Industrial Cathedral

Industrial Cathedral
"Industrial Cathedral" charcoal drawing on paper 131 x 131 cm Jane Bennett. This drawing was a finalist in the 1998 Dobell Prize for Drawing (Art Gallery of N.S.W.) ; Finalist in 1998 Blake Prize for Religious Art ; Winner of 1998 Hunter's Hill Open Art Prize


The skeleton of an Industrial dinosaur
oil painting of ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
 'AGL SIte, from the north-east' 
2002 oil painting on board 25.5 x 38 cm
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In 2001 I first discovered the old AGL Gasworks site at Mortlake, when I arrived at Ryde Aquatic Centre an hour too early for my morning swim and decided to kill time by going for a wander down Tennyson Road, hoping to find an interesting view of the Parramatta River. Across the river on the southern shore, I saw a hauntingly desolate ruin standing forlornly in an immense desert of pure golden sandstone. This industrial dinosaur was the C.W.G. Building, one of the last relics of the AGL Gasworks.
ink and watercolour painting of ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
'C.W.G. Building, A.G.L. Gasworks, Mortlake" 
2001 ink and gouache drawing on paper 56 x 76 cm
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 The A.G.L. Gasworks at Mortlake, which opened on the 23rd May 1886, boasted grandiose structures and a huge workforce, numbering 2,000 employees in its heyday. When coal gas technology became obsolete 100 years later the sprawling 58 hectare site became a bizarre and derelict wasteland. 
By 2001 all that remained of the "C.W.G. Building"  was a skeletal roof and more buttresses holding the crumbling walls up than there were actual walls.

The 'C.W.G. Building'

The initials “C.W.G.” stand for Carburetted Water Gas- not Carbonated water & gas as I had previously thought, which sounded like something to do with "Coca-cola". 
Once the C.W.G. Building had contained 6 retort houses which had continually burnt coal from Newcastle to light Sydney streets. The process of carbonization to obtain gas from coal was eventually discontinued at Mortlake on 31st December 1971. After that, natural gas from the interior of Australia was piped to Mortlake, given an odour for safety reasons and distributed to consumers throughout Sydney. Ironically, Mortlake was one of the very last suburbs to be converted to natural gas. The machinery was switched off and the gasworks was finally closed down on Friday 15th June 1990.
oil painting of ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
CWG Building Skeleton 
2002 oil painting on canvas 56 x 76cm 
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The C.W.G. building had a criss-cross network of bright red buttresses propping up the few remaining walls. There had been so many tunnels dug around it that there was little chance of restoration. I suppose if you slice them in half, take the roof off and dig tunnels under them, most buildings would be a little unstable!
At the edge of the 'Grand Canyon of Coal Tar'
oil painting of ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
 'AGL Site, Mortlake' 
2004 oil on canvas 75 x 100 cm.
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 As coal tar waste was removed, networks of channels were dug into the glowing sandstone escarpment. After rain, these would fill with water, becoming a network of canals and lakes reflecting the ruins. A magnificent 40 metre chasm, with a passing resemblance to the Grand Canyon, had been carved through the sandstone to remove the coal tar residue. Against it the C.W.G. Building loomed overhead, neatly sliced in half and propped up with a mad cat’s cradle of eye-popping red bollards. There were only a few metres between the edge of the building and the yawning chasm beneath, for me to set up my easel. I had to write a 'post it note' to attach to my easel to remind me not to walk backwards to admire my painting or my stay would be short and extremely painful!
oil painting of ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
'Archway, AGL Site, Mortlake' 
2004 oil painting on canvas 100 x 75cm
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Painting on site was an endurance test - the distance from where I could park my car to where I wanted to paint was over a kilometre and I had to cart my equipment (folding table and chair, french box easel, trolley luggage with brushes, painting medium, water and lunch) in at least 2, more often 3 trips back and forth. It was especially dangerous after wet weather as there were many holes and channels full of water. The drainage was poor and the surrounding soil was boggy and treacherous. There were many half hidden wires and bits of twisted metal sticking out of the bog, often forcing me to backtrack to find a less dangerous path.

For the Birds...
  'C.W.G. Building, AGL Site, Mortlake' 2001
oil painting on paper 56 x 76 cm  
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The C.W.G. building had a resident pair of peregrine falcons, which nested at the top of the skeletal roof. They soon got used to me as Artist in Residence as I would keep still for long periods of time. There were a couple of temporary lakes in front of the ruins, and they attracted enough waterfowl to make David Attenborough sick with envy. So the peregrines became sleek, fat and a little lazy.
There was a small box nestled against the base of the south-western wall. Its job was to record the vibrations of the surrounding excavations and the 'stress' that these were supposed to impose on the structure.The box had a flashing orange beacon on top, and I was sternly warned to evacuate the premises and run away screaming if it started flashing, in case the much-abused building gave up the ghost and fell on me. The resident peregrine falcons used to set the beacon off all the time whenever they attempted to stalk an unwary rodent or small bird. Sometimes I think they used to deliberately set it off out of sheer boredom! All the running around was interrupting my work and driving me bonkers. The beacon used to flash merrily 24/7 no matter what, anyway. Eventually after many false alarms, I wrapped a jumper over the beacon, and the peregrines retreated, sulking. The beacon continued to rotate and flash merrily away, with my jumper on top; it was quite handy to dry clothes on if I had been caught in an unexpected downpour. Very festive too. As the building had already heroically survived many ordeals against the odds, I trusted the expertise of its original 19th century architects far more than that of their modern counterparts. I knew that the developers had made up their minds to demolish it, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Although the C.W.G. Building had once been a strictly utilitarian industrial building, in its dying days it possessed an unsettling combination of the haunting melancholy of a bombed out Gothic cathedral crossed with the mad whimsy of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It would have stuck out in the midst of the blandly beige “good taste” of Rosecorp's new gated suburb, Breakfast Point, like the proverbial fish in a tree.

oil painting of ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
 'Reflected ruins1' 
2001 acrylic on canvas 46 x 61 cm
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Apart from the C.W.G. Building, there were a couple of other heritage gasworks structures then remaining on site. Near the entrance was a handsome double storey brick building with a skeletal external framework, and closer to the river was the imposing former blacksmith’s workshop.
Both of these structures still remain, although their surrounding debris, decaying machinery and the external framework have now been removed.They were both surrounded by substantial lakes, giving them the air of Neo-Classical architectural 'follies' set in a rather eccentric park that had slightly run to seed.
The whole site stank of coal tar, especially just after a storm. On a hot day I could feel waves of it rising from the rock. It didn't worry me- I have sensitive skin and for years I've had to use soap, shampoo and skin products made from coal tar to combat allergies. Coal tar still bubbled out of the ground in stray patches. One of the most spectacular tomato plants that I had ever seen was growing out of a pool of pure unadulterated coal tar - it had a stem thicker than my wrist and over 40 of the largest, ripest tomatoes bursting out of their skins! However, I noticed that nothing ate the fruit - no pests, rats, or birds.

oil painting of jetty and mangroves at the ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
 'Jetty from the mangroves' 
2001  acrylic painting on canvas 20 x 25cm
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Until a few years ago, there was an old jetty with brass plaques embedded every few metres in its greying planks, apparently for the purpose of aligning the docking of the colliers (coal ships), but this has now been demolished. The last collier docked at the jetty in late 1971. Even though the heritage buildings still remaining have been cleaned and stripped down, they are an incongruous contrast with the pale beige apartment blocks of the new suburb of Breakfast Point, which has been developed around them.
The rotting hulk of one of the colliers decorates the upper reaches of the Parramatta River, and its remains can still be seen if the tide is high enough to allow passage for the Rivercats.
oil painting of the ex gasworks AGL SIte Mortlake, now Breakfast Point by artist Jane Bennett
'West Facade, C.W.G. Building, AGL Site' 
2002 oil painting on paper 24 x 20 cm.
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The old suburb of Mortlake was such a tangle of little crooked laneways that the first few hundred customers to buy into the new development of Breakfast Point had either worked at the Gasworks or were the children or grandchildren of people who had – nobody else knew about it or could find it on a map. I found this out while giving directions to some panic-struck, confused and tearful clients who rang me when they tried to find my exhibition in the newly built Breakfast Point Community Hall. Some were driving around in circles in Mortlake or nearby suburbs; one lot got totally disoriented, emerged onto the Parramatta Road and drove all the way to Auburn before they realized that they were hopelessly lost. It was a highly educational experience for everybody.
Soon it will be impossible for the current residents of the recently christened suburb of Breakfast Point to imagine this chapter of Australian history. 
Thus another cycle of growth, decay and renewal begins...

I'd like to thank Ray Cummings, John Byrnes and Dr Allen W. Hatheway for helping me to correct my inevitable mistakes. The trouble with the type of subject matter that I paint is that usually by the time I am allowed to paint it, the developers are champing at the bit and anyone who actually used the original equipment has long since departed. Any information and feedback about the former uses of the sites I paint will be greatly appreciated.

"Artist Jane Bennett and Breakfast Point" by John Byrnes

"Breakfast Point" by John Byrnes


steefen raj said...

Really such a beautiful paintings..
Painter Baulkham Hills

Jane Bennett Artist said...

Thank you steefan raj!