Once upon a time, I slipped a little piece of romantic fiction into Australia’s history. This was long before Wikipedia, back when you had to do it by hand.
I had just spent six months adventuring around the southwestern Pacific Rim and I was ready to head home, but I was stuck in Sydney. I couldn’t get a connecting flight from Singapore to Vancouver for another week. I was annoyed, homesick, and tired of Looking At Sights. What was I going to do for a week?
I took a ferry ride just to get out on the water and think. As the ferry was passing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we met a haphazard fleet of small vessels. They were jostling around an odd, colourful wooden ship that bobbed and pecked at the water like a little chicken. I love tall ships (though she was hardly “tall”) and this funny little vessel in her vivid colours was enchanting.
As soon as I was back on shore, I made an educated guess and headed for the Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour. There I found her, the Duyfken, or “Little Dove”, a reconstruction of the Dutch East India Company scout which made the first authenticated European contact with the Australian continent in 1606. The replica Duyfken had just sailed around Australia and would be moored at the Museum for a few weeks.
So I volunteered.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t volunteer to crew, since I was leaving Australia in a week and the Duyfken was staying put for a while, but a ship—especially a wooden one—always needs work. The crew were delighted to have the help, and so I was set to painting.
There was plenty to paint on that gaudy vessel. I clung to the hull with my toes hooked precariously on a narrow wooden rail* and touched up the eye-jangling bands of red, white, and blue. I managed to not fall off into Darling Harbour, or even drop my brush, and I stayed mostly in the lines. I remarked on my skill to Graeme, the project director. “This is why I have a degree in painting!”
Graeme’s eyes lit up. “I have a different job for you!”
He explained that at each port of call around Australia, they had been recruiting local artisans to add little touches to the ship and its contents. There were a number of sea chests in the hold which wood carvers had decorated the outsides of with rosettes and dragons, but Graeme thought that perhaps the insides could use some paintings. Although I didn’t mind touching up the hull, I was excited by the prospect of making art for the first time in ages, and also of not dangling above Darling Harbour.
I spent a day in the library of the Art Gallery of New South Wales researching late 16th and early 17th century Dutch folk art. The internet wasn’t the wealth of information and imagery that it is today, so most of my research was confined to books (I don’t think the library even had an internet terminal). I wasn’t able to find much, but I thought I might have enough to do a few paintings from.
Back at the Maritime Museum, I hauled a chest onto the quay and set about decorating it with a sailor’s imaginings. (It was too dark and cramped in the hold to work, and the “Little Chook”, as she was affectionately known by the crew, fluttered excitedly at the slightest disturbance in the water). It was a wonderful occupation to sit in the open air and paint while tourists took photographs of me and asked questions. After a day or two, I had completed a scene of toothy grey whale, harpooned and thrashing in a sea of red.
Unfortunately, that was my one and only reference for a nautical scene that I had. My next option was cows and windmills, which I suppose a homesick Dutch sailor might paint, but someone had also pointed out that a full scene in oils inside of a chest that would be bashed and scraped by crewmembers’ gear might not be such a great idea. Indeed, the whale scene seems to have gone missing and I don’t know if the chest itself has gone astray, or… I have a vague, sad memory of removing paint with turpentine…
So I thought I’d paint something that covered a small area, a sailor’s doodle. A giant squid seemed like a remarkable sight a sailor might want to record, so I painted that. Then I thought, as in any great Fish Story, he might want to show just how giant it was, so I painted a man next to it. There I stopped, not wanting to add any more paint inside the chest, and wondered what to do next.
Then one of the crew noted that the Physician’s chest was only used for static museum display and not any function while sailing, so a painting inside of that wouldn’t be getting on anyone’s gear. But what would a Physician have painted inside his chest that he would want to look at every time he opened it?
In the course of my research on Dutch art of the era, I had found a charming painting of a young woman. Even though it was not folk art and not the least bit nautical, I liked her enough that I photocopied her (though I failed to note the title, artist and year). If she was charming to me, surely she must have charmed someone then, why not the ship’s physician? As a Renaissance man of letters, might he not have a bit of skill at painting? So I became a young man painting his sweetheart as she sat for him at her mother’s house in Amsterdam, before he was to depart on a journey of many months and thousands of miles to strange and unknown lands.
Don’t ask me why he didn’t just paint a small, easily portable panel instead of hauling his sea chest all the way over to his girlfriend’s house. It’s a story!
One that has entered Australian history, apparently.
When I parted from the Duyfken after that happy week, I’m afraid I left with no record of the paintings. Digital photography had not reached saturation at that point, and my little point-and-shoot had poor macro capabilities, so I had nothing but the memories. That is, until a few weeks ago when I reconnected with the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation. Yasmin Graffin, volunteer coordinator with the Foundation, very helpfully tracked down the paintings (though the whale is MIA, as noted) and photographed them for me. It was a strange bit of personal archaeology to see those paintings again after so long. The Squid is a little worn, as expected after years of rough use at sea. The Sweetheart wears her age well, though, and looks better than I remembered. I told Yasmin that the girl was supposed to be the Physician’s love, and she said that was exactly what they are still telling visiting school children today!
The replica Duyfken’s fate was uncertain for a while after the voyage to Amsterdam, which is why I wasn’t able to make contact earlier, but she is now sailing again out of Cairns, Queensland. They are always looking for volunteers with paint brushes. If you are able to visit, be sure to ask to see the Physician’s sweetheart, waiting for centuries in a sea chest to be reunited with her love.
Thank you to Yasmin Graffin for the photos of the paintings.
*This rail is called the “devil” because it’s a devil to get at. If you have caulking or other work to do below the devil you are “between the devil and the deep blue sea”.