From Gold to Grey: Flora for the 21st century–exhibition by Marian Hosking

By the stream the mimosa was all gold, great gold bushes full of spring fire rising over your head, and the scent of the Australian spring, and the most ethereal of all golden bloom, the plumy, many-balled wattle, and the utter loneliness, the manlessness, the untouched blue sky overhead, the gaunt, lightless gum-trees rearing a little way off…

D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo.

Installation from Marian Hosking Beyond Flora

Over more than forty years of practice, Marian Hosking has continually found new ways to distil into ornament the ‘wide brown land’ on which she lives. As a contemporary Australian jeweller, she inherited a decorative arts tradition that celebrated the graphic images of local flora, particularly in textiles and ceramics. The particular challenge of jewellery is to give this seasonal organic life a timeless sense of preciousness when cast in metal. One of Hosking’s significant achievements is to forge a link between the showy nationalism at the birth of Australian federation and the fractured connection to the land sustained into the 21st century. At a time of heightened urbanisation and increasing remoteness from nature, Hosking helps us re-connect where we are with where we have come from.

Early in the 20th century, Australian jewellers such as Rhoda Wager borrowed the English style of foliation to celebrate verdancy in nature. This lens identified aspects of Australian nature that were familiar to the English eye, particularly green ivy-like forms. Rather than reproducing traditional styles, Hosking has been able to create her own language of place through individualised techniques of drilling, sawing and casting silver. She has forged a style appropriate to the dry southern continent.

In her career, Hosking has been able to apply this technique to extreme ends of the scale of representation. With the Tall Tree Project, she celebrated the epic scale of Australian bush. The monumental silver ring for the Errinunga Shining Gum travelled Australia with her Living Treasure touring exhibition. With the works in Beyond Flora, Hosking zooms in to the opposite limit of representation in the fine detail of our world.

For this exhibition, Hosking draws on her recent expeditions, ranging from the far horizons of Ormiston Gorge in Alice Springs to the world at hand in generic suburban scrub. Despite these wide distances, Hosking settles on a humble ecology that is common to both coast and desert—heath. While characterised by poor soil and stunted growth, the variety of plants in heathland often lend a distinctive identity to their nation. We think of the moors in northern England, or the delicate fynbos of the Western Cape in South Africa. Not suitable for agriculture, these spaces are often preserved from development.

The dominant material, as always, is silver. Silver seems a particularly appropriate material for heath. Not only does it reflect the grey colour of its vegetation, it also occupies a secondary status to the more mercantile gold in the hierarchy of metals. Hosking’s silver works for Beyond Flora include a cast brooch, embossed rings, and her signature kinetic brooches. But this time she has also included stones in her work. She has combined cast silver with complementary stones in necklaces—ruby with boronia, black cubic zirconia with wattle, and carnelian with gum nuts and leaves.

Beyond Flora does something quite particular to our understanding of wattle as the national emblem. In Australian decorative arts, particularly the period inspired by Art Nouveau, the dominant feature of wattle has been its bright yellow blossom. This is particularly the case in the graphic designs on ceramics and textiles. Jewellery also attempted to capture the brilliant colour of wattle, such as the enamelled works of Deakin and Francis, Birmingham, produced for the Australian market in 1910.

Hosking takes a contrary approach to illustrative history of wattle decoration. Rather than reflect its distinct golden blossom, she renders the flower into grey metal. Avoidance of colour releases other dimensions of the blossom, particularly its delicate outline. To achieve this, Hosking has developed a method almost photographic in its capture of form. She impresses the specimen in silicon from which a wax form is cast. The wax impression is then sent to the casting foundry, Len Rose, in order to produce the silver form. By this means, Hosking has been able to produce an exceptionally precise silver version of the wattle flower.

This casting process has opened up a new dimension in Hosking’s work. The flower provides a motif that can be repeated, like the cotton baubles sometimes found on the base of curtains. Previously, Hosking has worked mostly with unique forms. By turning the blossom into a motif that can be reproduced, Hosking connects her work to the decorative art tradition, transforming nature into ornament.

The wattle was originally taken up in the late nineteenth century as a symbol of the native-born Australian. Previously, the bush had been a source of dismay, reflecting Adam Lindsay Gordon’s view of Australia as a land of ‘scentless blossoms’ and ‘songless birds’. Wattle became the focus for a new pride in the young nation. The value of the wattle as a national flora was buoyed by the dramatic events at the start of the twentieth century – Federation, the granting of Dominion Status and the First and Second World War. Wattle as a national emblem provided Australia with a proud motif in its coat of arms, and a symbol of its distinct identity alongside its commonwealth cousins, including the South African protea, the Canadian maple and the New Zealand silver fern.

But it was more than just an official emblem. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, wattle clubs were formed in all the state capitals. Since 1908, the first day of spring has been celebrated as national wattle day, as city folk venture forth into the countryside to enjoy the ‘golden-haired September.’ In 1912, the first ‘wattle train’ took 980 passengers from Melbourne to Hurstbridge to admire and often souvenir the bloom, sometimes to the chagrin of farmers.

Though the wattle lost popularity after the Second World War, there have been recent attempts to use it at times of national importance. In 1999, the Governor General Sir William Deane cast sprigs of wattle into the waters of the Swiss river gorge in memory of Australians who had lost their lives there in a recent accident.

The wattle has shown resilience in the face of globalisation. But in the turbulent waters of rapidly changing culture, it is critical that we find fresh ways of honouring the wattle. This is one of Hosking’s great achievements in Beyond Flora. Previous incarnations of wattle seem locked in nostalgia for naïve nationalism. Hosking’s more scientific method connects wattle to our time. In honouring our flora, we create a language to respect the lives that are spent here.

This is a catalogue essay for the exhibition by Marian Hosking Beyond Flora at Workshop Bilk, 2010

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