Paintings of a passing port

‘Walsh Bay wharves, Moores Wharf, the Hungry Mile’, by Jane Bennett, 1998.

Before new developments of Barangaroo, it was a major berth for container and cruise ships. JANE BENNETT, artist-in-residence for Patrick and Sydney Ports, painted the end of freight handling at East Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay.

Over the past 30 years, I have painted so many aspects of this area’s fascinating history. I painted on the Walsh Bay wharves during their redevelopment in 1999-2000 and was artist-in-residence for Patrick Stevedoring and Sydney Ports Corporation for over a decade while East Darling Harbour changed from a maritime precinct into Barangaroo.

As artist-in-residence, I had unprecedented permission to paint subjects normally inaccessible to the general public for reasons of security or danger—such as inside the top of the now-demolished Harbour Control Tower and behind the scenes at Moore’s Wharf, headquarters of the Sydney Ports Corporation. One of my studios was on the top floor of the historic Moores warehouse, originally built of sandstone in old colonial times, then deconstructed and rebuilt on its present site.

Here are some of the scenes that I painted around the working wharves and Millers Point, before it lost that placename.

Walsh Bay wharves, Moores Wharf, the Hungry Mile, 1998, oil on canvas (top picture). This huge canvas was painted from Wharf 4/5 just before the redevelopment started. It shows the derelict (and now demolished) Wharf 6/7 in the foreground. Behind Wharf 8/9, which is the most westerly finger wharf of Walsh Bay, one of the Sydney Ports tugs is berthed at Moores Wharf. A wall of containers is stacked in front of Shed 3, which once housed the customs officers, overseen by the mushroom head of the Harbour Control Tower.

Wharf Skeleton and Bridge, 2000, oil on canvas. This is another painting from my series on the Walsh Bay redevelopment. This small canvas of Wharf 2/3 focuses on the texture of the rotting weatherboards with peeling paint and broken glass—so different to today! I wanted to contrast the dilapidated skeleton of the wharf with the structural framework of the struts of the Harbour Bridge in the background.

‘Wharf Skeleton and Bridge’, by Jane Bennett, 2000.

Rebuilding Walsh Bay wharves (diptych), 2000, acrylic on paper. I painted a series of grisaille works of stages in the redevelopment of the Walsh Bay wharves. ‘Grisaille’ is a term for monochrome painting and serves the same purpose in paintng as black and white images do in photography. By just focusing on the tonal contrast, without the distraction of colour, the image is stronger and more dramatic. The tilt of the crane on the Waterways Constructions barge contrasts with the vertical column of the Harbour Control tower and the piles which were to anchor the platform and apartment building that soon replaced Wharf 6/7.

‘Rebuilding Walsh Bay wharves’, by Jane Bennett, 2000.

Wharf Skeleton, 2000, charcoal, ink on paper. External cladding had been removed from the wharf, briefly revealing the Harbour Bridge through the skeleton of the shed. I was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time, as the bridge was only visible from this viewpoint for a single day! I had been looking at historical photos of the area, so I decided to tint the background in a sepia colour in homage to the past. This work was a finalist in the 2000 Dobell Prize for Drawing, held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The geometry of the grid-like skeleton of the wharf and the diamond patterns of the scissor lifts led the judge, Betty Churcher, to at first mistake it for an elegant abstract, even though it includes an obvious image of the Harbour Bridge! This work was actually hanging upside down for three days in the Art Gallery of NSW before a curator noticed that my signature was upside down and in the top right hand corner!

‘Wharf skeleton’ by Jane Bennett, 2000.

Emerald Queen’ passing Blues Point from top of Harbour Tower, 2006, oil on canvas. This was painted from the tower, and it contrasts the newly renovated wharves with cranes on the last working wharf. Two of the three cranes of the East Darling Harbour wharves stand back to back like huge bookends in front of Shed 3. To their right is Moores Wharf and work boats belonging to the Sydney Ports Corporation. In the centre of the canvas, the ‘Emerald Queen’ is being escorted by tug (probably the ‘Woona’) to the oil terminal at Gore Bay (in the distance at top left). The eastern end of Goat Island juts out on the left. The white building on its shore was used for filming the 1980s TV drama Water Rats, while the handsome red brick Federation houses were originally the headquarters of the Harbour Master.

‘Emerald Queen passing Blues Point from top of Harbour Tower’, by Jane Bennett, 2006.

Walsh Bay from Harbour Control Tower, 2006, gouache on paper. Gouache is like watercolour but has some white paint added for highlighting. I would switch from oil paint to watercolour and gouache to ink, as all these media have different qualities. Sometimes I would try to capture the entire scene, or focus on a tiny vignette. This small painting shows a birdseye view from the top of the Harbour Control Tower over the row of wharves and the Harbour Bridge, behind the jetties and work boats of the Sydney Ports Corporation.

I painted inside the 87-m-high Harbour Control Tower from the early 2000s until even after its closure in April 2011. I spent many New Years Eves in the control room, painting the fireworks exploding underneath me, against the unforgettable harbour view. However there were some drawbacks to this unique studio. I often had to walk up the 400 stairs to the top, while carrying huge canvases, easels and tables—the lift was usually out of order.

‘Walsh Bay from Harbour Control Tower’, by Jane Bennett, 2008.

Lifting container ‘Oceania Chief’, 2006, oil on canvas. I must include paintings of the workers! Unlike Port Botany, which was far more automated, East Darling Harbour still had a lot of manual handling of loads. The three cranes of EDH were not the giant straddle cranes which lift the standard containers at Port Botany, but smaller, mobile cranes which did not run on rails, were highly manoeuverable and would have various spreaders and hooks attached, depending on the type of load. (The A-shaped structure on top of the container is the spreader.)

‘Lifting container, Oceania Chief’, by Jane Bennett, 2006.

‘Spirit of Tasmania III’, with bike entering ramp, 2006, oil on canvas. The ‘Spirit of Tasmania III’ operated in Sydney for only 18 months and made its final departure from the southern end of Shed 6 in October 2006. This ship, known fondly as ‘Spot’ by the wharfies, was then sold and now operates as a cruise ship around the Mediterranean. Te only time that any of the ships from the TT Line now come to Sydney is for repairs and maintenance at the Captain Cook dry dock at Garden Island.

Most cruise ships are nearly identical, usually slab-like, predominantly white, and quite boring to paint from an artist’s point of view. However ‘Spot’ had a quirky charm missing from most larger vessels. I was fascinated by the strange wins on the funnel, the brash red hull and the unusual vertical lift on the nose cone. There were entrance-exit ramps at both ends, so it could be docked facing either way.

‘Spirit of Tasmania III with bike entering ramp’, Jane Bennett, 2006.

Hooking up a silo (diptych), 2007, oil on canvas. A lot of the cargo was ‘break bulk’, which is the term for goods that can’t be containerised. Occasionally two cranes would have to be used for an awkward load. It was fascinating to see what an effort it took to provide so many everyday items that we take for granted. Rolls of metal would linger for days in a shed, waiting to be turned into Colorbond fences; giant mounds of salt or gypsum would have to be separated from the rows of expensive, gleaming, new BMWs and boats; lengths of timber bound for Bunnings would pile up until it was difficult to find paths to load and unload other goods.

This painting was commissioned by one of the wharf workers, to record one of the last major lifts performed by the cranes at East Darling Harbour. The crane had just been repainted yellow and white (AT&T colours) several weeks prior to being sent by barge to Port Kembla.

‘Hooking up a silo’, diptych by Jane Bennett, 2007.

Relics from the Dead House, 2007, oil on canvas. The ‘Dead House’ had a weird assortment of half-forgotten items, ranging from flotsam and jetsam that was found on ships to maritime heritage objects such as tally boxes, used to keep shipping records in the days before computers. This painting is poignant because it shows the end of an era. The workers just left their crumpled overalls on the floor, took their redundancy cheques and left. In the centre is an olive green box which served as the ballot box during the Patrick vs unions dispute at the turn of this century. A port worker forced it open and the only thing inside was a crumpled, empty pack of Winnie Blues!

‘Relics from the Dead House’, by Jane Bennett.

The Dead House 2, 2007, oil on canvas. The tally boxes had the names of the tally clerks stencilled on the outside and most of them predated the Second World War. Many wharf workers recognised the names of their fathers, grandfathers or even great-grandfathers on these tally boxes. They are stacked on a trolley that probably predated World War I; it was used to lug huge bags of wheat and sugar. Standing against the pile of boxes is a tool used for rolling lengths of timber. A few of these maritime heritage items are on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, but most were thrown out.

‘The Dead House 2’, by Jane Bennett, 2007.

Barangaroo when it was a working port, 2007, oil on canvas. This was painted just outside the office in Shed 4, looking north. It shows all the usual trappings of a working wharf—some forklifts, all three cranes, a ship docked beside Shed 3, a labyrinth of shipping containers in the middle distance and cryptic markings in the foreground, reminiscent of a Jeffrey Smart painting. However, these marks were there for a functional reason—they indicated pedestrian zones and directions for trucks and forklifts to travel.

‘Barangaroo when it was a working port’, by Jane Bennett, 2007.

The empty wharf from Shed 5, 2008, oil on canvas. This was painted exactly a year after ‘Barangaroo when a working port’. This has an emptiness compared with the previous painting. The bare expanse of concrete and the row of light poles recall the work of Jeffrey Smart and Giorgio de Chirico. However all of my work is painted from reality, en plein air, depicting actual conditions on the site.

‘The empty wharf from Shed 5’, by Jane Bennett, 2008.

Moores Wharf from the ‘Scholarship‘, 2008, oil on canvas. This was painted from the bridge of the ‘Scholarship’, a university aboard a cruise ship. I was incredibly lucky to paint from this vantage point because this was the last time the ship came to Sydney. Cruise ships then still docked at Shed 3 at what is now the north end of Barangaroo Park.

‘Moores Wharf from the Scholarship’, by Jane Bennett, 2008.

Digger—the new trench—archaeologists at Barangaroo, 2010, oil on canvas. This was an excavation by Casey and Lowe at the southern end of Barangaroo, on the site of the previous Shed 6, the maintenance shed. They discovered the western end of wharves which date from the early 19th century. In 2003, other archaeologists unearthed the eastern end of these wharves when the KENS (Kent, Erskine, Napoleon and Sussex Streets) site was excavated for construction of the Westpac headquarters. (I also painted a series of canvases at that site.)

‘Digger—the new trench—archaeologists at Barangaroo’, by Jane Bennett, 2010.

‘I saw the number 8 in red’, 2010, oil on canvas. This strange image is of the empty interior of the Arrivals hall of Wharf 8, the former cruise passenger terminal, just before its demolition. It’s an interior vs exterior painting, playing with light, transparency and reflections. The glass doors both reveal and conceal the view.

‘I saw the number 8 in red’, by Jane Bennett, 2010.

Millers Point from the bridge of the ‘Maersk Gateshead’, 2010, oil on canvas. Being allowed, even encouraged, to paint from the bridges of various ships docking at the wharf gave me the most amazing views of Sydney Harbour, the Walsh Bay wharves and Millers Point. This was painted from the ‘Maersk Gateshead’, the last container ship to dock at East Darling Harbour.

The ‘Maersk Gateshead’ was not intended originally to enter Sydney Harbour at all. It had been about to dock at Port Botany when it was discovered that the engines were disabled. There was quite a big swell at Botany, which is a wide, windy and shallow bay at the best of times, so the captain decided to move his ship to the vacant lot at the former Shed 5. The ship was not unloaded at the wharf but waited for repairs and finally left at 3pm Monday 14 June 2010.

MW2 cleaning the boom
‘Millers Point from the bridge of the Maersk Gateshead’, by Jane Bennett, 2010.

Cleaning the boom in front of the ‘Shirley Smith’, 2011, oil on canvas. The ‘Shirley Smith’ is an emergency response vessel which can serve as a tug or spray water at 16,000 litres per minute. She was named after ‘Mum Shirl’, a well-known indigenous community leader. Booms are kept near the boat, to be rapidly deployed against oil spills.

‘Cleaning the boom in front of the Shirley Smith’, by Jane Bennett, 2011.

The Shipping News—Last view of interior of Harbour Control Tower, 2011, oil on canvas. This canvas was painted inside the operations room at the top of the tower, just after the last time it was used. On the whiteboard are the times of arrival and departure of the Port Authority’s vessels and tugboats and the date and time had been stopped at exactly the moment that the last port workers left the tower. The whiteboard was kept like that until the tower was demolished in 2015.

‘The Shipping News—Last view of interior of Harbour Control Tower’, by Jane Bennett, 2011.

The gathering storm, 2011, oil on canvas. This was painted just after the last wharf building had been demolished to create an empty canvas for new construction along Barangaroo. This painting was acquired by the City of Sydney Council. The marquee used for the temporary cruise ship facilities is the only building on the wharf. On the right hand side, a large red No 8 mysteriously stands in front of a row of fig trees. It is the sole relic of Wharf 8, the previous cruise ship terminal, which was demolished in August 2010. It was opened in July 1999, a year before the Olympic Games.

‘The gathering storm’, by Jane Bennett, 2011.

North Barangaroo Headland Park from Moore’s Wharf, 2013, oil on canvas. My studio on the top floor of Moore’s Wharf granted me an amazing vantage point to paint the construction of Barangaroo Headland Park. In the foreground are gleaming blocks of sandstone, some of which were excavated from this site.

The charming red brick Federation cottage in the centre has now been restored as the cafe at Towns Place; it was a sewage pumping station. The green structure on the barge in the background is known as the ‘Shear Leg’—it is removing one of the interlocking concrete caissons which had been placed there in 1972 to extend the wharf when containerisation rendered the finger wharves obsolete.

‘North Barangaroo Headland Park from Moores Wharf’, by Jane Bennett, 2013.

Panorama of Millers Point from top of Harbour Tower, 2013, oil on canvas. This was a huge panoramic landscape (61 x 183 cm) that was acquired by the State Library of New South Wales for its Mitchell gallery. It was painted at sunrise from the control tower—but I also have painted every building in this scene from ground level at various times. To paint this panorama, I had to move my canvas from room to room, standing on tables to see out the windows. The slender column of the tower swayed in the wind so much that I sometimes needed seasickness medication.

‘Panorama of Millers Point from top of Harbour Tower’, by Jane Bennett.

Jane Bennett is represented by the Frances Keevil Gallery, 28-34 Cross Street, Double Bay, and by Ultimate Art Gallery at the Four Seasons Hotel, 199 George Street, Sydney, Jane’s blog, Industrial Revelation, is at