It was sheer chance, the way David Jack became involved with one of the largest works ever painted in Australia. He happened to be with his father, artist Kenneth Jack, at Melbourne’s National Gallery in 1973 when they met Harold Freedman, an artist friend of Kenneth.
Harold asked what young David was doing. “Studying art at Caulfield Tech,” was the reply. Next day, Freedman phoned David, asking him to visit his home studio to see a mural that Freedman was working on for the Victorian Government.
“I went along next day,” recalls David Jack. “It was a mural on the history of transport and he offered me a job as an assistant. On and off, I was with Harold on this and other projects for the next 14 years.”
The History of Transport mural (also known as the Cavalcade of Transport) was to be so big – 33 metres long by 7.5 metres high – that the painting studio was soon relocated to an old electricity sub-station in East Camberwell where railway carpenters built a massive easel from old Oregon beams, once part of the derrick cranes that shifted freight on station platforms.
The mural was destined for a large wall at Spencer Street Station, which had been left vacant for this purpose, and was intended to illustrate all the modes of transport during a century of growth in Victoria from 1834 – horses, carts, trains, trams, cars, bicycles, the lot. It was unveiled in January 1978 after a gala parade of historic vehicles through city streets, vintage aircraft flying in formation above.
Today, David (a Gold RACV member) runs his own art business, Melbourne Mural Studio. Harold Freedman died in 1999 aged 84 – and gone too is Sir Rupert Hamer, the Victorian premier whose government appointed Freedman in 1972 as the first “State Artist” at the then huge salary of $40,000 a year.
But what of that celebrated transport mural?
Well, it’s a sad story. The mural, costing $250,000 of public money in the 1970s, was almost tossed out in 2000 when Docklands was built and the mural’s wall had to be shortened. “But it’s our only asset,” protested the stationmaster and, in an ugly compromise, the mural was bent around a 90-degree corner.
Four years later work began on Southern Cross station and the mural was stored in boxes but emerged again in 2007 with a bit of new love from the Bracks/Brumby Labor Government. Around $2.5 million was spent installing it on a wall in the adjoining retail complex, now called Spencer Outlet Centre, complete with a viewing platform, elevator for the disabled and an etched-metal plaque explaining every figure and vehicle on the work.
Included was an RACV van, and a truck marked “Machine Made Bread A.C. Reith”, who was the baker grandfather of former federal minister Peter Reith.
But the retail complex kept spreading, governments came and went, and that love went out the window again. A chain store enveloped the transport mural which is now a mere backdrop to the merchandise, light fittings dangling in front it, air-conditioner ducts intruding on the view. The platform, elevator and explanatory plaque have disappeared.
“It’s horrific,” says David. “It took five years of my life. I guess it is better here than in boxes – but not much.”
Now David Jack is mounting a campaign to find a new home for Harold Freedman’s masterpiece. The shadow minister for arts and culture, Heidi Victoria, has joined the push and has been consulting with the Melbourne Convention Centre regarding a possible new location along the centre’s huge hallway where there are protected indoor spaces aplenty.
“The first reaction from management has been very positive,” says Heidi. “It would be an ideal tourism pairing.”
Public Transport Victoria is the owner of the mural. A spokesman told RoyalAuto: “Until an alternative site for the mural is identified, the current location ensures that the mural is in a suitable environment, protected from the weather and not exposed to direct sunlight. The mural is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. PTV would need to consult with Heritage Victoria on any proposed relocation.”
An exhibition of artist Harold Freedman's work, Harold Freedman: Artist for the People is at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until May 28.
Cavalcade of transport history
- The Cavalcade of Transport mural is painted on five canvas-on-plywood panels.
- It took five years to complete (1972-77).
- It cost $250,000.
- It was relocated in 2007 at a cost of about $2.5 million.
- It was in storage for three years (2004-07).
- Campaign to move the mural started in 2017.