State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 69 Autumn 2002


1. A Pair of Australian Cedar Bookcases

In The Rare Books Room of the State Library of Victoria stands a fine pair of Australian cedar bookcases [one of which is pictured on page 41]. They were originally made for George Russell (1812-1888),1 of ‘Golf Hill’ near Shelford in Western Victoria.
George Russell, born in Scotland, arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1831, and in 1836, as manager for the Scottish-based Clyde Company, took up land in Western Victoria. He later became a partner in the concern. After the company was dissolved, Russell bought 8300 acres, later increasing his holding to 28,000. He had a number of pastoral properties but lived at Golf Hill. In 1876, Russell commissioned the architects, Smith & Johnson2 to draw up plans for a new two-storey bluestone residence at Golf Hill. The foundation stone was laid by his only son Philip on 20 May of that year.3
Substantial orders for furniture of Australian timbers were placed in Melbourne in 1877. Smith & Johnson drew up the specifications for the bookcases which were designed to stand each side of the fireplace in George Russell's library. James McEwan, Cabinet and Chair Manufacturer of 361 Spencer Street, West Melbourne, who in 1877 advertised Household and Office Furniture of Every Description Made to Order in a Superior Manner, was commissioned to fulfil the order.4
The choice was wise. James McEwan's billhead proudly bears the detail — Awarded First Prize Gold Medals, Melbourne Industrial Exhibitions, 1856, 1858, 1862, and Medals [Melbourne] 1867 and 1875. As McKendrick & McEwan in 1856:
… a massive altar chair and cedar sideboard, with masonic columns … furniture of great beauty … the gold medal was awarded to them.5
In 1858:
Colonial-made furniture is not so well represented as usual, the entries are few but some of the articles are good, one especially, a handsome cedar sideboard, of good workmanship and chaste design … to McKendrick & McEwan for a carved cedar sideboard and a blackwood drawingroom commode6 — gold medal.7
And again in 1861, with the award being made late in that year, but probably not received until 1862:
A large library bookcase … is exhibited by Messrs. McKendrick & McEwan. It is constructed of colonial cedar, so light and even in colour as to closely resemble Honduras mahogany … first class certificate awarded to McKendrick and McEwan.8
In 1867 the firm exhibited a large specimen plank of cedar, 12 1/2 feet by 4 1/2 feet by 2 1/2 inches to be awarded a medal. The Exhibition Record of that year commented:
One prodigious plank of cedar, emanating from the Richmond River district, but sawn and polished by Messrs. McKendrick and McEwan, of Melbourne, is exhibited … It is 12 1/2 feet long by 4 1/2 feet broad, and is stated to be the largest plank of cedar yet sawn.9
In 1875, as James McEwan, Cabinet and Chair Manufacturer of 361 Spencer Street, West Melbourne, a sideboard of picked Richmond cedar was exhibited. The carving enrichments consisted of nine carved figures; that in the centre on a glass back represented the head of Minerva. This sideboard gained a first award with the die being engraved by Julius Hogarth and struck by Stokes. It was subsequently awarded a gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, James McEwan being commended ‘for good design and excellent workmanship'.10
It is known that James McEwan of 36 Spencer Street made part of the furniture for Victoria's new Government House in 1876 at a total cost of £5804/11/6. The telescopic dining table, supplied by McEwan, 50 feet long by 6 feet wide, of Spanish mahogany with cedar leaves, is magnificent and still in use today. A model of this, 1 inch:2 inch scale and half-length, was exhibited at Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition of 1875. McEwan was also commissioned to furnish the library, in particular supplying the bookcases of Spanish mahogany.11
Although there is no supporting evidence, it is possible that George Russell attended some of the various exhibitions in Melbourne during this period and noted the quality of the entries of McEwan and awards made to him, in particular the bookcase of 1861/62. James McEwan's account for Russell's bookcases: ‘Two Bookcases Made to order from Plans & Specifications From Messrs. Smith & Johnson, Architects as per Contract Including Cases, Packing and Delivery to Melbourne Railway Station’, dated 17 September 1877, came in at £89/10s the pair. Smith & Johnson authorised payment of the account on 4 October 1877. Each bookcase, of cedar throughout, has a scrolled pediment and mouldings to the cornice. The case, with rounded corners, tapered columns, and fine mouldings to the glazed arched doors, has foliate decoration to the arch infills and capitals. There are faceted glass knobs to the doors. Each shelf is fitted with a skiver, the edge scalloped and tooled in gold. The drawer to the base, with fine machine-cut dovetails and tapered columns, is fitted with two cedar knobs. The brass fittings, hinges, locks and escutcheons, are original, as is the finish. No maker's label, stamp or such was found. The cost of the pair, at £89/10s, appears very reasonable. Wages paid to cabinet-makers during this period were variable. In some of the best shops in Melbourne, such as that of McEwan, the weekly wages were as high as £3/10s; inferior establishments paid from £2/10s to £3, with country cabinet-makers receiving even less.12
McEwan forwarded a second account for £360/2s (including the £89/10s) to George Russell on 5 October 1877, listing a further 30 pieces made for Golf Hill in addition to the bookcases. The note at the foot of this account read: ‘…Sir, you will oblige me much by sending me a cheque for the above acct. by return of post if possible…'. This note gives an indication of the precarious state of the business. When James McEwan's estate was wound up in 1883 there was a deficit of £154/8/11.13
Janet Biddlecombe, the youngest daughter of George Russell, came into possession of Golf Hill shortly before 1898, such matters being arranged prior to the death of Russell's only son, Philip. Aware of the value of some of the contents of Golf Hill, she arranged that Messrs. Daryl Lindsay, Colin A McCallum and Alan Henderson should visit and select pieces for the National Gallery of Victoria, the Public Library, and the Geelong Art Gallery. The agreement concerning the various bequests was made on 18 August 1947, later resulting in the pair of cedar bookcases becoming the property of the State Library of Victoria. These bookcases contain George Russell's library of leather bound volumes.14
The provenance of the bookcases is beyond doubt and their manufacture can definitely be attributed to James McEwan, Cabinet and Chair Manufacturer of 361 Spencer Street, West Melbourne. These bookcases are, in fact, the first pieces located as being of the manufacture of James McEwan of 361 Spencer Street, West Melbourne. Given the additional information found it should be possible in the future to locate a number of the other pieces made by McEwan for George Russell of Golf Hill.
Ruth Dwyer
[Acknowledgements — Des Cowley, Rare Books Collection, State Library of Victoria. John Furphy of ‘Acorn Antiques’, High Street, Armadale.]


Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2: 1788-1850, I-Z, Douglas Pike, ed., Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1967.


Alfred Louis Smith, (c. 1830-1907) and Arthur Ebden Johnson (1821-1895). Smith designed the Bank of Victoria erected in 1861 in Collins Street. He may also have designed the Australian cedar chairs for the directors of that bank. According to Miles Lewis's Architectural Index, Smith won first prize for the design of the Benevolent Asylum in North Melbourne in 1856. Other bank buildings, the Steam Packet Hotel in Williamstown in 1862 and a number of private residences in St. Kilda, including ‘Charnwood’, were also built to Smith's design. Johnson arrived in Melbourne from England in 1852. He developed an extensive private practice and was successful in competitions for the designs of such as the Church of England Grammar School and Melbourne General Post Office. Later he was connected with the Public Works Department. After 1875, in association with Smith, he designed a number of other buildings. These included the Melbourne Law Courts and the Union and Colonial Banks. Some of their drawings for Golf Hill House survive, but unfortunately not those for the bookcases.


Inscription engraved on the silver trowel used to lay the foundation stone of Golf Hill House in 1876. This trowel, unmarked, is now in the La Trobe Picture Collection, H24599.


James McEwan, Cabinet and Chair Manufacturer of 361 Spencer Street, was born in Scotland, c. 1829, the son of Thomas McEwan, cabinet-maker. Emigration from Great Britain was possibly aboard the Kent, arriving in Melbourne in 1852. He married Margaret Kidd, also in Melbourne, in 1859. Children born were William 1859, Alexander 1861, Henry 1864, Catherine 1866, Margaret 1868 and Isabella 1876. James McEwan died in Melbourne West in 1883. He should not be confused with James McEwan, Furnishing Ironmonger, of Elizabeth Street, who according to a reliable source, his probate papers, died in Melbourne on 9 February, 1868. Sources: Sands & McDougall Melbourne Directory 1877, p. 52; Fahy, Simpson & Simpson, Nineteenth Century Australian Furniture, Sydney, David Ell Press, 1985, p. 157; Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Victoria, 1853-1888, Marriage Certificate no. 2320, Birth Certificates nos 18075,18917, 3918, 22492, 18011 and 4047, Death Certificate no. 6027.


Argus, 26 November 1856, p. 6; 1 December 1856, p. 4.


Such a commode in nineteenth-century terms was a low elegant cupboard with or without drawers, and originally of French origin.


Argus, 12 February 1858, p. 4; 4 March 1858, p. 5.


Ibid., 15 October 1861, p. 6; 5 December 1861, p. 5.


Ibid., 14 February 1867, supp. p. 2; Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia 1866-67, Official Record, Melbourne, Blundell & Co., 1867, p. 144.


Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, (Melbourne 1875) Official Record, Melbourne, McCarron, Bird & Co., 1875, pp. xxvi, 134, 361, Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition 1876, Catalogue of Exhibits, p. 98. Reports on the Philadelphia International Exhibition of 1876, London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1878, vol. 3, p. 247.


Argus, 22 May 1876, p. 5; Age, 20 May 1876, p. 5. Various holdings of the PROV list only total amounts paid without specifying the individual cost of the bookcases supplied.


MS 9248, Box 55X, Clyde Company Papers, SLV, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection; Argus, 3 October 1877, ‘Summary for Europe’ p. 2.
Janet Biddlecombe, in her will dated 13 September 1952, stipulated that that the Clyde Company Papers were to be presented to the Public Library of Victoria:
Provided that the trustees of the Library give an undertaking satisfactory to my trustees — that they shall properly arrange and display all such documents records and other papers and shall take adequate steps to ensure their preservation and safe custody…
The Clyde Company Papers have been catalogued and preserved as Janet Biddlecombe directed. They are now available for the use of the public. P.L. Brown edited them for publication. They appeared as The Narrative of George Russell and The Clyde Company Papers, the latter in seven volumes.


MS 9248, ibid.; PROV, VPRS 28/PO, Unit 319, 27/85. Will and Probate Papers of James McEwan, Cabinet and Chair Manufacturer of 361 Spencer Street, d. 1883.


File on Golf Hill, Rare Books Room, 5th floor, McCallum Wing, SLV.