going through a railway boom. The train line was incredibly important for Australia. The first train line had opened from Redfern to Parramatta in the 1850s and all the trains that were running, all the engines had been created in England and then shipped out to Australia. But by the 1880s, the Premier, Henry Parkes, had decided that we really needed to build the trains in Australia. And so a government policy had been initiated that the next big contract had to be given to a Sydney company. So in 1879, 1880, the biggest railway contract that had ever been raised, which was for £160,000, was put to tender and the Atlas Engineering Works secured the contract. It was for 48 locomotives.

This painting is actually documenting the construction of those locomotives. You can see the heat, you can almost smell that kind of acrid smell of the smoke that would’ve been coming from that fire in the back corner as they’re smelting the cast iron. The fact that the artist has chosen this scene to document – I think he understood the power of seeing this. It would have been a very gritty scene, very much part of a modern life and the emerging city and progress and invention, excitement with technology, which was sort of happening at the end of the 19th century.

The artist -  a very interesting man. His name was Arthur Collingridge. He was born in England, but his family had moved to France not long after he was born. Arthur and his brother both went to the art school The Ecole des Beaux-Arts and both of them ended up working for illustrated newspapers in Paris. Then we have the Franco-Prussian War, so the family leaves Paris and they go to England. There the brothers both start working again in illustrated newspapers.

After the end of the Franco-Prussian War, France was in a depression; also Britain was going through a depression so they decided they would relocate to Australia. Arthur was one of the first, with his wife and three children. He immediately got work with the illustrated newspapers in Sydney.

Now Arthur and his brother George, they immediately brought with them a lot of new ways of thinking about art, because they’d been immersed in the arts community in Paris. And they wanted to share that with Australian artists. So quite early on, in 1880, they called together a meeting of Australian artists to create a new art society, because they thought that artists should really be the ones to decide how their work was exhibited and put on these exhibitions themselves and not to be driven by the clients.

So, the brothers, with other artists, 80 of the artists, set up this artist society of NSW and immediately began exhibiting. This was a perfect venue for them to actually be creating artworks like this and that’s exactly what happened.

Now the trains, as I say, was a contract from 1880 to 1881. They were delivered on time and on budget and there’s a fantastic article in the newspaper that describes the fact that they took the train on a short trip from Redfern to Parramatta and they declared that the trains had complied with the specifications.

And Collingridge’s picture was subsequently exhibited at the 1883 Art Society exhibition. And it was described in the Sydney Morning Herald by critics as a “very powerful study in black and white and much more expressive than any photograph can be.” And I think that’s a great point because this was a real tussle going on at the time between the evidentiary value of photography as opposed to the artistic power of painting.