When the producer of Radio National’s The Arts Show decided she wanted this image for the web-page, to complement the radio program I’d been in with Ed Ayers, (listen here) she emailed me. “Can you tell me more about this one?” she’d asked. “Is it still the hundredth shed? Where is it located?”
I’m sure she just wanted name and place, which I gave her. Then I imagined her sitting in the city offices of ABC Radio. There’d been no clues, in any of the emails we’d shared, about what she might already know about shearing sheds, or sheep and wool. Suddenly it became important to explain this image to a different audience. The people I’d spoken to at the exhibition opening in Armidale knew not only the industry, but that shed, many intimately. I wondered what people who didn’t know what they were looking at would think. So I wrote her a long email back. She didn’t use the info on her webpage (read it here) but there’s a point when telling visual stories of rural Australia gets to have words as well.
This is a painting of the place the shearers stand to shear the sheep. It’s called the board. The sheep come into the shed and are kept in pens to the left, behind the gates and the piece of cloth. (Sheep will balk at sound and movement: the cloth is a calming device in this shed). They are shorn, then sent through those short doors you can see under the windows on the right. That takes them outside to a long pen where they will be counted (tallied) at the end of the shearing session (also called a run, there are four runs each day).
The shearers need good light, so the board is often on the outside of the shed, allowing for natural light. That’s why this part of the shed is painted white, and there is cloth tacked to the ceiling as well. In this shed, the morning light cast such wonderful patterns that it inspired me to create this as a major work. It became one of the main paintings of the exhibition.
I’m not often at shearing sheds while shearing is on. It’s a busy time, and I don’t want to get in the way. So my paintings tell a story of space and quiet in a building that, when working, is anything but.
The series “The Hundredth Shearing Shed” are thirty five paintings of the shed at “Deeargee” near Uralla. It’s a very famous shed with a unique octagonal pyramidal section, built in 1872, attributed to the architect Horbury Hunt. Originally designed for blade shearing, that first part of the shed is now used to pen the sheep when they are first brought into the shed, before they are shorn. It’s visible in the distance in the painting of the board. The light from the overhead windows is strong and even. Perfect for shearing in pre-electric times. With the advent of mechanical shearing which had long shafts, moving belts and wheels, this extension was added in 1889. In 1903 a brick wool room was added, just visible in this painting of the exterior of the shed.
Uralla is in the heart of the New England Tablelands, near Armidale. To this day the New England continues to produce some of the finest wool in the world. Australian fine and superfine wool is exported to, amongst other places, Italy for making into suits.
It’s an astonishingly interesting shed. It has all the things I love about shearing sheds: light, shapes, colour, patina, history. However, it is the architecture of this particular shed that was the most exciting. It’s a working shed, so it’s about history as it’s happening, all around us, today.