An Homage to the Age of Sail
In the 19th century, sailing the ships which were vital Australia’s economy was tough and dangerous work. Countless lives were lost on perilous charting, trading and immigrant voyages, crews and passengers included. There are more than 8,000 shipwrecks in Australian waters, of which approximately 1,500 are identified, the earliest being the British East India Company’s TrialI, lost in 1622. There were many more ships lost in international waters en route from ports or coastlines around Australia.
No wonder then that the ships and their crews were widely reported and romanticised for their majesty, power, bravery and prowess in delivering passengers and goods safely. Their voyages and cargoes were tracked as crews manoeuvred voluminous sails and yards at the mercy of the elements, tackling massive winds and seas as they traced their routes to and from home ports.
This April the museum unveiled a major bronze sculpture to pay homage to the crews of these ‘windjammer’ ships, which once visited the wharves of Sydney’s Pyrmont where the sculpture is located. It is both a romantic tribute, an ode to the sailing ship men, and a fitting commemoration of the role they played in Australia’s maritime and mercantile history.
This new work is a life-size bronze sculpture based on an idea cherished for many years by Rear Admiral Andrew Robertson AO DSC RAN (Rtd), a former member of the museum’s interim council, who steered the Australian National Maritime Museum through its formative years in the mid-1980s.
Rear Admiral Robertson joined the navy in 1939 as a cadet midshipman and served in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific from 1942 to 1944, in the Mediterranean from 1944 to 1945, then in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He has been captain of frigates HMAS Quickmatch and Yarra, and carrier HMAS Sydney.
As a naval commander of massive steel ships with well-disciplined crews, he was respectful of the enormous sail of the wind ships and their masters and crews, who at the mercy of the globe’s perilous winds and waters delivered critical cargoes in and out of ports around Australia. He saw them very much as making a critical contribution to the economic development of the nation.
These great wind ships have indeed been the stuff of legend, inspiring artists, poets, writers and musicians like John Masefield, Joseph Conrad, Alan Villiers, Eric Newby and locally Percy Grainger and Dennis Adams, many of whom sought passages on the last of these ships as the great era of sail was coming to an end in the early 20th century. Many eulogised their passages and their passing.
For Rear Admiral Robertson, Australian artist Dennis Adams was the natural choice to produce a sculptural work in homage to windjammer sailors.
Rear-Admiral Robertson held this idea close for several decades, during which Dennis Adams died (in 2001). Now in his 90s, Rear-Admiral Robertson has driven the idea to fruition by generously gifting funds to the ANMM.
Windjammer Sailors is now located on the wharf at the Australian National Maritime Museum as part of a program to reenergise the museum’s external footprint and broader maritime precinct. It is envisaged as a site-responsive punctuation mark in a walk around the waterfront.
This precinct stretches from the main museum building, the white exhibition building adjacent to Pyrmont Bridge, into Darling Harbour with the museum’s new Waterfront Pavilion stretching along its south wharf, and along and around the foreshore to the historic wharves which house the museum’s Wharf 7 Maritime Heritage Centre.
Windjammer Sailors will relate directly to history of the trade and transport between continents and cultures with particular connections to the site, the wharves, their rail tracks and historic vessels, and those who worked them. This includes the largest and most high profile artefact of moveable cultural heritage embodying this history – James Craig. Indeed James Craig’s wheel served as the model for part of the work, setting up interesting tensions in modelling the real, the technological and the human at one, harnessing the power of nature.
- Waves spilling on to the waist of a tall ship. ANMM Collection: 00035092.
- Sailors and an accordion player on board Magdalene Vinnen. ANMM Collection: 00034581.
- Waves spilling over the ship. ANMM Collection: 00035091.
- Cargo hold in Magdalene Vinnen with crew men securing wool bales. ANMM Collection 00035587.
- Captain Lorenz Peters with crew members near the ship's wheel on Magdalene Vinnen. ANMM Collection: 00035611.