Foyer marquetry

Image of main Foyer showing marquetry

Tony Bishop and Michael Retter, Austrobaileya scandens,
1986-87, timber marquetry
Parliament House Art Collection
© Tony Bishop and Michael Retter

 

The decorative timber inlay panels (known as marquetry) in the main Foyer represent one of the most successful collaborations in the Parliament House Art Collection. Designed by Adelaide artist Tony Bishop, the twenty panels were made by Sydney craftsman Michael Retter, and depict native flora from around Australia. The project was another of the key commissions proposed by architects Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, with their intention to create a sequence of symbolic spaces along the north/south axis of the building. The marquetry panels refer not only to the Australian landscape, but to the entwined histories of Aboriginal and European cultures.

Bishop began his research at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, later travelling to both coastal and desert areas of Australia. He devoted the six panels on the northern side to plants used by Aboriginal people for food and medicine, such as yam, quandong and bunya pine. On the southern side the artist chose species that were of interest to British botanist Sir Joseph Banks on his arrival in Australia in 1770. These include wattle, waratah and various eucalypts. The four panels on each of the west and east sides depict examples of Australia’s ancient vegetation, including rainforest flora up to two hundred million years old.

 

Tony Bishop and Michael Retter, Cycads [Cycadaceae], 1986-87, timber marquetry, Parliament House Art Collection

Tony Bishop and Michael Retter, Cycads [Cycadaceae]
1986-87, timber marquetry
© Tony Bishop and Michael Retter
Parliament House Art Collection   

 

 

The timbers used in the fabrication of the panels signal the broad range of Australian timbers used throughout the building. The panels consist of a central coachwood background bordered vertically with the darker toned jarrah. Together Bishop and Retter selected the most appropriate timber to achieve the tonal variations in the flora. These included Queensland walnut, poplar, kauri pine, camphor laurel and Australian red cedar.

While the history of marquetry goes back many centuries, its application in an architectural context has been rare in Australia. The project contributed greatly to the revival of marquetry as a craft in Australia, and to the development of new techniques to accomplish some of the more complicated aspects of Bishop’s designs. It involves a meticulous process of building up images with thin pieces of timber veneer and then sanding back the surface and polishing. The craft requires a high level of manual skill combined with an artist’s eye for grain, texture and colour. Retter, a self-taught craftsman, described the process as one of “painting” with timber.

Following the success of the collaboration in the main Foyer, the project was expanded to include marquetry commissions from Bishop and Retter for the Cabinet suite and for the Speaker’s Chair.

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