The Griffin drawings

The early history of the Griffin drawings subsequent to the competition has been pieced together from files kept by the Department of Home Affairs. In late 1912 they were moved to the site of Canberra for use by the Federal Capital Commission. They were returned to Melbourne in early 1913 where they were stored in the basement of Government House. At around this time the Griffin drawings were removed from their original stretchers, rolled up and placed in galvanised cylinders for storage.

In late 1913 Mr George Taylor, Honorary Secretary of the Town Planning Association, borrowed the drawings for an exhibition on town planning to be held in Sydney. Approval for the loan was given by the Prime Minister Joseph Cook himself and the following memorandum was sent by the Land and Property Office to The Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys:

I am forwarding herewith for your information copy of a letter…received from the Honorary Secretary, Town Planning Association of Australia, together with copy of the Minister’s Minute thereon. I am having the plans cleaned and properly stretched on frames before they are taken to Sydney by Mr. Taylor. I may add that Mr. Griffin has expressed the opinion that the designs should not have been considered as plans, but as paintings, and treated as such, and states that they should never have been removed from the frames.

(The drawings were replaced on their stretcher frames and not taken off again until conservation work in the 1950s).

In 1917 a set of slotted, zinc-lined chests was constructed to house the drawings. That same year the drawings were transported to Adelaide for exhibition at the Australian Town Planning Conference and Exhibition. Voices were raised in objection to this, fearing that the drawings may be damaged, and was decided that in future photographs would be sent in place of the drawings.

In 1925 Mr C S Daley, Secretary of the Federal Capital Commission, pointed out the historical significance of the drawings and stated that they should be stored with the Archives of the Commonwealth.  From this time, documentary evidence about the drawings dries up and it was not until 1953 that they were heard of again. In November of that year the drawings were ‘rediscovered’ packed in five wooden crates in a Department of Works shed in the Canberra suburb of Kingston. Staff of the Commonwealth National Library, Archives Division, were concerned for the safety of the drawings and took them into custody on 6 November 1953. At that time the Griffin drawings were still on their stretchers and some of them were hinged with removable hinges. The condition of the drawings was described as ‘good’.

For some time after this, the Griffin drawings were on loan to Parliament House, Canberra and “City & Environs” was put on display there.

City and Environs

(NAA: A710, 38)

When returned they were initially stored in the Commonwealth National Library’s main repository, before being moved to plan cabinets in a non-air-conditioned Nissen hut in Parkes, ACT in 1957.  In 1961 the Commonwealth Archives Office was established and the drawings became part of its holdings; the selfsame Nissen hut was given to the new body as a storage area and the drawings remained there until they were transferred to the Archives’ new purpose built archival repository at Mitchell in the early 1980s, where they remain.

Early treatment work on the drawings held by the NAA

The history of the drawings for the Federal Capital Design Competition is a long, sad tale of neglect and physical damage including staining, water damage, paint loss, severe fading and numerous tears. Probably worst of all, poor conservation in the 1950s and 60s had left the drawings adhered to chipboard with a low quality starch adhesive (luckily with a layer of cartridge paper between). Little care had been taken with the conservation work resulting in roughly trimmed edges of the objects, often removing parts of the image; and in the case of the Griffin drawings, which were originally mounted as easel paintings, removing the tacking margins. It was this damage, both accidental and wilful, that a new treatment project undertook to put right.

The 1986­–1994 project to treat the drawings was so significant that I wrote a paper about the work, which was published in the international conservation journal Restaurator (The Walter Burley Griffin Design Drawings of the City of Canberra: Conservation Work at the National Archives of Australia”, Restaurator, 19-3, 1998). In that article I made mention of the ‘lost’ image and included a copy of the photograph of it. Many years later I gave Dr David Headon a copy of the article as he wished to become more acquainted with the history of the drawings. David is Advisor on the Centenary of Canberra in the Chief Minister’s Department of the ACT Government, and also Advisor to Senator Kate Lundy. This was to prove a very fortuitous act!

The lost image

A native of Chicago, Walter Burley Griffin was 37 years old when he entered the Federal Capital Design Competition. He had studied architecture at the University of Illinois and later worked as an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, and had recently married Marion Lucy Mahony, herself an architect, illustrator and furniture designer. Marion had graduated in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only the second woman to do so. At the time of the competition Marion and Walter ran their own architecture practice in Chicago.

After an initial selection process that eliminated the obviously unsuitable and invalid Competition entries, a Government photographer copied the remainder. These photographs are held by the NAA as Commonwealth Records Series (CRS) A765. One of the photographs gives an idea of the haste with which the Griffins prepared their drawings. It shows a version of the triptych simply on a single sheet of paper with apparently no colouring. Documentary sources reveal that the Griffins had not finished the triptych when the deadline for shipping to Australia had arrived. Griffin sent a printed paper copy of the drawing with instructions that the finished item would follow (it arrived soon after and was present for the judging).

Photo of missing drawing

(NAA: A765, Whole Series.  Note the item’s description in the NAA catalogue: “Photographic Negatives of Designs Submitted in Federal Capital Design Competition – entr[y] from competitor 29 ­– original no longer exists”)

Close scrutiny of the photograph allows the following inscription to be made out:


At the time of the treatment project for the Federal Capital Design Competition drawings, this image of the triptych was thought to have been lost, and possibly destroyed. It is not mentioned at all in any documentation relating to the drawings as a group. I eventually put the ‘lost’ image out of my mind, assuming that it was truly gone. We had a photographic copy of it and that would have to suffice.

Then, out of the blue, I received a call from David Headon in April 2011. He sounded excited:

DH: Do you remember the ‘lost’ image you mention in your article on the Griffin drawings?
IB: Yes…
DH: Well I might have some news for you!
IB: (very excited) You’re not telling me you’ve found it!
DH: I may have…

He really had!

He’d been given a mixed group of items found at the Planning Institute of Australia National Office to see if there was anything of interest. One was a nondescript-looking cardboard cylinder with something stuffed into it. It languished in his car for several days. Then one day in his study at home, he had at last found time to take out and unroll the paper in the cylinder. He recognised it immediately as the ‘lost’ image mentioned in my article.

To verify that this was the image in question, I visited David at Senator Kate Lundy’s office where he works and we carefully unrolled the very fragile paper. It was indeed the image in the photo – last heard of in 1912.

Both David Headon and the Planning Institute were fully in agreement that the image constituted a Commonwealth Record and belonged in the National Archives along with the other Federal Capital Design Competition drawings. I immediately, and somewhat triumphantly, took it back to the National Archives repository at Mitchell for safekeeping. The image was duly entered into the Archives and took its rightful place beside the other Griffin drawings. A media event was held on 23 May 2011 to mark the occasion of its official handover.

The Hon Brendan O'Connor and Dr Stephen Ellis, Acting Director-General of the National Archives, unveil the ‘lost’ Griffin image

(The Hon Brendan O’Connor and Dr Stephen Ellis, Acting Director-General of the National Archives, unveil the ‘lost’ Griffin image)