September 2006

The Nation Reviewed

John White’s table

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

As the door to the auction rooms of Bonhams and Goodman, in Sydney's Double Bay, opened onto the deeply black winter evening, it was clear that an extraordinary number of people had gathered. There were television cameras, photographers and notebooked journalists, blokes with those microphones that shout their radio station's name.

We were there, as I saw it, for the auction of Lot 1063: a table, Pembroke in style, with elegantly thin legs and sides that could flap up to expand its surface from a tiny six by ten inches. I knew those measurements precisely: when I'd popped in to meet the table the week before, there'd been quite a huddle around its glowing wood, and one woman - as if she had in mind just the spot for it at home - had whipped out a floppy plastic dressmaking tape and done a quick reckoning of length by breadth.

"Such a sweet little thing," murmured someone else. "Well, sweet's not the word, I guess ..." But it was a word that suited the table: it looked just big enough for a couple of cups of tea. I imagined the woman measuring the empty nook in her house before coming in to size up its potential inhabitant. It must have been an exceptional space: the table's reserve price was $70,000-$90,000.

Of course, as Dalia Stanley, a senior specialist at Bonhams and Goodman, had explained as we leaned in and examined the exquisitely golden and almost furry-looking grain of its wood, the ornate Greek ogee pattern set in darker tulipwood around its edges, the pristine condition of its hinges, its wheels, it was hard to put a price on this object, because there is nothing else like it in the world.

In the journals left by those First Fleeters who came and planted the British Empire on a little pocket of Australia's east coast, much was made of the strange flora that they found. One marine commented charmingly that "the tents" of the first version of Sydney "looked pretty among the trees", but mostly people wrote about the parties of men employed in cutting those trees down, their unreliable axes struggling against eucalypts, casuarinas, angophoras.

It was some of that wood - labelled "beefwood" then, although we would call it she-oak or, more properly, casuarina - that the fleet's surgeon, John White, had cut into planks to send back around the world to his patron, Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, who in turn handed it over to a carpenter. He must have been a careful artisan, Dalia Stanley reckoned, who did the best he could with the little slabs - "it's a monster of a wood to work with" - and made Sir Andrew a perfectly functional (albeit small) table.

"We're so fortunate," Stanley said, "that they didn't just carve it into something horrible you'd stick on a desk." Instead, the wood became something "designed with good taste, and demonstrating an appropriate respect both for the material and for the relationship between sender and recipient". And the synthesis of this created "a metaphor for the colony that gives it a productive and creative value ... which, coming out of those early days [of British Australia], is something to celebrate".

There were other things to celebrate, primarily that the Hamond family had almost ignored the offering. "There's not so much as a coat of beeswax or Mr Sheen gone onto it," said Stanley, "it's in absolutely original condition. And perhaps that's because it was such a little thing, it wasn't really used. It just got put in a corner somewhere." Then there was the fact that Sir Andrew had had the presence of mind to glue a note into the top drawer explaining that the wood was sent "from Botany Bay by Dr Brown Dr White". And that a Bonhams valuer despatched from London to the house harbouring the table had noticed it, opened the drawer, read the label and called the auctioneers' Sydney office. "This piece: is it significant?"

It would be nice, the family decided, to sell the table in its country of origin, as it were, so the table was packed up to make its second journey around the world - "packed in a crate inside a crate inside a crate and, of course," said Stanley, "in an aeroplane this time." As for estimating the price it might fetch: a long time ago someone had brought her a piece of pottery that proved to be the oldest wine cooler made in New South Wales. Earthenware lemonade bottles were selling for $1000-$3000 at the time, so Stanley gave an estimate of about $5000. It sold for $32,000.

As the hammer fell on Lot 1062, I was sure that I felt the room stiffen. The auctioneer introduced Lot 1063. It was, he said, a "little gem", and he sketched its provenance, from surgeon White on the shores of Port Jackson in 1788 down to the great-great-grandson of White's patron, who offered it now for sale. It was a real pleasure, he said, to be running this auction - and he started the bidding at $30,000.

The bidding came down to two people: a man sitting on his own a few rows from the front, and a phone bidder, reportedly a private buyer ringing in from overseas. Back and forth they went, jumping up by $5000 and $10,000 increments. It almost went to the phone bidder at $240,000: the auctioneer had even said "going three times" before the man in the fifth row made the bid of $245,000 that secured him the piece.

"Would it be possible to announce where the table is going?" asked the auctioneer. "We'll be making an announcement shortly," said the man. And the photographers clicked and the television cameras focused. It seemed a large and warm moment to be part of; large and warm, too, that there was this much interest in something not only so sweet, but so historically poignant. How amazing that so many people cared about this synthesis of old and new, about something that was probably the oldest piece of European furniture made from Australian timber, about its journey home.

Of course, had I not been such a xylophile, so caught up with the wood; had I not focused so closely on the captivating little table and its captivating provenance; had I managed to look at any other pages in the Bonhams and Goodman catalogue, I would have noticed that Lot 1078 offered a set of medals belonging to Captain AJ Short, containing the one Victoria Cross awarded at Gallipoli that was still privately owned.

We know what happened next: it was in the papers, on the radio, on TV; even the PM took a "close and personal interest". An anonymous buyer (later revealed to be Kerry Stokes) paid more than a million dollars for the set and promised that the VC would join the others from that campaign at the Australian War Memorial. The room erupted with cheering and rushing, filming and snapping; and in all the hustle, the man who'd bought the table headed into the night.

I'd been wondering why he hadn't identified himself as being from the National Museum - but, of course, there was no "traction" to be gained from a story about a table when a set of medals broke the world-record price for such things just 15 minutes later. "We'll announce it later this week," he said.

At the front of the room, the table sat quietly, forgotten in all the noise. With its flaps down, it looked as if it might scuttle surreptitiously sideways while no one was looking. Maybe that was how it had survived the strangely short time between Sydney's beginnings and now. Because if it's startling to realise you can span those years in as few as four or five generations, it's nicer to know that today there are still casuarinas next to Sydney's harbour which have grown from the stands that the First Fleet found.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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