Tasmanian Timbers

By the mid-nineteenth century, the term ‘trophy’ had come to indicate a particular phenomenon of the exhibitionary complex – an ornamental or symbolic group of objects, serving as a token or evidence of a country’s might in terms of its natural resources or principal manufactures.  A defining feature of the 1862 London International Exhibition was the Tasmanian Timber Trophy which soared upwards from the Tasmanian Court into the aerial space of the exhibition building (Figure 1).  It was ‘noble’ according to the Daily News and a worthy cause of rejoicing in the opinion of John Bull.  It signalled the might of Tasmanian woods – their scale and their durability – but beyond that it spoke of Tasmania as a land of natural resources and human opportunity.

Tasmanian Court with Timber Trophy, 1862 International Exhibition
Figure 1. Tasmanian Court with Timber Trophy, 1862 International Exhibition
In 1862 the Australian colonies consisted of New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, New Zealand, Victoria, and Queensland.  The Northern Territory would not come into existence until the following year, and the federation which became known as the Commonwealth of Australia was still thirty-eight years away.  Consequently participation in the 1862 Exhibition was by individual colony, with Australia’s colonies caught between ‘their desire to present a picture of modernity, democracy and civilisation and the perception of them as places for exploitation, and at the very best, of opportunity and potential’ (Douglas 2008, 14).  Competing with Britain and other more industrialised nations over manufactured goods made little economic sense, yet there was a desire to be perceived as more than a source of raw materials for the Empire.

The Tasmanian Court displayed wool, minerals, agricultural produce, and products of the whaling industry, but it was dominated by the Timber Trophy, rising 100 feet, and made of a variety of native woods.  Since Tasmania was settled by the British in 1803, its merchants had sought to export its natural products in order to import the range of goods required by the new colony (Dargavel 1987, 164).  Timber, however, had proved difficult to market.  Most of the Tasmanian trees were hardwoods and grew to massive dimensions but took a long time to season, splitting, cracking, and warping if prepared too quickly. Whilst this did not diminish the strength of the woods, it could adversely affect their appearance (Dargavel 1987, 165), and the story of Tasmanian woods abroad in the nineteenth century is characterised by efforts to demonstrate their strength and durability, and thus to overcome resistance to any deficiencies in their appearance. The colonial authorities had long hoped to supply timbers to the British ship-building industry, and the Admiralty had placed an order in 1833 but again the appearance of the woods weighed against them and many ‘bad timbers’ were returned (cited in Dargavel 1987, 166).

The International Exhibition of 1862, therefore, offered Tasmanians a chance to present their wares to the ‘mother country’ in a more positive light. There were political as well as economic issues at stake; convict transportation to the colony had ceased in 1852 and Tasmania was now a self-governing state in search of export markets, investors, and an immigrant population.  Twenty-four leading Tasmanian citizens from administrative, business, and scientific backgrounds were appointed as commissioners to organise the Tasmanian Court.  Timber was to occupy ‘the most conspicuous position’ and, inspired by the Canadian Timber Trophy at the 1851 Exhibition, a timber trophy was designed by the Secretary to the Tasmanian Commissioners, George Whiting, to showcase Tasmania’s woods (Whiting 1862, 4).  In order to execute the considerable task of preparing the materials for the Trophy, the remaining convicts at the Port Arthur Penal Settlement were set to work cutting ‘specimens of planking and other timber, the size and quality of which can scarcely be equalled by any other country’ (cited in Dargavel 1987, 166).  

The main section of the Trophy consisted of an octagonal column, formed of eight one-hundred feet spars of blue gum, stringy bark, white gum, silver wattle, blackwood, and sassafras.  The base structure, or pedestal, was a parallelogram of thirty by twenty feet across and twelve to fifteen feet in height, consisting of various construction timbers and cabinet woods.  It was hollow and could be entered by a doorway atop a short flight of steps.  From there visitors could climb the interior spiral staircase formed of Huon pine – a ‘free-working and almost imperishable wood’ - and enjoy a birds-eye view of the Exhibition.  But apart from so-called ‘plain’ timbers, the trophy also incorporated a number of specialised wood-cuts necessary to ship-building. Large ships’ knees – the section of a tree where the trunk meets the root – had been in such short supply internationally that British naval architecture had had to be modified. Because of their strength, knees were used for bracing and structural elements in ships, and Tasmania claimed to have ‘an unlimited supply’ (Whiting 1862, 14-15). 

In the supporting literature great emphasis was placed on the durability of the woods; those selected for the Trophy were ‘shown in every variety of kind and condition’, from the ‘green’ woods which, Whiting was quick to point out, had been affected by ‘shakes’ and ‘sun-cracks’ (Whiting 1862, 4-11), to fully-seasoned specimens, and timbers taken from the oldest public buildings of the colony.  These included door-posts, window-lintels, and architraves from the Old Gaol and the Old Court House of Hobart Town, posts from its wharves, sleepers from its railways, and ships’ timbers which had experienced many years of active service.  Whilst doubtless intended as a scientific exercise, the physical fragments of the former penal colony must have excited the curiosity of metropolitan audiences, providing opportunities for urban imaginaries of antipodean crime and punishment.

Figure 2. Plan of Museum No. 3 1866 with the Timber Trophy numbered ‘15’ ©RBGK

Three Kew officers inspected the Tasmanian Court: Joseph Hooker who was an exhibition juror; William Hooker, then Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, who described the Tasmanian woods as ‘magnificent collections’; and finally the curator of Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, John Reader Jackson, who similarly found the Tasmanian exhibit ‘a fine series of woods’.  At the close of the exhibition, an unspecified section of the Timber Trophy was transferred to Kew and displayed in Museum No. 3, otherwise known as the Timber Museum.  It can be seen in the museum guidebook for 1866 (Figure 2).  Its rectangular shape suggests it may have been the parallelogram-shaped pedestal of the original monument, but frustratingly no detail is given in the supporting text. 

Figure 3. Canadian Timber Trophy, Great Exhibition, London 1851
There seem to have been some difficulties arranging the woods satisfactorily; in 1864 ‘the central timber trophy was ‘rearranged’, and in the following year it ‘was taken down and greatly improved, and many of the large specimens polished’.  Although there are no close-up images of the base of the Timber Trophy, by referring to the Canadian Timber Trophy of 1851 which had inspired it, the nature of the problem becomes more evident (Figure 3). The latter was a loosely-arranged structure, which would conceivably be difficult to re-construct in a museum. The Illustrated London News had called it ‘an uncouth sort of pile’ (Anon. 1851); perhaps the Tasmanian Trophy base was equally crude in construction.

In 1876 Assistant Director William Thiselton-Dyer began the revision of all the museum collections at Kew according to his personal interest in plant physiology; as the annual report stated: ‘no separate collections of merely technological interest will be kept, and those already existing have been now broken up and distributed’.  In the 1886 edition of the museum guide, there is no mention of the Timber Trophy.  Tasmanian woods, where listed, appear as a series of separate specimens.

Figure 4. Acacia dealbata, Linn. (Silver wattle) presenting series of holes and pegs
In the material evidence borne by some of the 1862 Tasmanian woods still held at Kew, there is a suggestion that the Trophy had been dismantled and reconstituted as elements of the larger collection. At least two specimens in the current collection bear a series of holes and wooden pegs along their edges, suggesting they were originally slotted together as part of a larger structure (Figure 4).

A further specimen is stamped with the words ‘Port Arthur’, connecting it unmistakably with the woods prepared for the trophy at the former penal colony (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Notelaea ligustrina Vent. (Ironwood) displaying Port Arthur stamp

Under the new criteria, the Trophy had been redefined as a separate collection of mere technological interest. Its new value was as a data series, but in order to move from one epistemic state to the other, it had literally to be reconstituted as individual specimens, with the best examples retained, and those which had deteriorated, disposed of.  Under Thiselton-Dyer, the Museums at Kew were refashioned to accommodate and communicate the new botany, and the Tasmanian Timber Trophy was similarly reworked from a former exhibition attraction to a series of separate specimens in a scientific collection.  It had moved ‘from icon to datum’ (Alberti 2005, 567).

Figures 2, 4 & 5 have been reproduced with the kind permission of the Director and the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

References

Alberti, S. J. M. M. 2005 ‘Objects and the Museum’ Isis 96(4):559-571

Anon. 1851 ‘The Canadian Timber Trophy’, Great Exhibition (Supplement), Illustrated London News Saturday, June 21, 1851; Issues 495 and 496

Dargavel, J. 1987 ‘Timber Inspection and the State: The Tasmanian Experience’, Journal of Forest History 31(4) (Oct 1987):164-172

Douglas, L. 2008 Representing colonial Australia at British, American and European international exhibitions reCollections: Journal of the National Museum of Australia 3(1):13-32

Whiting, G. 1862 The Products and Resources of Tasmania as Illustrated in the International Exhibition, 1862: With an Appendix containing Papers on the Vegetable Products exhibited by Tasmania Hobart Town