Inside the Collection

The Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2019: still a sight for celebration

Black and white Photograph , dusk on Sydney Harbour Bridge taken from Kirribilli
Dusk on Sydney Harbour Bridge taken from Kirribilli, for  ‘Sydney. A Book of Photographs’, 35mm acetate film, Sydney, Australia, 1969. MAAS Collection 96/44/1-5/5/32 Photo: David Mist

At 87 years old the Sydney Harbour Bridge continues to be admired by artists. During its construction it was documented by photographers such as Harold Cazneaux and painters like Grace Cossington Smith. Now the Bridge has been interpreted by decorative and visual artists.

The Bridge officially opened on the 19th March 1932 after eight years of construction, built after a century of debate about the need for a harbour crossing to create a better transport route into and through a growing city. The largest structure in Sydney when completed, it stands 134 metres above the harbour and is 1149 metres wide. Although its architecture is not unique the Bridge has won a place in Sydney’s heart. Chief Engineer, John Job Crew (JJC) Bradfield incorporated four granite pylons to make its shape distinctive from the similar designs of Newcastle and New York’s Hells Gate Bridges.

This badge was presented to Alfred Culver, a rigger on the Bridge’s construction team, for his participation in the opening pageant. It is a significant reminder of the importance the Bridge in so many lives.

A Sydney Harbour Bridge workers entry badge. The brass badge is oval in shape and has been enamelled in red, blue, green and white. The badge features an image of Sydney Harbour Bridge. The pin on the back of the badge is missing. Text above and below the image of the bridge reads 'SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE / BRIDGE WORKER'. Text in the red border around the image of the bridge reads 'DORMAN LONG & CO LIMITED / OPENING PAGEANT MARCH 19 1932'. Engraved on the back of the badge 'AMOR / SYDNEY'.
Commemorative badge, Opening Pageant March 19 1932, enamel / brass, made by Amor Pty Ltd, Australia, for Alfred C Culver, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1932. MAAS Collection: N21454-1. Photo: Jane Townsend, MAAS

The Sydney Opera House arrived in the 1970s to compliment the Bridge on the Harbour’s southern edge. The Bridge now has become a crucial part of the visual identity and the collective culture of a city, state and a nation. Its lines, textures, shape and location are a focus for Australian artists and designers and for significant cultural and tourism events like the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Sketch showing idea for opening of the Sydney Olympics. The Sydney Harbour Bridge shape with yellow fireworks against a blue green background. .
Storyboard, ‘Sydney Olympic 2000 Opening Ceremony’, paper, designed by Ric Birch, Sydney, c. 1998-1999. MAAS Collection: 2001/84/490-42. Photo: Nitsa Yioupros, MAAS

Since its opening the Bridge has appeared extensively in commercial memorabilia such as tea towels, badges, doilies and postcards. This small embroidered sandwich doily is part of a collection of 19th and 20th century Australian embroidery and needlework given to the Museum by Ian Rumsey, and forms part of the Ian Rumsey Collection. He was drawn to embroidery and needlework for its extensive use of Australian flora, fauna and other motifs specifically referencing the nation. He collected only well-preserved examples.

A hand embroidered cream linen sandwich doily. It is rectangular in shape and bulges at both ends. It features a Sydney Harbour Bridge design in red, light blue, green and brown thread. On the water underneath the bridge is a small boat, embroidered in red and brown thread. The bridge and boat are encircled by an oval stitched with light blue thread and there is a bouquet of green leaves at each end. The edge has been crocheted in two different shades of blue.
Sandwich doily, embroidered, linen / cotton, Sydney Harbour Bridge design, maker unknown, Australia, 1932. MAAS collection 2010/11/19 Photo: MAAS

Impermanent, small and delicate materials like lace, wool and ceramics are used by makers to reinterpret this constant massive steel and granite structure.

Sandra Taylor (b. 1942) trained at East Sydney Technical College in 1965-66, and in the early 1970s moved away from making functional wares in the Anglo-Oriental style, towards painted and modelled narratives of Australian life. These are usually humorously and critically observant of an aspect of Australian ‘norms’. Here she uses cockatoos, palm trees and the Bridge to observe and evoke an aspect of Australian life.

Rounded stoneware platter, unfooted flat base flaring to a shallow bowl with two small protruding handles at each side. The platter features a light coloured stoneware body, decorated under the glaze with a Sydney harbour scene, the Opera House (in pink), palm trees in grey and blue and reserve colouredcockatoos in the foreground with the Sydney Harbour Bridge painted in grey in the background. An undecorated border frames the image. The glaze is a light grey/buff, crackled and opaque in parts for decorative effect.
Platter, ‘Sydney Harbour and cockatoos’, glazed stoneware, Sandra Taylor, Sydney, Australia, 1980. MAAS Collection. A7434. Photo: MAAS

Fashion designers were also inspired by the Bridge. This coat is part of Women’s ensemble consisting of a woollen dress and coat and titled ‘Opera House’. The ensemble was designed by Jenny Kee and made by Jan Ayres for Flamingo Park. The tunic dress is a knitted with short sleeves and a V-neck and features a design of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in blue, black and white. The cardigan coat is knitted with short sleeves and a round neck. It has a buttoned opening down the centre front and also features a design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House.

The knitted coat is part of a women's ensemble designed by Jenny Kee and made by Jan Ayres for Flamingo Park. The cardigan-style coat has short sleeves, a round neck, a front buttoning closure and a ribbed band at the bottom. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is depicted in black across the centre front. A stylised white Australia shape, crossed by a black diagonal line, lies on the right breast. Two parallel, diagonal lines, one black, one white, lie on the left breast. A band of blue runs beneath the Bridge representing the sea.
Coat, part of women’s ensemble, knitted cotton, featuring the Sydney Harbour Bridge, designed by Jenny Kee, made by Jan Ayres for Flamingo Park, Sydney, 1980. MAAS Collection: A7527-2. Photo: Nitsa Yioupros, MAAS

Bridges are increasingly conceptualized as brands – Sydney artist and graphic designer Ken Done has used the Harbour and Bridge in imagery to decorate postcards and clothing. “Ken Done (b. Sydney 1940), is the artist/designer behind the painting on this men’s waistcoat. He has a unique place in the history and development of Australian design and popular culture. He developed a uniquely fresh, child-like but painterly style to capture iconic Sydney and Australian flora, fauna and sites such as the Bridge and Great Barrier Reef. His style appealed enormously to a late 20th century tourist market and retail outlets. The majority of his products were popular shopping destinations for international tourists from the late 1980s onwards.”*

Sleeveless men's waistcoat made of silk and polyester with V-neckline. The front is of colour printed silk featuring the Ken Done design 'Sydney Night'. On a black ground there is the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, boats bobbing on the water and fireworks going off in the sky. The back of the waistcoat is of black polyester and has an adjustable strap with a metal buckle at the waist. The centre front opening fastens with four black plastic buttons. The waistcoat is machine sewn and fully lined with black polyester.
Waistcoat, mens, ‘Sydney Night’, silk/ polyester/ plastic, Ken Done, Australia, 1990-2001. MAAS Collection 2001/70/2-12. Photo: MAAS

The Bridge has long been the backdrop for product advertising campaigns and in movies. Leading Sydney- based fashion, documentary and commercial photographer, David Mist (b. London 1937) used the Bridge in his fashion shoots. The Telecom advertising campaign used this image for the cover of  their Telecom White Pages in 1993 featuring Studibaker fashion. The Bridge has become a gateway to Sydney and a tourist attraction in its own right.

three models in evening wear with Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background, fashion by Studibaker Hawke.
Colour transparencies (6), for cover of Telecom white pages, film, Sydney, 1993. MAAS Collection: 96/44/1-3/36. Photo: David Mist

Anni Turnbull, March 2019

Further reading:

*Men’s Waistcoat, designed by Ken Done

The Bridge: the arch that cut the sky web and podcast series

2 responses to “The Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2019: still a sight for celebration

  • Hi. May I suggest you have a look at MAAS Object No 98/43/1 the Alexander Berry Coach possibly involved in the bridge opening ceremony and possibly crossed the bridge on the day.

    • Hello Richard
      Many thanks for your comment. It certainly would be interesting to confirm. Why do you think this particular object could have ben used in the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening ceremony?

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