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A Victorian Bedazzlement [Billilla Bedazzled: Walter Butler vs. Setken remix]

Updated: Mar 2


Acrylic on linen

72” x 36”

February 2024


My interest in Billilla Mansion came about from researching the works of architect Walter Richmond Butler (1864 – 1949).

I have lived in Bayside for 9 years and as my research intensified, I became aware that I live in the thick of some of the most illustrious colonial-era architecture that suburban Melbourne has to offer.

 

Original concept: a film for Enchantment

The original idea for my painting began as a 3-minute black and white silent film that I had written to be staged in an early incarnation of my forthcoming Enchantment exhibition.

In the film, a well to do stranger arrives in newly federated Melbourne with the intention of a consulting one of its famous mediums. During a séance, he is presented with an Ancient Egyptian parchment with a spell from the Pyramid Texts inscribed upon it.

Later, under the heavy influence of absinthe and accompanied by a lady that he met at his hotel, he is mysteriously drawn into the garden of a wealthy estate. Noticing that a stained-glass window appears to have the exact formula of hieroglyphs as the parchment in his possession, both he and his unsuspecting accomplice are confronted by a winged spectre.

It is the final scene of the film that the painting conveys.

 

The Billilla Mansion in Brighton, Melbourne

Billilla Mansion is heritage listed and located in an adjacent suburb to where I live.

Originally built for gold rush migrant Robert Wright in 1878, it later became the home of grazier and mining magnate William Weatherly, who had it transformed into the marvellous Art Nouveau-style Edwardian manor that it is today. It is named after one of Weatherley’s properties in NSW, also called Billilla.

The mansion remained in the Weatherly family until 1973, when the then-Brighton Council bought it on behalf of the community.

Walter Butler’s edits

My research into the works of Walter Butler and the era from which he emerged has helped to inspire an entire exhibition concept, to which this painting belongs.

Motivated by my search for the original plans of David Syme’s tomb in Kew Cemetery (which Butler made with third business partner Ernest Royston Bradshaw) my journey has led me through many aspects of the man’s career and extraordinary architectural achievements.

I was unaware of Walter Butler’s “edits” to the mansion as the information I found at the time mentioned the earlier editing of the mansion by Smith and Johnson[1], without referencing Butler. Butler’s work was not always mentioned in the commentaries online.

I remember that when looking at the photos of Billilla – especially the detailed tops of the Corinthian capitals – how it echoed with the 14 columns of Syme’s monument. I saw conflations with many elements of Billilla and indeed an author[2] of a thesis on Butler describes the Art Nouveau elements on the front columns as having “a strange Egyptian type of formalism”. Needless to say, I share this point of view.

I should not have been surprised then when I learned that in 1907 – just 1 year before beginning work on David Syme’s final resting place - Butler completed the remodeling of the mansion in what was to become an indicator of his Arts And Crafts style.

 

Mabel Ellen Young

In examining the rest of the building, I could see other Butler-esque signs, and some of the ornamentation made me recall Mabel Young’s plates that are in the NGV collection.

The work of Mabel Ellen Young needs mention here also: her work is starkly apparent in Billilla and played a significant part in the Syme tomb also[3]. My research into her work and life has not been easy as there is very little record remaining, the focus being (as was the case for all artist couplings of the era) on her more famous husband Blamire.

One of her granddaughters kindly sent me an old photo of a fireplace Mabel had created that has identical carvings to some of the intricate design of the leaves and decoration in and on Billilla.

 

Colonial Architects: the rock stars of their day

A Victorian Bedazzlement is the original title of the aforementioned film, but the additional bracketed title references the modern convention of mentioning contributors to songs that have undergone remixing and editing from the original.

My bracketing is not affectatious; in discussing my research with architectural historian Dimity Reed, I commented that it appeared as though the culture of architect popularity in colonial times made them the pop stars of their day. In other words, architects were afforded the same status we afford pop stars and celebrities now. She agreed.

 

Pyramid Text 570

The parchment that the Victorian gentleman in my painting has dropped on the ground features a text from the pyramid of King Mer En Ra[4]. This is expressed as stained-glass windows with the complete text.

The actual stained-glass windows of Billilla are devoid of mysticism or anything Egyptian – this is entirely my overlay. But curiously, a Hellenistic sphinx head was added to the gardens of the estate in recent times. My Setian sphinxes at the bottom corners of the painting echo this.

 

Billilla Bedazzled

Initially, I was going to use Butler’s original plans for his remodeling commission in its entirety[5]. However, as spectacular as the multi-storey rethink was, it would have taken away from the characteristic view of the mansion as we know it today.

I have combined the final version of the building familiar to us today with Butler’s original vision along with my own edits.

The painting also references the ornamental features of the ceilings and walls of the mansion. The colour of the building is influenced by its wallpapers, as well as the colours used by Butler in his spectacular original architectural drawings, the precursor to blueprints and an artifact left over from colonial times.


Video of painting

 

 

 


[1] Robert Beswicke was also commissioned in 1900 for a revamp but it never eventuated

[2] David Howard Alsop: “Walter Richmond Butler”, 1971; I am indebted to Mr. Alsop’s thesis as photographs of Billilla taken circa 1970 did not have the imposing shrubbery that is there today, thus enabling me to recreate the work with edits hard to achieve otherwise

[3] Mabel Young did the copper fittings on the Syme monument

[4] I have used this text in an earlier painting, Zemmit; it comes from Dynasty 6 of Egypt’s Old Kingdom era. I am indebted to my friend and fellow artist – iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa for providing me with this hieroglyphic text and transliteration. For a translation of this text please see my blog about Zemmit

[5] These are kept as part of the special collections at State Library Of Victoria

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