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'Christopher Vernon describes the Library’s acquisition last year of the papers and associated ephemera of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin'.
Christopher Vernon describes
the Library’s acquisition last year
of the papers and associated
ephemera of Walter Burley Griffin
and Marion Mahony Griffin
The Commonwealth of Australia
appointed architect Walter Burley
Griffin (1876–1937) as ‘Federal Capital
Director of Design and Construction’ in
1913. Turning their world ‘upside down’,
as his wife and professional partner Marion
Mahony Griffin (1871–1961) put it, the
couple moved to Australia the next year.
Despite their shift across hemispheres
however, the Griffins remained committed
to their American careers, and anticipated
only a three-year absence. Indeed, on the
eve of their Chicago departure, they entered
into partnership with a local colleague so
as to continue their burgeoning American
practice. Reality, however, deviated radically
from the Griffins’ plans: the couple chose
to remain in Australia, closing their Chicago
office in 1917 and remaining here even after
the demoralising end of Walter’s official
association with Canberra in 1921. By the
mid-1930s, the Griffins had developed
an extensive Australian practice which
included built works in the Australian Capital
Territory, New South Wales, Queensland,
South Australia and Victoria (with unrealised
projects in Western Australia). Enlarging this
achievement, Walter travelled to India in
1935 to take up new projects there; Marion
soon followed to assist. Walter’s accidental
death there in 1937, however, abruptly
ended this new episode in the couple’s
career. Working across three geographically
disparate locales, the Griffins ultimately
designed more than 400 projects.
In June 2006, the National Library of
Australia acquired the records of the
Griffins’ remarkable practice. Named after
the couple’s office partner, Eric Milton
Nicholls (1902–1965), the collection was
purchased from his children, the late Glynn
Nicholls and his sister Marie.
above left:
Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937)
Perspective, Cross Section and
Detailed Landscape Plan for
154 The Rampart, Castlecrag
between 1921 and 1930
b&w photographic reproduction of
architectural drawing
20.9 x 12.6 cm
Pictures Collection
above right:
Jorma Pohjanpalo
Portrait of Walter Burley Griffin and
Marion Mahony Griffin, Castlecrag,
Sydney, 27 July 1930
b&w negative; 11.2 x 6.9 cm
Pictures Collection
May 2007 7
The Nicholls Collection is astonishing
in size, scope and complexity. Assembled
from across some 40 years, it comprises
over 2500 items. As one might expect of
architecturally-related collections, it includes
a considerable range of original drawings,
maps, blueprints and other reproductions,
and photographs and lantern slides of the
Griffins’ public and private works, as well
as views of structures under construction.
Some of the drawings evince the hand
of others working in the Griffins’ studio,
including, along with Nicholls, for instance,
Roy A. Lippincott.
Finished drawings, however, are not
the only document type preserved. The
collection also includes preliminary sketches
(including some made by Walter while a
university student), scrawled annotations to
maps and drawings, typescript lecture and
essay drafts, correspondence, newspaper
cuttings, travel expense receipts
and all manner of paperwork
which one would encounter in
a working architectural office.
Seemingly ‘ordinary’ ephemera
such as this puts a human face
on the legendary designers and
offers insights into the workings
of their creative process. Indeed,
it is this rich ephemeral material
that distinguishes the Nicholls
Collection from its counterparts
elsewhere in Australia and the
United States.
Although the Griffins’
Australian oeuvre (1913–1935)
is most comprehensively
Walter Burley Griffin
View of Harry Gunn House,
Chicago, from the Garden
b&w photograph
12.5 x 17.5 cm
Pictures Collection
Marion Mahony Griffin
Botanical Catalogues c.1916
Manuscripts Collection
represented, the Nicholls Collection
additionally documents their American work
(c.1899–1917) and their swansong Indian
projects (1935–1937). The collection also
registers their lesser-known professional
pursuits in landscape architecture, reflecting
the Griffins’ holistic approach: their interest
in the comprehensive design of buildings,
gardens, parks, suburban communities and
even entire cities. The fact that the couple’s
landscape designs remain little known
to some degree reflects ‘the necessarily
ephemeral nature of the living art of garden
making’, or to use the words of one of their
colleagues: ‘Just as an individual flower,
so the garden blooms, fades, and if not
renewed, becomes a memory.’ Such has been
the fate of nearly all the Griffins’ landscape
compositions. Spectacularly, the Nicholls
Collection’s photographs and lantern slides
of the couple’s built works reveal the original
splendour of their now long-vanished garden
and landscape surrounds.
The Nicholls Collection includes other
landscape-related artefacts which, until now,
were known to scholars only through textual
sources. Writing in 1916, for instance,
Marion reported that it was not possible to
get much information for landscape design
and planting work from the Australian
botanical texts then available. In remedy,
she assembled her own list of native plants
for use in private work and in the federal
capital, indexing it according to ‘different
growth requirements, [such] as soil,
moisture; heights and shapes of growths;
colour of flowers, foliage, berries and barks’.
Marion’s botanical catalogues survive
amongst the Nicholls Collection treasures.
National Library of Australia News 8
Each bearing a title such as ‘Yellow[:] Light
Yellow / Red Yellow / Red’, the hand-bound
volumes feature Japanese craft-inspired
cut and stencilled coloured paper covers.
These texts underpinned Walter’s vision to
‘paint’ Canberra’s hills with vegetal colour,
an initiative from which hundreds of red
bottlebrush shrubs (Callistemons) endure
today on the slopes of Red Hill. Ultimately,
Marion’s flora texts are significant both
as works of graphic art as well as for the
horticultural knowledge they encapsulate.
Similarly evocative of the Griffins’
enthusiasms for the natural world, the
Nicholls Collection includes an array of
photographs made on their extensive bush-
walking expeditions throughout eastern
Australia. As many of the landscapes which
the couple captured on film—like their
designed counterparts—have since been
altered, these images will undoubtedly have
significance for environmental historians and
ecologists as well.
The Nicholls Collection’s provenance
demonstrates how remarkable its survival
is. From the outset, it must be underscored
that, for designers, drawings and related
documents are often considered but the
means to an end; it is the final, built
outcome or artefact that is valued, not
its documentation. Indeed, architects are
notorious for destroying the records of
their practice, usually upon their retirement.
(Images of Howard Roark, the frustrated
architect hero of Ayn Rand’s novel The
Fountainhead, incinerating his drawings of
unrealised visions come readily to mind.)
Moreover, until only recently, many public
institutions were loath to collect such bulky
and cumbersome documents.
Because the Griffins initially believed their
Australian stay would only be temporary,
they left their American practice records
in Chicago with their then partner Francis
Barry Byrne (1883–1967). At some point
between that partnership’s end in 1917
(also effectively the end of their American
practice) and the couple’s decision, around
1921, to remain in Australia, the Griffins
apparently organised for their American
records to be shipped overseas to them.
Their first visit home in 1924–25 would
also have provided opportunity for them to
personally collect documents. By 1937, Eric
Nicholls was a partner in the Griffins’ new
firm in Australia and a trusted employee
of more than 15
years’ standing. In the
aftermath of Walter’s
death, Nicholls sought
and received Marion’s
permission to continue
the practice under
the name ‘Griffin and
Nicholls, Architects’.
After returning to
Australia from India for
a few months following
her husband’s death,
Marion departed for
Chicago in 1938. As
the collection was then
considered to record
the working practice,
she left it with Nicholls
in Sydney. Nicholls
would serve as its
custodian for nearly
30 years.
In addition to its tragic catalyst,
Marion’s return to Chicago had further
disappointment. She discovered that Walter
had largely been forgotten in professional
circles there. His repute had been eclipsed
by the couple’s former employer—and by
now Marion’s nemesis—Frank Lloyd Wright.
In reaction, Marion launched a campaign to
establish, if not recover, Walter’s position
within the canons of American architectural
history. To this end, she began writing her
memoirs, ‘The Magic of America’, eventually
producing a manuscript in excess of 1000
pages. The voluminous length, together
with her late husband’s obscurity, however,
conspired against her efforts to secure the
manuscript’s publication. Consequently,
in 1949, she donated two slightly varying
typescripts to the Art Institute of Chicago
and the New-York Historical Society (the
National Library has a microfilm copy).
In parallel, Marion enlisted Eric Nicholls’
assistance to restore Walter’s professional
visibility. Nicholls facilitated her donation of
drawings—including a cache of her exquisite
presentation renderings—to Northwestern
University, Columbia University, and the Art
Institute of Chicago (the National Library of
Australia has a microfilm copy of portions
of the Chicago acquisition). Retrospectively,
these donations ‘skimmed’ the collection
of its ‘aesthetic cream’. For researchers,
however, the remaining collateral material is
Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937)
The Blue Mountains c.1930
b&w photograph; 18.0 x 13.5 cm
Pictures Collection
May 2007 9
Walter Burley Griffin
Canberra Plan of City and
Environs, 103A 1916
coloured linen-mounted map
67.7 x 66.7 cm
Maps Collection
[detail of reverse]
of far greater significance in gaining a fuller
appreciation of the couple’s lives and works.
Marion’s donations register her passionate
belief that the couple’s records should be
publicly accessible.
Marion Mahony Griffin died in 1961.
Happily, she had already been interviewed
by a number of scholars seeking to record
the Griffins’ legacy. Upon Eric Nicholls’
death in 1965, the collection came into his
widow’s possession, and ultimately passed
to her children Glynn and Marie—architects
themselves. Sadly, Glynn did not witness
the Library’s acquisition of the collection,
passing away in January 2006.
Today, interest in the Griffins’ ideals and
their formative impact upon Canberra is
widespread, exceeding anything the couple
knew in their lifetimes. Along with this,
the national capital’s fast-approaching
centenary makes the National Library’s
acquisition timely. The enormous popularity
of Canberra’s original authors, however, is
a recent phenomenon; and one fraught
with apocrypha. The Nicholls Collection
sheds new light on the Griffins’ Canberra
enterprise, enabling clearer distinction of
fact from fiction. Conventional wisdom,
for instance, holds that the Griffins ‘left’
the national capital in 1920. In reality,
neither Walter nor Marion ever lived in
Canberra. The couple evolved Canberra’s
design by working from Melbourne (then
the temporary national capital), and
only made visits to the site. Similarly and
most prominently, the city’s architectural
authorship has been the subject of long-
standing debate: was Walter the city’s
sole designer? Or was the plan conceived
collaboratively with Marion? Even though,
according to a 1913 newspaper article,
Walter believed the ‘ideas of his plan’ were
‘much more than half due to his wife’ and
that ‘she ought to have much more than
half the credit for winning the competition’,
some maintain that Marion was only ‘the
hand that held the pencil’. Undermining this
position’s credibility, the Nicholls Collection
includes a photographic reproduction of
a revised plan of ‘Canberra[:] City and
Environs’, rubber-stamped and hand-
annotated on its reverse: ‘Federal Capital
Office Melbourne[:] Plan Received from Mrs
Griffin[ ,] 13/9/1916’. This is an important
instance of a document’s backside being as
important as its front!
In its spectacular richness, the Eric
Nicholls Collection complements and
enhances the National Library’s other
considerable Griffin-related holdings, which
include for example the papers of Griffin
scholars Donald Leslie Johnson (MS 7817)
and the late Peter Harrison (MS 8347). By
acquiring the Nicholls Collection, the Library
has made a vital contribution to more
fully realising Marion’s aim that materials
documenting the story of the Griffins’ lives
and works be made available to the public
at large. Furthering this, the National Library
will stage a major exhibition showcasing this
remarkable collection in 2009.
Christopher Vernon is a leading scholar
on the Griffins, and Senior Lecturer in
Landscape Architecture at the University
of Western Australia. Beginning in 2000,
he compiled the initial inventories of the
Nicholls Collection and facilitated the
Library’s acquisition negotiations. Vernon will
be one of the curators for the 2009 Griffin
exhibition. He thanks Christine Fernon
for sharing a copy of the 1913 newspaper
interview with Griffin quoted herein
National Library of Australia News 10
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