1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Images of the City

Of all the city's attributes, none is more prized or more fragile than its reputation. Since the city's foundation as an unauthorised squatter settlement, Melburnians have striven to win the good opinion of visitors, their fellow Australians and the world. They have defined and projected the city's image through newspapers, pictures, poems, novels, photographs, histories, films, television promos and websites. During the 19th century, long before the development of the modern public relations industry, local boosters had crystallised the city's reputation around a set of well-defined images, literary and visual, that were endlessly reproduced in everything from exhibition cantatas to advertising jingles, and from high art to picture postcards. Once defined, these images had a tendency to become formulaic, and from 1835 to 2005 certain well-defined tropes recur. They are not impervious to change or criticism, however. Economic crisis, war and the long dialectic that shackles Melbourne's identity to that of its older sister Sydney have produced changes, sometimes sudden, sometimes subtle, in the image of the city.

Melbourne was founded by land-seekers and the first descriptions and images of the city were framed to emphasise its qualities as real estate. The editors of its first newspapers were almost by definition its first publicity agents. In the first issue of the Port Phillip Gazette in 1838 18-year-old George Arden praised Melbourne as 'a remarkably fine place for a township and . . . surrounded with a truly delightful country'. Its society was better than Adelaide and its buildings also superior. Early views of the town, often drawn by surveyors like Robert Russell or architects like Samuel Jackson, were little more than topographical versions of the maps and plans that were often published with them. They carefully delineated each building and often identify the owner. 'Nearly every house is visible, and may be separately recognised by those who have an intimate acquaintance with the town', the Port Phillip Gazette noted of an early view by Wilbraham Liardet. They were often reproduced lithographically and published in London for the information of prospective investors and settlers. By the early 1850s, with the arrival of professional artists like W.L. Burn and Edmund Thomas, this tradition of exact topography had given way to more self-consciously artistic image-making, although the most favoured view of the town - viewed, calmly, from a distance, usually from the southern side of the Yarra River and framed by verdant countryside - was already well established.

Sydney, with its magnificent harbour, was a subject ready-made for romantic landscape. In the 1840s Conrad Martens had used the city as the focal point in Turneresque landscapes that dramatised the opposition between the primeval Australian wilderness and the tiny outpost of civilisation huddled on the farther shores of a harbour. From Martens, through Arthur Streeton and down to Lloyd Rees, Sydney painters have continued to view their subject from a romantic distance, across a wide expanse of blue water and bathed, usually, in a rosy afternoon glow. Whatever its commercial or cultural advantages, Melbourne could never hope to rival Sydney's glorious setting. Its only vistas were from the elevated eastern and southern suburbs back towards the city and the only expanse of water within view of the city was that overgrown creek, the Yarra. It was a pictorial handicap that Melbourne artists were to struggle against, with more ingenuity than success, for more than a century.

With the gold rush of the 1850s Melbourne's image was rapidly made over. Visitors, who now began to play a more prominent role in the construction of the city's reputation, fashioned new images often drawn from the land its experience now most closely resembled, the United States. Melbourne, they suggest, is undergoing a revolution in which the well-ordered pastoral society of the era before gold was discovered has been turned upside down. The city's prodigious rate of growth challenged all but standards of the 'instant cities' of the American urban frontier. George Train, a visiting American businessman, likened Melbourne to Chicago, Cincinnati and San Francisco. 'Babes in the wood in the morning' they had become 'full-grown men at night'. The English poet Richard Horne predicted that, with its strategic position 'in the line of those western winds ... down which all sailing ships coming from Europe must travel', Melbourne 'must become the New York of the Southern hemisphere'. The focus of contemporary artists now shifted to the social drama unfolding along the waterfront and along the streets of the upstart metropolis. In the exuberant watercolours and lithographs of S.T. Gill we get a glimpse of a city in the midst of rapid, often chaotic, change. His sharp, ironic eye catches the comedy and pathos of everyday life in a town where roles and identities are still in flux. A city of young men on the loose, with money to spend, its raffish character was perhaps most apparent during the nocturnal hours, a vision most brilliantly captured in Ludwig Becker's 1857 study Old Princes Bridge.

In the aftermath of the gold rush Melbourne entered a more even period of growth. As the crisis passed images of the city again became more conventional and proportionate, its bluestone classical buildings conveying an air of solidity and respectability, its skyline now framed, as in Henry Gritten's and W.L. Burn's landscapes, by the winding paths and softening foliage of Baron von Mueller's new Royal Botanic Gardens. Before Anthony Trollope arrived in 1871 the city's reputation had already reached him. 'Melbourne has certainly made a name for itself, and is the undoubted capital, not only of Victoria, but of Australia', he observed. The famous novelist, whose views of Melbourne would be echoed by a host of later travellers, was also a perceptive critic of Melbourne's penchant for self-promotion. All the Australian colonies, he admitted, were inclined to blow their own trumpets: 'But the blast of the trumpet as heard in Victoria is louder than all the blasts - and the Melbourne blast beats all the other blowing of that proud colony'. In a dozen perceptive pages, Trollope distilled the essence of colonial metropolis - its wide straight streets, its immense distances, its unfinished appearance, the prosperity of its working class and the magnificence of its public institutions - and deftly subverted some of its illusions.

With the approach of the 1880s the pace of urban life quickened again. New technologies were enlarging the repertoire of the urban image-maker and the means of disseminating them. Photographers like Charles Nettleton were bringing a fresh realism to the depiction of the city's streets and buildings, while illustrated newspapers, utilising cheap lithographic reproduction, brought representations of city life, high and low, into every household. One of the most popular ways of depicting the city was the isometrical balloon or bird's-eye view. The Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 saw the publication of several of these broadsheet panoramas. People loved them, both for the grand sweep of suburbs that illustrated the city's prodigious growth, and for the intricate detail that enabled each viewer to locate his own home or workplace in the larger scheme of things. Like the great biographical encyclopedias and commemorative histories such as Alexander Sutherland's Victoria and its metropolis (1888), the bird's-eye view reaffirmed the conventional wisdom, that the city's triumphant growth was founded on the individual struggles and achievements of its thousands of individual citizens.

One of the visitors to the International Exhibition was a young Englishman, fresh from the 1878 Paris Exhibition, Richard Twopeny. In a perceptive survey of Town life in Australia (1883) Twopeny underlined the contrast that Trollope had already noted between the entrepreneurial vigour of Melbourne and the comparative lethargy of Sydney. 'There is a bustle and life about Melbourne that you altogether miss in Sydney', he declared. 'The one is always in a hurry, the other waits for business to come to him.' While photographers could capture the architectural magnificence of Melbourne there was little they could do, in the age of wet-plate photography with its cumbersome equipment and its long exposure times, to capture the 'bustle and life' of the city's streets. Most contemporary photographs before the mid-1880s show empty streets and only carefully posed groups of stationary people. J.W. Lindt's photograph of the west end of Bourke Street, taken in the early 1880s, shows a row of cabs drawn up, motionless, in the middle of the street, but none of the bustling street life depicted in Tom Roberts' famous painting of the same scene, just a year or so later. Roberts was one of a group of Melbourne painters, sometimes called the Australian Impressionists, who sought, like their French masters, to capture fleeting moments and transitory effects. While their most famous paintings were of the bush, especially the lightly forested country on Melbourne's fringe recently opened up by the railway, at places like Box Hill and Heidelberg, Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin were also interested in capturing the changing moods of the city, often preferring the subtle play of light and shade on wet pavements, or the pale pastel of dusk on the Yarra, to the brilliant glare of the streets at noon. Only occasionally, as in McCubbin's Melbourne in the 80s, did they succumb to the unashamed boosterism of the black-and-white artists whose views of the city's teeming streets and towering offices filled the pages of the illustrated papers and tea-table books of the day.

City boosting, like any other form of advertising, often comes down to slogans and catch-phrases. In 1885, when the London journalist George Sala christened the city 'Marvellous Melbourne', he coined a slogan that would long outlive the tired account of his visit in which it first appeared. It inspired both types of imitators. Sanitary reformers complained of the noxious odours of 'marvellous Smelbourne' while moralists decried the 'barbarisms of barbarous Melbourne'. While boosters sang the city's praise, slumming journalists like Marcus Clarke and John Stanley James ('the Vagabond') wrote slashing exposés of the poverty, prostitution and crime of its netherworld, 'outcast Melbourne'. As John Freeman, himself a shadowy figure, observed in his Lights and shadows of Melbourne life (1888), Melburnians had much to deplore as well as much to rejoice about. They had only to look behind the bright façades of its main streets to discover 'that Melbourne has its shadows as well as its bright spots, its hovels as well as palaces, low life as well as high, and abject poverty side by side with boundless wealth'. The language of the slum reporters, with its binary logic of light and darkness, health and disease, purity and danger, was symptomatic, not only of its social divisions but of the shaky moral ambiguity of the boom metropolis.

Melbourne's ill-gotten wealth and overweening pride, many people felt, must produce an inevitable Fall. In 1892, just as the first tremors of the depression were felt, 29-year-old classicist and aspiring poet Henry Lingham published a satirical attack on the city. Lingham called himself 'The Melbourne Juvenal' after the famous satirist of Nero's Rome, and predicted that, like Rome, Melbourne was in for a humiliating crash.

Ours is a city ever in extremes Or in a nightmare or in golden dreams.

Sydney's Bulletin gleefully attacked the financial scandals of 'marvellous Smellboom'. By 1893 when the main trading banks closed their doors and the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne called for a special Day of Humiliation and Prayer, Marvellous Melbourne had become 'miserable Melbourne'. The depression of the 1890s was not the first, or the last, of Melbourne's 'extremes', but it was the longest and most severe, and produced an abrupt change of character. The city lost most of the brashness and glitter that observers had noticed since the 1850s, and began its slow transformation into the cheerless capital of Wowserdom.

Forty years later its effects were still apparent. 'Victoria, after a riotous youth, has sobered down' noted the visiting English musician Thomas Wood in 1935. 'It creases its trousers and goes to church.' The transformation may have been less radical than it seemed. After all, many of the land-boomers were bastions of Protestantism and, while the crash may have curbed their financial recklessness, their puritan instincts, already strong, were only reinforced. Back in the 1870s Marcus Clarke had predicted that the future Australian would practise a kind of 'worldly Presbyterianism', and by the 1920s when wartime stringency had superimposed another layer of restraint, Melbourne had largely fulfilled his prophecy. Nothing seemed to ruffle the City's imperturbable self-satisfaction. In 1928 Katherine Ussher observed the City's 'air of settled well-being': 'Melbourne', she noted, 'pursues her Puritan course undismayed'. The maintenance of the city's six o'clock curfew on hotels, a wartime measure ratified by local option, and the ban on Sunday opening of shops, cinemas and other public entertainments, astonished Wood. 'Can you buy a Sunday paper in Melbourne? No. Can your dog go for a walk on his own? No. Can you buy a drink after six? Try!'

It seemed that the life of the city had largely seeped away to the private worlds of home and garden. 'The Garden City of a Garden State' was the slogan coined by the new Victorian Tourist Bureau. By 1934 when the time came for Melbourne to mark its centenary, it was sunk in the midst of a worldwide depression. In buoyant times the camera's focus had sharpened and zoomed in on the city skyline; but in harder times, like the 1930s, the focus widened and became fuzzier, emphasising the foreground of river and gardens and the slow organic growth of the city itself. In postcards, tourist posters and movie travelogues, the city's green penumbra of parks and gardens, leafy boulevards and quiet avenues now defined its character. The fuzzy, charming suburban landscapes of Clarice Beckett are perhaps the most striking artistic heritage of the era. In the midst of the depression the Manchester Unity Building, a cut-down version of Chicago's Tribune Building, trimmed to fit under the City's 122-foot (37 m) height limit, symbolised the failure of Melbourne's modernisers to overcome the prevailing conservatism. Repudiating the soaring skyscrapers of New York, Melbourne proudly advertised itself as 'The City with the Perfect Skyline'.

In the 1940s Melbourne entered possibly its darkest days. The gloom of the brownout, the moral panic associated with the American occupation and the Leonski murders, and the even deeper fears of Japanese invasion created an eerie mood, a kind of moral half-light best captured in Albert Tucker's surrealistic Images of modern evil. Towards the end of the war as victory came in sight, the mood brightened noticeably. Young architects and planners circulated plans for a new and brighter city. 'Think big - with a knowledge of the almost limitless possibilities of science', exhorted L.H. Luscombe in his Rebuilding the Melbourne of tomorrow (1945). New city squares (a perennial preoccupation of Melbourne's idealists), new highways, public housing estates and civic centres poured forth from their drawing boards. Not much of this idealism bore fruit before the 1950s when, with the construction of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the 1956 Olympic Swimming Pool and the ICI Building, Melbourne at last glimpsed the symbols of a more modern Melbourne. Responding to pressure from the City Development Association, a ginger group of young Melbourne businessmen and planners, the Melbourne City Council attempted to throw off the city's wowser image. In 1954 it established the Moomba Festival under the motto 'Let's get together and have fun!' In the city of six o'clock closing, whose clergy regularly inveighed against the evils of the 'Continental Sunday', this was a more radical proposal than it now seems, though the program - clowns in the street and speedboats on the Yarra - was not every urban sophisticate's idea of 'having fun'.

In 1956 the Melbourne Olympics gave the city its biggest lift since the 1880 International Exhibition. The opening ceremony was nothing like the mega-spectacle Sydney staged 35 years later, but the program text is revealing, all the same, of the City's attempts to project a convincing view of itself. While invoking modernist images of growth and progress it also lingered on the satisfying Englishness of its suburban homes and gardens: 'The streets of modern suburban houses of functional design and fabric, with here and there an American-style supermarket or drive-in theatre or bank, combine generally in an ideally English rose-and-lavender setting of home and garden'. Something of the same ambivalence suffuses the images of contemporary painters and photographers. No-one has captured the clock-bound conformity of Melbourne's business class as evocatively as John Brack in his strikingly modernistic Collins St., 5p.m. (1955). In the photographs of Mark Strizic, modern skyscrapers, parked cars and freeways are often juxtaposed with nostalgic images of demolition sites, crumbling Victorian terraces, old men standing, bewildered amid the swirl of traffic. Perhaps the most famous images of Melbourne in the 1950s were the apocalyptic scenes created by the American director Stanley Kramer for his 1959 film of Nevil Shute's novel On the beach. 'A great place to make a movie about the end of the world', was actress Ava Gardner's reported verdict on the film's location, though like many other memorable slogans it was the work of a naughty journalist, Neil Jillett, rather than the actress herself.

Melbourne was now the main beachhead of American and European investment in manufacturing, and for the first time in a half a century, rivalled Sydney's growth. Many of the newcomers were immigrants from Northern, Eastern and Southern Europe: the 'Continental Sunday' was coming in person. Yet the city still seemed unable to throw off its dowdy image. Returning expatriates, conscious of their own, possibly newly acquired, sophistication, were perhaps its severest critics. In 1961 Desmond Fennessy likened his home town to 'a maiden lady in bonnet and lace-up boots with all the prim and chilling charm of a provincial English governess'. When they compared it to cities elsewhere, it was to other Puritan strongholds - Manchester, Edinburgh or Boston. 'Sydney', journalist Craig McGregor suggested in 1966, 'is a huge, sprawling, turbulent city, full of bustle and a zestful materialism - Glasgow when the sun is shining ... Melbourne is like Edinburgh: staid, comfortable, raining on and off. It is almost as big as Sydney ... but life in Melbourne tends to be more leisured and cultivated'. It was as though the cities observed by Trollope and Twopeny in the 1880s had somehow mysteriously swapped identities, the one growing more zestfully hedonistic as the other subsided into genteel decay. There was more, perhaps, to the contrast than could be explained by the cities' contrasting economic fortunes. The historian Manning Clark pointed to their opposing intellectual traditions: Sydney, the city of pubs and pushes, libertarian, sceptical, veering towards anarchism; Melbourne, the home of reformers and little magazines, humanistic, serious, liberal.

One of the most important changes in the character of the city went almost unremarked for most of this period. Slowly but surely the pall of Anglo-Saxon conformity was being lifted, not so much by the self-conscious modernisers but by the steady influx of European immigrants who were transforming the terrace suburbs, laying siege to the old redoubts of Puritanism. 'The city's cold heart is thus surrounded by the ebb and flow of Mediterranean life', poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe observed in 1963. Many young native-born Australians were beginning to emulate them, re-creating the inner suburbs around European ideals of density, conviviality and community. By degrees they would begin to shift the Melbourne paradigm from Edinburgh and Manchester to somewhere closer to Rome or Milan. It was a move that built on something already present in the city and noted by Craig McGregor - its aspirations towards a 'leisured and cultivated life'. With it also came a new appreciation of Melbourne's architectural heritage of Victorian terraces and public buildings. Embracing modernity now meant, paradoxically, conserving the old as well as building the new.

The city's image was always fashioned with more than one audience in mind, but during the 1970s and 1980s as Melbourne competed more vigorously for international tourism and investment, its promoters and marketers became ever more aware of the handicap created by the city's lack of a single, internationally recognised symbol or landmark. As always, Sydney, with its bridge and Opera House and the glistening splendour of its harbour, was the invidious comparison. In 1979 Liberal Premier Dick Hamer even sponsored a public competition for a Melbourne landmark. It produced an astonishing range of proposals, from the trite to the bizarre, but nothing that really caught the judges' imagination. Melbourne's charm, its defenders replied, did not depend on a single natural or architectural feature but on the combined delightfulness of many. When marketing consultants were asked to come up with a logo they finally proposed not a bridge or an opera house but a jigsaw. Melbourne, it said, was an exciting, diverse, sophisticated city: a smorgasbord of sport, cuisine, shopping and 'the arts'. In 1990 a Washington-based environmental think-tank provided unexpected confirmation of its charms when it proclaimed Melbourne 'the world's most liveable city', a phrase that, like 'marvellous Melbourne', soon became a mantra.

Ironically, the accolade had arrived just as the city was about to undergo another season of discontent. Already by the 1980s when the Australia Council and the Australian Opera moved to Sydney, the city's self-proclaimed intellectual and artistic leadership seemed to be slipping away. In 1980 the literary magazine Meanjin held a conference under the title 'St Petersburg or Tinseltown?' examining the changing relationship between the rivals. While Melbourne may have been happy to regard Sydney as a cut-price Los Angeles, its literati recoiled from the possibility that their home town was destined, like the old Russian capital, to sink into dignified decay. Worse, however, was to come. In the early 1990s, just a hundred years after the fall of 'Marvellous Melbourne', the failure of the Pyramid Building Society and the sale of the State Bank heralded a new crisis. In the wake of failed Australian Labor Party premiers John Cain and Joan Kirner came the city's would-be saviour Liberal Jeff Kennett, determined to revive the city's fortunes, sometimes, it seemed, by whatever it took. Kennett led the city's most significant makeover in almost a century. With the assistance of businessman and former Lord Mayor Ron Walker he set out to fill the city's calendar with a cycle of major events - race meetings, international motor races, cultural festivals and conventions - that would put it back on the international map. With the opening of Crown Casino, a mammoth gambling and entertainment complex in the heart of the city, he administered the coup de grâce to the already dying culture of Wowserism. And he began a major program of public works, Agenda 21, to renovate Melbourne's long-neglected Museum, State Library and National Gallery. Long before the program was complete, the city's spirits had begun to revive.

In 2000, however, Sydney went one better: it hosted the biggest major event of all, the Olympic Games. Back in the 1980s Melbourne had mounted a campaign to win the 1996 Games, a campaign thwarted, some darkly suggested, by the tepid support of Sydney-based Australian delegates to the International Olympic Committee. In the build-up to the Games, some Sydney patriots could not resist the opportunity to put down the southern capital. 'Sydney is quite simply the most exciting city in the world' begins the blurb of Peter Murphy and Sophie Watson's Surface city (1997), before trotting out all the hoary myths about Melbourne's weather and wowsers. No sooner were the Olympics over, however, than some Sydney-siders began to wonder whether Melbourne, with its regular calendar of 'major events', had not chosen a more sustainable path of development. In July 2003 Joe Hockey, federal minister for tourism, complained that his home town had become 'tired and complacent' and had nothing to offer the international tourist. 'Where are the regular events in Sydney - the Formula One Grand Prix, or the equivalent of the Melbourne Cup?', Hockey asked. New South Wales Premier Bob Carr was predictably outraged, but Melbourne newspapers had a field day, the Herald Sun helpfully contributing a list of five reasons to visit Melbourne, and five reasons to avoid the northern capital:

Five reasons to visit Melbourne

1. World-class sporting events such as the Melbourne Cup, Australian Open and Grand Prix

2. Beautiful parks and gardens

3. Trams

4. Renowned for eateries

5. The world's greatest football code.

Five reasons to avoid Sydney

1. Terrible traffic

2. Rude service

3. Drab suburbs

4. Too expensive

5. They play rugby league.

At the beginning of the 21st century, as at the end of the 19th, Melbourne is still jousting with its long-time sparring partner, Sydney. A century hence the tables may have turned and other cities, Brisbane perhaps, will have entered the lists. Only then, when they escape the binary logic of Us and Them, will each perhaps begin to see themselves for what they are.

Graeme Davison