The inspiration behind Iridescent: Elizabeth Bay House

Find out more about the curatorial research that inspired artist Gerwyn Davies’s flamboyant response to Elizabeth Bay House, featured in the Iridescent exhibition.

Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay was a pivotal figure in the running of the NSW colonial government. A skilled and diligent bureaucrat, he found favour under Governor Ralph Darling and his authority spread across all areas of the management of the colony. In his spare time, in the sanctuary of the home he’d built on the expansive land grant gifted to him by the governor, he indulged his passion for natural history.

Arriving in the colony in 1826, Macleay brought with him the largest collection of moths and butterflies owned by an individual anywhere in the world. He established his library in the largest room of the house described as ‘the finest in the colony’, furnishing the walls with bookcases and specimen cabinets packed with species of lepidoptera from around the globe. Pinning, labelling, classifying – collecting the rarest and most exotic of creatures was an assertion of man’s power over nature, a demonstration of the urge to acquire and possess.

But what would Macleay have made of this strange creature in Davies’s photograph, plonked on a chaise longue in his very own drawing room, too large and brash to be restrained behind glass? This act of defiance challenges not only the rules of decorum, but also the very authority of the Colonial Secretary.

Click on an image below to take a closer look

Man in yellow costume sitting on a chair at Elizabeth Bay House
Past Exhibition
Past exhibition

Iridescent by Gerwyn Davies

Past exhibition

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Mel Flyte

Mel Flyte

Collections Discovery Assistant, Caroline Simpson Library

Growing up in rural NSW, Mel’s childhood was spent undertaking her own archaeological excavations in the creek bed on her family’s property. Old bottles, cow bones, and the occasional piece of rusty farm equipment were all considered exciting discoveries. School holidays were punctuated with long car trips with her mum to see blockbuster exhibitions in Canberra and Sydney, so galleries and museums always felt familiar. Studies in archaeology and art history have inspired a passion for objects and their ability to elicit emotions and tell stories. Mel curated the exhibtion On The Move and relishes the opportunity to get hands-on with the treasures in our collections.