A touch of colour adds to the history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 January, 1995, 12:00am

FOR years Helen Playford was one of the first to know when a new potential goldmine had been identified in the outback near Perth in Western Australia.

As a professional cartographer she would talk to the pioneers - the geologists and the entrepreneurs - who were fresh out of the bush with their grab-bags full of rock samples and their minds full of dreams about glittering opportunities of getting rich quick.

Then, working from their maps and their descriptions, she would draw plans of the area that was thought to conceal a goldmine, in order to entice investors into the project.

She even had early rights to buy shares in those mining ventures that she was persuaded would take off.

'We called the penny shares 'moose patches' because they were good for grazing,' she said.

Nothing really hit the big time, but it was enough to fund a succession of classic cars until three years ago when, at the age of 46, she sold her last and favourite MG to set herself up as a full-time artist - her personal glittering dream.

In their newly bought camper van Ms Playford and her husband headed straight out towards Kalgoorlie, a gold-mining town about 600 kilometres east of Perth.

'I wanted to focus on the pioneer aspect of our history in Australia. They were dynamic times, where economic activity became all-important, and where Australia first had its mix of diverse cultural groups.' For more than a month she became a permanent fixture in the local library, studying old newspapers and sepia-ed photographs of the early years during the gold rush that attracted adventurers from all round the world - from Shanghai to Scotland.

She had been fortunate enough to arrive just before the town's centenary celebrations, and the exhibition she held was successful, with most of the pictures snapped up by tourists and local businesses.

Continuing the theme of colonialising pioneers, she spent several weeks in 1993 browsing in Singapore's photo archives - culminating in an exhibition of old Singapore in September - and a few months ago she also spent some time in Hong Kong where her work is now going on show.

Her technique is an unusual one, to fit the mix between accuracy and imagination in her work.

She starts by spray-painting an oil-based paint on to a parchment-quality paper, in various shades of brown. Then, with acrylics on a very dry brush, she creates a texture of blues and greens that make up the harbour and the surrounding areas (that were much greener and bluer than they are now).

The buildings are added last, in a process which seems to combine Ms Playford's sense of draftswoman's accuracy with her sense of mood and romance.

It creates an immediate impression of textured pastels - where the turquoises of harbour and sky help to highlight the colonial buildings.

'Sometimes I will project a photograph of the old buildings on to the paintings, and use that to get the historical perspective. At other times I create scenes from impressions I have had from other photographs and paintings from the same time.' So a painting of the Star Ferry at the turn of the century has the boats (remarkably similar to the ones Wharf operates today) and the pier in accurate scale, while Ms Playford has added the bustling passengers, the sampans cruising around the harbour, and a prominent billboard advertising General Drapers and Gentlemen's Outfitters.

'It was exciting to be here after studying the photographs and the history of the place,' she said.

'One part of me was in modern Hong Kong, and yet I also had a very vivid awareness of the old buildings and the old squares as they used to be before everything changed.'