Sydney Harbour through the eyes of her artists

Sydney Harbour in all its glittering beauty can itself be considered a natural work of art. The harbour has been celebrated by generations of Australian artists from its original indigenous artists to poets, painters and photographers as muse, subject and playground. Join us on a tour through Sydney Harbour's rich artistic heritage.

The ferry growled up to the wharf, and the deckhand readied herself with the rope to lasso the post. Several tourists clicked away furiously on their cameras, watching her with fascination. The ferry secured, the deckhand bowed theatrically to the crowd.

“I love this job,” she said, rushing along the deck to roll out the gang plank for the passengers.

On the wharf, two fishermen watched their lines disappearing into the deep, diesel green water. A bream splashed frantically in a plastic bucket beside them. “Nice fish,” the deckhand said, craning her neck for a better look.

“Yep, that’s dinner sorted,” nodded one of the fishermen.

The whole scene was bookended by the grinning maw of Luna Park to one side, and the sweeping grey curve of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the other.

Lavender Bay

Sydney artist Peter Kingston has been painting this stretch of the harbour and her ferries for the best part of 40 years. He has an enviable water view through the cabbage palms from the studio of his sprawling Federation home at Lavender Bay, where he has lived since 1973.

“I’m attracted to the relationship between the finger wharves, the Opera House and the bridge, and the way the ferries connect them all together,” say Kingston.

Seeing Sydney Harbour through the eyes of the artists and photographers who have painted her, provides a unique insight into arguably the world’s most famous body of water, and one that never fails to inspire.

Kingston finds the muse in the iconic yellow and green Sydney ferries that move back and forth across the harbour’s silvery skin. To him, the definition of luxury is simply having the time to just sit and contemplate these fabulous boats.

“My favourite ferries are the last two remaining vessels of the Lady Class; the Lady Northcott and the Lady Herron; they are like big shoeboxes, they’re the most wonderful looking things,” he says.
Jacaranda Tree by Brett Whitley which features Lavender Bay

© AGNSW, Jacaranda Tree by Brett Whitley which features Lavender Bay

Wendy Whiteley's secret garden at Lavender Bay

Wendy Whiteley's secret garden at Lavender Bay

Lavender Bay

Lavender Bay

Kingston says he was fortunate enough to have grown up near the harbour, having been born at Parsley Bay in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. “I’ve always loved the harbour, there’s just something so magical about it.”

Several years ago, Kingston himself played a part in that magic creating a foreshore walk, featuring bronze sculptures of classic Australian cartoon characters. One of Sydney’s best kept secrets, The Peter Kingston Walkway meanders along the harbour fringe at Lavender Bay, where Blinky Bill, Ginger Megs, The Phantom and Boofhead peer cheekily from the foliage.

Lavender Bay holds one more secret and it’s all thanks to Kingston’s next door neighbour Wendy Whiteley. The former wife of award-winning artist Brett Whiteley (who created one of the greatest ever paintings of Sydney Harbour, The Balcony II, 1975) has devoted more than a decade to her ‘Secret Garden’; a labyrinth of vine-draped pathways, sandstone outcrops and mossy picnic nooks, right beside the harbour. Best of all, it’s free for everyone to visit.

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Still on the north side, it’s lovely to take a stroll and grab a coffee in the little red-brick village of Kirribilli; location of the Prime Minister’s Sydney home, and from where artist Grace Cossington-Smith daubed her now famous image The Curve of the Bridge (1928-29).

Painted at a time when the Sydney Harbour Bridge was still under construction, the worksite depicted by Cossington-Smith beneath the bridge is now a popular spot for couples and families; an emerald lawn punctuated by the massive granite pylons that hold up the roadway above.

From the moment the first rivet was driven home, the bridge has been a magnet for artists, attracted to its grey industrial aesthetic, juxtaposed against the shimmering ultramarine harbour below. Photographers have long been enamoured with the bridge’s geometry, with everyone from Henri Mallard (The Sydney Harbour Bridge in Construction, 1928/29) to the great Harold Cazneaux (Opening Night of Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1932) have filled their lens with the hulking mass of the coathanger.

The curve of the bridge by Grace Cossington Smith, 1928 and comparison
© AGNSW, The curve of the bridge by Grace Cossington Smith, 1928 and comparison

One of Australia’s most famous photographers, Max Dupain, snapped a classic black and white view of the city in his Sydney from Harbour Bridge Pylon, 1938. It’s a little known fact that the public can enjoy the same vantage point as Dupain, and score a ripping view of the city for the price of a couple of cups of coffee.

The South Pylon Lookout is one of those hidden gems that even most Sydneysiders don’t know about. Entry is very reasonable ($13 for adults, $8.50 concession, $6.50 for kids over 4), plus you’ll get fit climbing the 200 stairs that take you 87 metres above sea level. On the way to the top there are three levels of exhibits concerning the history and construction of the bridge, the men who built her, and the vision of chief engineer JJC Bradfield. On a clear day there’s no better place to be in Sydney and even the most worldly traveller can’t fail to be impressed.

Cremorne Point

Continuing eastwards from Kirribilli is Cremorne Point, where impressionist landscape artist Arthur Streeton, painted Cremorne Pastoral, 1895. Streeton moved to Sydney in the late 19th century and established an artist’s camp at Mosman where he produced such works as From my camp (Sirius Cove), 1896.

Thankfully much of the foreshore where Streeton painted is now part of the 392 hectare Sydney Harbour National Park; a protected area that encompasses much of the headlands and numerous harbour islands. If Sydneysiders can be proud of just one thing, it’s that the largest city in the nation exhibits such an empathetic attitude to its stunning flora and fauna. No major metropolis on the planet can boast such a diverse natural environment so close to their CBD.

Cremorne Point alone can be traversed via a 2.7-kilometre circuit, winding through gardens and sections of native bushland that are relatively unchanged from the days when Streeton propped up his easel. Mosman is similarly well served by bushland walks and Streeton’s Sirius Cove is now a popular off-leash reserve for dog lovers.

From my camp (Sirius Cove) by Arthur Streeton, 1896 and comparison

© AGNSW, From my camp (Sirius Cove) by Arthur Streeton, 1896 and comparison

Sirius Cove where artist Arthur Streeton painted a scen

Sirius Cove where artist Arthur Streeton painted a scene

Circular Quay

Another area of the harbour that has long attracted artists is Circular Quay; the spot where the First Fleet established the fledgling colony of canvas tents back in 1788. One hundred years later impressionist painter Charles Conder made his impressive debut with the hoary-hued Departure of the Orient, 1888.

A decade hence Tom Roberts painted several scenes around the Quay including Circular Quay, 1899, and Circular Quay, 1900. While in 1925 Margaret Preston produced a hand-coloured woodcut print – Circular Quay, wistfully capturing the little wharves and ferries at a time when Sydney was still a stumpy sandstone city with less than a million residents, far from the worldly metropolis it is today.

Of course, these days Circular Quay is a much-loved destination for tourists, keen to catch a Manly ferry, or visit the nearby Rocks or the Sydney Opera House. For a touch of both culture and luxury the MCA Cafe on roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art has stunning, uninterrupted views of the Opera House and Circular Quay. It’s the perfect location for a bite to eat and a glass of wine as you take in the natural beauty of the Harbour.

Circular Quay by Tom Roberts, 1900

© AGNSW, Circular Quay by Tom Roberts, 1900

Circular Quay, 2016

Circular Quay, 2016

Watsons Bay

A ferry ride to Watsons Bay should be high on every visitor’s agenda. To whet the appetite, take a look at some of our early artists’ views of the area, such as Sydney Heads, 1865, by Eugene Von Guerard, or the more recent Morning Watsons Bay, 1964-67 by John Olsen in the Art Gallery of NSW.

Sydney Heads by Eugene von Guérard, 1865
© AGNSW, Sydney Heads by Eugene von Guérard, 1865

Watsons Bay started out as an isolated fishing village, far away from Sydney Town. When a tramline linked the area to the city in 1903, the area opened up to development and now boasts some of the most exclusive real estate in the nation, as well as some of Sydney’s finest seafood restaurants including Doyles on the Beach and Doyles on the Wharf, both of which have stunning views all the way down the Harbour to the Bridge.

A couple of bays around from Watsons Bay back towards the city is Double Bay. Several artists featured in the Art Gallery of NSW have been inspired by the beauty of the bay including Roland Wakelin and Thea Proctor. It is also the location of The InterContinental Double Bay which features a collection of modern artworks by established and pre-eminent Australian artists reflective of the hotels beautiful and exclusive bayside location. The collection includes paintings by Ningura Napurrula, John Peart, David Rankin and Jude Ray as well as iconic beach photography by Mark Johnson. The InterContinental Double Bay’s Rooftop bar, open to both guests and visitors, is also a wonderful place to experience the sweep of the Harbour with a champagne or cocktail in hand.

Of all the artists to have ever painted Sydney Harbour, none have captured her so enigmatically as Lloyd Rees. Works such as Old Boats Wollstonecraft, 1918; The harbour from McMahons Point, 1950; and Sydney, the Harbour and island, 1965; have become part of the national canon and are a constant source of fascination, especially when viewed from the same vantage points today. Take a visit to the Art Gallery of NSW and check them out, or better still, get down to the harbour, ride a ferry, and discover them for yourself.

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