Inside the Collection

Celebrating an 80 year old coathanger

Sydney Harbour Bridge from Dawes Point
Sydney Harbour Bridge from Dawes Point, Photography Jean -Francois Lanzarone Powerhouse Museum

What’s the fuss you say?

Well today is the birthday of an Australian icon, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, fondly known as the coathanger. Now eighty years old the Bridge has become a symbol of Sydney and of Australia, its arch shaped structure adding definition to the beautiful harbour and inspiring songs, artworks, photographs and poems like this one by Dorothy Auchterlonie’s (Green) 1940 poem Kaleidoscope:

Twinkle Twinkle little stars
On a million motor- cars
Along the Harbour Bridge so high
Like a coat-hanger in the sky

When the Bridge was formally opened on Saturday, 19 March 1932 the ceremony went awry. Labor Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang was about to open the bridge by cutting a ribbon at its southern end. As Lang was about to cut the ribbon, a man in military uniform rode in on a horse, slashing the ribbon with his sword and opening the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the name of the people of New South Wales before the official ceremony began. He was promptly arrested.
The ribbon was hurriedly retied and Lang performed the official opening ceremony. The intruder was identified as Francis De Groot. He was convicted of offensive behaviour and fined £5 after a psychiatric test proved he was sane. He was a member of a right-wing paramilitary group called the New Guard opposed to Lang’s leftist policies and resentful of the fact that a member of the Royal Family had not been asked to open the bridge.

Captain de Groot under arrest and being escorted away at opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge 1932
Captain de Groot under arrest and being escorted away at opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, 19 March 1932″ Gift of Mrs Della Elliott and Miss E M Bowker, 2005 Collection Powerhouse Museum

This photograph showing the arrest is from the album of Eileen Marjorie Bowker, secretary to J.J.C. Bradfield, during the construction of the Bridge which he planned as Chief Govt Engineer for NSW.

In 1815 Francis Greenway had proposed building a bridge from the northern to the southern shore of the harbour. It wasn’t until after World War I that more serious plans started.
A general design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge prepared by Chief Govt Engineer for NSW, Dr J J C Bradfield and officers of the NSW Department of Public Works. The New South Wales Government then invited worldwide tenders for the construction of the Bridge in 1922 and the contract was let to English firm Dorman Long and Co of Middlesbrough. The Sydney Harbour Bridge construction started in 1924 and took 1,400 men eight years to build at a cost of £4.2 million. Six million hand driven rivets and 53,000 tonnes of steel were used in its construction. It now carries eight traffic lanes and two rail lines, one in each direction.

The Museum has a broad collection of objects linked to the Bridge opening on 18th March 1932 including this commemorative booklet with photographs by Harold Carzneaux featured below.

The Bridge Book cover 1930
95/115/2 Booklet, `The Bridge Book’, paper, Harold Cazneaux/Sydney Ure Smith, Australia, 1930. Collection Powerhouse Museum

At the Harbour Bridge’s 75th anniversary a major community celebration took place
including lighting of the bridge at sunset. 200,000 people registered by e-mail to walk across the Bridge, which was closed to traffic from 4am to 10.30pm.

Nigel Levings and Mark Hammer Design for 'Our Bridge' lighting proposal
2008/36/9 Design for ‘Our Bridge’ lighting proposal, second draft, paper / foam core, designed by Nigel Levings and Mark Hammer,75th Anniversary of Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia, 2007
'Sydney Harbour Bridge' model made of shell / fabric, by Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan 1986
Model, ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’, shell / fabric, made by Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan, La Perouse, Australia, 1986

A range of bridge inspired art and decorative art has been created over the 80 years of the bridge’s existence including this remarkable shell work. Made by sisters Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan who began making and selling shellwork when they were children. Their family sold shell wares at the Royal Easter Show and Paddy’s Markets during the 1920s. Mrs Longbottom described the work as ‘a very hard business. We used to have to go to Kurnell in the ferry and walk from there to Cronulla to get the shells. My father used to carry sugar bags full of shells back to Kurnell’. Shellwork has been sold to Europeans for over a century. The craft, which continues today, was introduced by missionaries. Records show that by the 1880s Aboriginal women were selling shell baskets at Circular Quay and La Perouse. Today, women decorate a variety of contemporary tourist icons, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Although not a traditional Indigenous art form, the skill of shellworking has often been handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter.

Recently the Bridge has inspired another artwork this time by lace maker, Alice Vokac who was inspired by an image of the Harbour Bridge she said:

I found a photo of the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, the day De Groot beat the Premier of New South Wales by galloping past on his horse with a sword to cut the ribbon. The image fascinated me. The overwhelming steel structure hooked me completely. It suited the technique of lace making so perfectly.

'First Day Wonder' bobbin lace, by Alice Vokac
Love Lace loan: L4727/1 Artwork, ‘First Day Wonder’, bobbin lace, by Alice Vokac, Australia, 2010

This work is on display until April 2013 in the Love Lace exhibition at the Museum, the exhibition curator Lindie Ward describes the Harbour Bridge as “Sydney’s best loved open work structure”.

Australian Dictionary of Biography
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