Peeling back history to reveal Melbourne’s faces from the past

Victoria’s Trades Hall has been standing for more than 100 years. Now a team of conservators is discovering the rich history under layers of paint ahead of a large-scale heritage redevelopment project supported by the state government.

The Trades Hall building in Melbourne has been witness to history.

It was here that Victorian workers won the world’s first 8-hour working day in 1856 – as well as being the birthplace for organisations like the Victorian Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Some of those who fought for the rights of the underprivileged or changed Australia’s political landscape were commemorated – their likenesses painted on the walls of the Old Council Room.

Trades Hall as we now know it was built in stages from 1874 to 1925. Picture: Victorian Trades Hall Council

More than a century has passed, and many of those names have been forgotten – their portraits painted over by subsequent generations.

But now some of those same faces from history have been revealed by University of Melbourne conservators ahead of a multi-million dollar project to revitalise the landmark, with backing from architecture firm Lovell Chen and the Trades Hall Council.

A rich history

One of those ghosts is a portrait of politician and former Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir George Higinbotham, who lived between 1826 and 1892. His is one of four portraits that were incorporated into a frieze high up on the walls as part of the original 1884 decorative scheme.

Sir George Higinbotham. Picture: Wikimedia

It’s this work that is being largely conserved by experts like Dr Caroline Kyi, part of the team from the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, and students of the Master of Cultural Materials Conservation, as part of the refurbishment works.

Dr Kyi, an expert in wall paintings, says the frieze isn’t just decorative, but is historically significant as well.

“What makes this scheme unique is that it features this, and other yet to be uncovered portraits of significant members of the Trades Hall community from the 1880s. These portraits make the decorative scheme specific to the building, its function and its history,” says Dr Kyi.

“And the stencil works surrounding the portrait have hand-painted details – it tells us that these are important paintings. It shows how important the building was to the Trades Hall community.”

Sir George was influential at the time. He was a keen supporter of the working man and made a speech at the opening of Trades Hall asking his audience to establish the great principles of “liberty, equality … and fraternity and friendship”.

His portrait joins those of the former governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Darling, British railway pioneer George Stephenson and Samuel Plimsoll, a British politician and social reformer – but only three of these are likely to be recoverable.

David Cragg, Assistant Secretary of the Trades Hall Council and honorary trustee of the building since 1992, says the process of discovery is an exciting one.

“We knew there was stuff under the paint. This room was special; it is the oldest union meeting room in the world still intact, built in 1874. To now see it revealed is genuinely wonderful - it’s exciting.”

The original Trades Hall building in Carlton was erected as a place for the labour movement to congregate and organise. Over the years the building has been upgraded and updated, but it remains one of the most historically important sites in modern Melbourne.

Conservators from the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation working in the Old Council Room in the Trades Hall. Picture: Supplied

Public records show that in the 1960s, an architectural paint was applied over the 19th century decorative paint scheme that covered all four walls of the room. Now the conservation team is looking at ways to preserve the building’s Victorian-scheme but also keep the quirks which have been added to make the room more functional as it has aged.

A delicate process

Dr Nicole Tse, also an expert in conservation at the University of Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre, says the process of removing the paint to reveal what’s underneath is a painstakingly cautious one.

“Much like medicine, we use a diagnostic methodology to narrow down the likely range of possibilities. We have to understand the physical and chemical properties of the paint we wish to retain or remove. You need to have both a good hand and a reflective mindset when undertaking conservation.”

Dr Kyi agrees.

“You can get a general idea of the condition of the 1880s painted scheme from the condition of the surface as it appears today but because the scheme has been painted over, you can’t get an exact idea of idea of how successfully it can be uncovered until you commence treatment. When the approach to overpaint removal produces an ‘intact’ reveal it is extremely satisfying and there is always the temptation to do a little bit more to reveal the next detail.”

History written on the walls

According to Mr Cragg, the Old Council Room has been damaged and neglected over time.

“We’ve had bad flooding, endless problems sealing our roof, even bringing the electrics of this building up to safety standards. In the past we’ve been preoccupied with crisis management.”

But some of this damage adds to the intrigue.

“We can see, what we assume to be, a lot of nicotine staining on the frieze,” says Dr Kyi.

“The Old Council Chambers has a working history as a room. There are nicks and localised loses to the walls. What do these features tells us about the history of the room?”

And the team found some unexpected help from a primary source.

The frieze in the Old Council Room reveals a snapshot of Victorian culture at the time. Picture: Supplied

“Unusually, we had a contemporary account of the scheme from an article in The Argus and a photograph of the scheme from the 1880s, so we had an idea of the layout out and some of the details,” says Dr Kyi.

“These documents exist as important and relevant snapshot of Victorian culture at the time. They also make my job easier as I can target the treatment approach to focus on areas that may reveal important elements or details.”

Dan Blake, a Principal at Lovell Chen specialising in building conservation and restoration, who is supervising this project and a part-time student at the Grimwade Centre, says the conservation work is crucial when deciding strategies for the future of the room.

“We’ve been trying to work out how much of the original scheme we can reasonably uncover from a conservation stand point and how much we would need to look at reinstating because it’s unfeasible to uncover it,” says Mr Blake.

“When the builder takes over the site there will be a role for a conservator actually engaged in that process who will have to produce some of the work they’ve commenced.”

For the building’s trustees, the historical uncovering is confirmation of its ongoing value.

“We don’t want it to be a museum piece. We want people to come in and use the space,” says Mr Cragg.

For Dr Tse and the conservation team, uncovering the paintings is just part of what makes this an exciting project. They have submitted their recommendations on how best to treat the room – a combination of conserving the significant friezes, and restoring the stencil work on the walls.

“We have revealed a small portion of the walls as an indication of ‘what lies beneath’. We are really excited about the next stage.”

Banner image: Sir George Higinbotham/ Lovell Chen