HISTORY: A treasure returns home

SECRET WORLD: Elizabeth Ellis stands beside the ingenious Macquarie Collector’s Chest at the Newcastle Art Gallery.   Picture: Dean Osland
SECRET WORLD: Elizabeth Ellis stands beside the ingenious Macquarie Collector’s Chest at the Newcastle Art Gallery. Picture: Dean Osland

ONE of NSW's rarest colonial treasures has finally returned to Newcastle.

Missing for 195 years, it is something of a miracle the Macquarie Collector's Chest has come back, no matter how briefly, to where it was created.

At first glance it seems to be only a plain wooden box like 19th century portable military campaign furniture, or used by naval officers on long sea voyages.

Built most likely by two convict craftsmen about 1818, its main timbers are Australian red cedar, from now vanished ancient forests beside the banks of the Hunter River, and Australian rose mahogany.

But this beautiful, once lost chest is really an ingenious cabinet of curiosities.

With its concealed drawers, 13 hand-painted panels and filled with natural history specimens - including 80 preserved and still brightly-hued native birds, seashells, butterflies and beetles - it's an invaluable piece of 19th century Australiana.

Created by Captain James Wallis, an early commandant of the Newcastle prison settlement, it was probably his farewell gift to Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

So, how then did it turn up, forgotten but intact, in a damp, turreted Scottish castle after almost 150 years?

But first, let's reassess Lachlan "the builder" Macquarie, NSW's fifth colonial governor (1810-1821).

On his Scottish tomb are inscribed the words "The father of Australia".

He gave us our first official currency and even the nation's name - Australia (meaning southern). It was from a suggestion by explorer Matthew Flinders, but Macquarie made it official in 1817.

It came from the Latin term Terra Australis, meaning Southern Land.

And Macquarie's name is still everywhere, despite his reputation being tarnished in his final days for having the vision to try to lay the foundations of a new nation.

Our own majestic Lake Macquarie is named after him, as is Macquarie's Pier (Nobbys breakwater), Port Macquarie and even remote Macquarie Island, off Tasmania, plus NSW's Lachlan River. Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth Macquarie (nee Campbell) has Sydney's Elizabeth Street named after her and even suburban Campbelltown. The list goes on.

And now, what of the magnificent chest that Captain Wallis gave to Macquarie because he thought so highly of him?

The chest, now temporarily on loan from Sydney, is on display at the Newcastle Art Gallery as a focal point of the exhibition Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie Era, on show until May 5.

One person who has spent nearly 30 years tracking down the mysteries of the Macquarie Collector's Chest, bought by the State Library for more than $1 million in 2004, is Emeritus Curator at the Mitchell Library and author Elizabeth Ellis.

In Newcastle recently, she spoke about her experiences researching and writing her book, Rare and Curious, about the secret history of the Macquarie Collector's Chest.

"It's a pity people are not really seeing the chest at its best at present [behind glass]. There's a regular changeover of drawers opened, though. It's purely to protect the specimens inside," Ellis said.

"With slides and pictures, however, people can see what's so exciting about the object and why once when you start to think about the chest you never really stop. It remains with you.

"It's a story essentially about a historical object which was hidden away for generations. It was then rediscovered, so to speak, and then some detective work followed in the archives, but some of the puzzle pieces are still missing and maybe always will be. That's what makes it so interesting.

"For example, whoever stuffed these still incredibly bright bird specimens really knew their job. In this era, if the taxidermist didn't know what the creature looked like, it ended up looking very peculiar indeed," she said.

"There's a stuffed wombat in a British collection which was sent over there only as a skin and which has ended up looking like a sausage dog."

Ellis says her passion really ignited at a Sotheby's auction of colonial rarities in Melbourne in April 1989.

"One of the items on view was this quite plain box, but when it opened it revealed a complicated series of internal drawers, flaps, trays and hidden compartments.

"At the auction itself, this chest was sitting almost marooned. It was my first sight of it. Some of the drawers were out and tilted. It just looked so fragile and yet it looked so extraordinary. It looked almost as if it has been shipwrecked, really. I just wanted to protect it, but that wasn't in the spirit of the auction room.

"There were about 10 bidders and this was, in fact, a homecoming for the Macquarie Collector's Chest [from Scotland]. This was the first time it had been back to the place of its creation, that is NSW, since it was created over 170 years previously."

A Sydney woman then bought the chest, but Ellis kept in touch with the woman's agent for 15 years until one day he rang up saying if the Mitchell Library could "come and get it in 30 minutes" then they could have first option to buy it.

"It was a case of being in the right time and place," Ellis said.

The chest had travelled with former Governor Macquarie to Scotland in 1822, then disappeared. Macquarie's son, Lachlan jnr, had died in 1845 in a drunken fall and his estates passed to the Drummond family, of Strathallan Castle, on the other side of Scotland. A long-running court battle followed.

The chest then stayed at Strathallan, probably entirely forgotten in a junk room. Rumours of its existence began to circulate in the 1970s.

Then in 1986, Ellis said a colleague, already in England, went cold calling to Scotland's Strathallan Castle in a local village taxi which doubled as a hearse.

"Once there, he fortunately got on with the castle owner who was apparently eccentric and managed to photograph the Macquarie chest for the first time in the castle there," Ellis said.

By then, Ellis says the puzzle was complicated because people now realised there were two chests.

The other one, the Dixson chest (circa 1819), was already one of the great, if flawed, treasures of the Mitchell Library (since 1936).

It was devoid of its original Regency legs and had virtually lost all of its original contents, unlike the simpler, almost identical Macquarie chest.

And along the way, Elizabeth Ellis also managed to discover an image of James Wallis.

"You never stop looking for these things, but I've had no similar luck lately. It's a bit like gambling," she said.

Ellis also conceded the "slight possibility" the chest was originally presented to Mrs Macquarie in 1818 instead, as she was an avid collector of native Australian specimens.

Finally, in 2004, the historic chest was suddenly offered to the Mitchell Library and the offer snapped up, despite the high cost.

"Like the later unknown Wallis album of drawings [bought in 2011], it was never a question of should we, or would we buy the Macquarie chest, it was just that we must," she said.

"I strongly encourage everyone to get to see this exhibition soon.

"That's because I believe the chances of this chest ever coming up to Newcastle again because of its age are absolutely nil."


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