Monday, April 13, 2009

Looking up, for inspiration

Easter might be a time when people contemplate the heavens for understandable and very profound reasons, but I found myself gazing upwards while forced to spend a few hours reading, indoors, on this rainy Easter Monday afternoon. Here's the scene I encountered, a rather pleasant one.

You might think you see flowers here, and if you're familiar with Australian flowers you might even say "nice waratah ceiling" – and you'd be right. It is a waratah-patterned plaster ceiling dating from around 1916, when the house was built. This was a time when Australian nationalism was enjoying its early years, when all over Sydney houses were being built in the 'Federation' style that celebrated our nationhood (which goes back to 1901). This nationalism expressed itself in many forms, but architecture has a way of hanging around for centuries, a most commendable virtue. Now, I don't grow waratahs in my my backyard as they are devilishly difficult to grow for a variety of reasons, and so I can't, at this point, slip in a lovely shot of my own backyard waratah.

Instead of Googling up and pinching one of a dozen or more outstanding waratah photos available there, I thought I'd do the Australian thing and plunder our State Government's stock of online waratah graphics (as it's our State floral emblem). As a taxpayer I've paid for my pixel's worth of this image, which illustrates for those readers not familiar with waratahs the lovely big flower in question (Telopea speciosissima). When in flower in the bush they can stand anywhere from three to five or more feet high, usually, and each shrub will have several blooms, each about six or so inches across. They are a wonderful, indeed stunning, sight, definitely at their best in a natural bushland setting, too. While they have been hybridised lately into white and yellow blooms, the natural reds are the most beautiful, as far as I am concerned.

The only waratah which blooms in my backyard is my lovely Mambo waratah shirt on washing day. However, wash days for this fine garment are rare, only because I wear it just once or twice each year, at Christmas time (lovely red and green theme, don't you think?)
While it would be nice to grow a backyard waratah, this is not an easy plant to grow here near the coast. The soil is too heavy, the humidity too high and it's a bit too warm, too. It's more of an inland or a mountain plant (the best ones I've seen in the bush have all been mountain plants), and so although my living room's waratah-themed ceiling suggests "go on, have a go at growing one" I still don't think I'll give it a try. Besides, I have other rooms and ceilings to choose from, for garden inspiration!

Moving one room down the hallway, to my home office/study, the ceiling there is not of an Aussie native plant at all – it looks like sunflowers to me. Most Federation houses have some sort of ornate-pattered ceilings, but most home-owners are content to paint them in 'ceiling white' paint. I've been into houses where hippies with a lot of time on their hands have started to 'colour-in' their ornate ceilings with the 'correct' colours, and you might be shocked to hear this, but it's not a great look, especially when it's half-finished and abandoned when it all got too hard, man. However, out in the garden, sunflowers I can do (as can a child, admittedly).

Last stop down the hallway, the bedroom, and the plant overhead was a bit of a mystery to me for a while, but I think that's an acorn in the centre of the motif, and that we're looking at is an oak tree. And so our architect who designed my house was having a bet each way. Lying back and thinking of England in the bedroom (botanically speaking, that is) but quite proud to be a native Australian, albeit fully clothed, in the living room. As there was a war on at the time, it was probably not a good thing to be seen as too disloyal to the Mother Country. And so my house's ceilings are a little window into the politics of the time. But my interest, which sparked this somewhat formless, meandering posting, was originally gardening. So let's get back to that.

It's too late for sunflowers this year. But next spring, I have a spot for them in mind, and if I'm really organised I'll bring some home-grown sunflowers into my study, too. And in honour of the waratahs I'll buy a few bunches from the florist next spring so we can at least have them in the living room at eye level, and all the way up at sky-level, too.

Post script: the one nice little bonus anecdote about our lovely ornate plaster ceilings concerns the people who preserved them so well – Jim and Angela, a Greek couple, the previous owners of our house.

We got to know Jim and Angela in the brief period between when we bought the house and they packed up and returned to their native Greece, to be with their daughter. Our suburb is a major Greek area in Sydney, and when a great many practical, home-maintenance-loving Greek men saw those ornate ceilings they collectively said "what a nightmare to paint and maintain" – and so they ripped them out and replaced them with plain, flat ceilings. In the process, many Federation houses lost a lot of their charm, and while that saddened some Aussies it pleased a lot of Greek homemakers who were too busy making babies and building a new life to worry about sanding back and painting stupid waratahs!

However, Jim and Angela had a different approach. They believed they were moving to Australia to make a new life in a new world, and when they looked up and saw the house's ornate ceilings they loved them straight away, saw them as a symbol of their new world, and left them, and most of the house's architectural features, intact.

For a very long time a lot of Anglo Aussies privately sneered at the Greek love of covering lawns with concrete, lining up mini-Parthenon-style white columns to form front fences, pulling out timber windows and replacing them with aluminium ones, and replacing ornately decorated ceilings with plain ones. The Anglos saw it as being nothing but vandalism. But times and attitudes are changing, and now our local council has recognised a distinct class of architecture here under the name of "Fedeterranean" – Federation houses renovated in the Mediterranean way. These Fedeterranean houses usually also have big, comfy, shady outdoor living areas – something all the Anglo Aussies have now learned to appreciate and copy in various ways.

I'm Anglo-Celtic and I love our Federation architecture, and fortunately there is an enormous amount of it well preserved here in Sydney. And I love my Greek neighbours too, they're wonderful people who really know how to enjoy life. But I'm glad I have my beautiful, ornate ceilings to enjoy, even if they're more likely to inspire my choices at the local florist, rather than at the garden centre.

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