Victorian timbers

The Technology Collection of Museum Victoria houses over 700 timber samples as well as a range of parquetry objects and wooden furniture. The objects have been used in a variety of scientific, artistic and social contexts and continue to be an important source of information for botanists, historians and other interested researchers.

Museum Victoria acquired its first timber samples in the late 19th century as part of the Economic Botany collection which aimed to record and demonstrate the uses of various timbers from Australia and around the world. The timber samples remain an important reference for botanical study and include many rare and extinct plant species.

The largest timber specimen held by Museum Victoria is a cross section of a 600-year-old Kauri Pine (Agathis australis) from North Queensland. The specimen weighs approximately six tonnes and has numerous visible growth rings across its 2.5 metre diameter.

Victoria’s woods on show

Timber samples were used to advertise Victoria's timber industry to overseas markets at international and intercolonial exhibitions in London, Philadelphia, Calcutta, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Each sample was prepared by museum staff and normally consisted of a cut section of wood about one metre long, polished to show the colour, quality and grain of the wood. The sample was often displayed with door panels, parquetry flooring or tables crafted from the same wood in order to attract prospective buyers.

Museum Victoria also acquired timber objects that record techniques used in transport and industry. A pair of wheels each cut from single pieces of red gum attests to an almost forgotten era of Murray River traffic, when Echuca was Victoria’s second busiest port. The wheels were made in 1908 and used until 1950 on a timber ‘jinker’. Drawn by bullocks, horses and tractors, the jinker hauled logs from the forest to the Evans Bros Mill and the Murray River at Echuca.

The art of May Vale

One outstanding wood feature of the Technology Collection is a series of 83 timber panels, hand-painted in about 1885 by Victorian artist May Vale (1862–1945). Along with Ellis Rowan (1848–1922), Vale’s promotion of native flora in painting helped introduce early national pride in specifically Australian images.

Photo of timber samples hand painted by May Vale

Timber samples hand painted by Victorian artist May Vale, 1885
Photographer: Jon Augier / Source: Museum Victoria

Museum staff cut each timber panel from native timbers, which included species of banksias (native honeysuckle), acacias and eucalypts. Vale proceeded to paint directly onto the wood using oil-based pigments. She illustrated each specimen’s natural foliage and fruits, along with its common and botanical name.

The panel paintings are scientific in their descriptive detail but also place Vale within the impressionist tradition and the Heidelberg School, of which she was a contemporary.

Vale’s 83 panels were shown at four international exhibitions in the 1880s: the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London (1886), the Jubilee Exhibition, Adelaide (1887), the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition (1888), and the Exposition Universelle, Paris (1889). This exhibition record was a considerable achievement for an artist of this period.

Wood treasures in the home

Museum Victoria has acquired a number of uniquely crafted domestic items made from Australian woods. These include an egg-cup of White Mangrove, a golf club of Spotted Gum, a violin of Queensland Maple and 16 walking sticks of original design made in a variety of native timbers.

Australian wood turner Edwin Ault created a walking stick from native fiddleback Blackwood with a handle of Native Cherry, crafted in the shape of a human leg. The timber collection holds 21 parquetry pieces also by Ault, which include a parquetry lamp, floral carving and a novelty cross section of a Coast Banksia with an apparition of a face.

The expert craftsmanship involved in staircase construction is represented in two large scale models by carpenters Albert Trapp and Henry August Klemke, both from Williamstown, Victoria.

The sweeping curves of Trapp’s majestic spiral staircase won a silver medal at the Intercolonial Juvenile Industrial Exhibition, Melbourne 1879–80. The model utilises Australian timbers such as acacia and stands on an ornamental wood-inlay floor.

Photo of a spiral staircase wood model

Model of a section of spiral staircase, constructed from Australian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). Made by a student at the Working Men's College, Melbourne, about 1910. There is some uncertainty as to who made this model – possible candidates include Henry August Klemke or Otto Yuncken.
Photographer: Jon Augier / Source: Museum Victoria

Klemke’s model of a residential staircase with one small landing was later reproduced full sized in a Williamstown house. The design is simple, with clean lines and smooth surfaces crafted to emphasise the natural red grain of the Acacia melanoxylon (Blackwood).

Comments (4)

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Sue Mitchell 4 June, 2010 21:28
I believe the photo in the article is not the "majestic" spiral staircase by Albert Trapp as I have a photo of it from your museum from a previous enquiry. The staircase above does not seem to stand on an "ornamental inlaid floor". previous enquiry
Discovery Centre 7 March, 2011 12:15
Dear Sue - Thank you for your feedback! We have corrected the caption on the photograph.
Anne Findlow 12 March, 2011 17:55
Is the collection of May Vale's woodcraft on display or in storage. May is my husband's great aunt and we would be interested to view it. Thanks.
Discovery Centre 15 March, 2011 11:27

Hi Anne,

At the moment there are two of May's painted panels on display in the Melbourne Story gallery. If you go to the Royal Exhibition Building section of the exhibition, they are in the showcase with the Spiral Staircase model.

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