Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2014

Visions of Colonial Grandeur, John Twycross at Melbourne’s International Exhibitions (2014), by Charlotte Smith and Benjamin Thomas

Visions of Colonial Grandeur: John Twycross at the Melbourne International ExhibitionsThis is a lovely book, and I hope it turns out to be an inspiration to others …

John Twycross was a successful Melbourne merchant, art lover and dealer whose wonderful collection of decorative arts was donated by his descendants to the Melbourne Museum.  This book tells his story, which turns out also to be the story of the 19th century International Exhibitions that were held at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton.  Its publication coincides with the 10th anniversary of UNESCO World Heritage listing of the building, a building well-loved by Melburnians because it still hosts all kinds of exhibitions from wedding expos to home renovation shows.  Generations of students have sat their final exams there, as I did, occasionally searching for inspiration among the decorative plasterwork and stained glass windows.  (You can see some of this splendour in this virtual tour). The Carlton Gardens which surround the building are beautiful at any time of the year, but especially in spring…

Those early exhibitions were extremely significant to the growth of colonial Melbourne.  Today when we can browse and buy online from anywhere in the world, it’s hard to imagine just how exciting it must have been to see goods brought to Melbourne for sale from all over the world.   Most people know about the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London (because it’s famous for burning down) and perhaps the  1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris (because the head of the Statue of Liberty was on display) or the one in 1889 (because of the Eiffel Tower).   But as the authors of Visions of Colonial Grandeur point out, the Melbourne International Exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 haven’t really been on anybody’s radar…

Yet these exhibitions brought huge numbers of migrants as well as visitors, creating plentiful opportunities for new businesses and a need for new infrastructure.   It gave Melbourne a place on the world stage and was the catalyst for new trade that exposed Australian products to the world.  Manufacturers loved these exhibitions because visitors came from all walks of life – and were easily seduced by the glitz and glam of the marketing atmosphere.   And people didn’t just go once – there was so much to see, they went as often as they could afford it.

For John Twycross, however, the exhibitions meant the opportunity to buy decorator items for his extensive collections.  Mrs Twycross must have been a tolerant wife indeed for he not only spent a great deal of money on things that took his fancy, he also built an entire tower beside his house Emmarine to store it all.  (Click here to see it). He bought paintings, and statuary for the garden, and vases and glassware and toys and all kinds of stuff too elegant to be called bric-a-brac – and, if the illustrations in this book (and on the website) are anything to go by, it was all in excellent taste.

The book includes numerous B&W photos of the exhibits which show pavilions from Germany, France, India and so on, and Twycross bought bits and pieces from almost all of them.  There’s a lovely Meissen porcelain plate from the German Court; a stunning French enamel and ormolu mantel clock that our most famous collector of French clocks would probably like to have; and the Venetian and Austrian glassware is to die for.  Some of the Asian artefacts must have seemed really exotic then when there was little trade between British colonies and Asia: the Japanese porcelain and the Chinese ivory are just gorgeous.   And the best thing is that thanks to the generosity of the Twycross descendants these lovely things were gifted to Melbourne Museum who (unlike some interstate publicly-funded museums I could name) have curated an online exhibition that everyone can enjoy.

The book is a treasure in itself.  While the authors are both historians with impressive scholarly qualifications, the text is written in a chatty style and it’s enjoyable to read.

Authors: Charlotte Smith and Benjamin Thomas
Title: Visions of Colonial Grandeur,  John Twycross at Melbourne’s International Exhibitions
Publisher: Museum Victoria, 2014
ISBN: 9781921833236
Source: Review copy courtesy of Museum Victoria via Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media

Fishpond: Visions of Colonial Grandeur: John Twycross at the Melbourne International Exhibitions
Or Museum Victoria’s shop.


  1. I heard the curator and Twycross’ grandson being interviewed on Books and Art Daily I wasn’t sure if the collection was actually on display at the moment- I could find it as an online collection though. Perhaps the interview was publicity for the book. I must admit that looking at something online isn’t quite the same thing.


    • Oh, I agree, I like to drool over the real thing too. But you know, as a teacher, I’m always looking for resources for students to use, and I really get cranky when public institutions don’t have virtual exhibitions that students can access for research. Not everyone can get to the museum for a visit, sometimes even when they live in the same city it can’t be done. (It costs at least $20 for the bus for our students to go anywhere in Melbourne, even if the entry is free, and some of our families can’t afford that) So I’m a big fan of virtual exhibitions. .


  2. The quality of the illustrations are really high, matching the high printing and binding standards of the book. John Twycross reminds me rather of Sir Hans Sloane in London, whose collection formed the nucleus for the future British Museum. I agree with what one of the commentators said about virtual exhibitions being so useful for students doing research, but beautiful physical objects like this book are also important, as students need to develop an eye and a taste for books as physical things, so that they can they can learn the joy of a library…


    • Oh yes, absolutely, an image is no substitute for the real thing. I haunt museums when I’m overseas, trying to cram in as many visits as I can – and I go to the BM every time I’m in London. (We stay round the corner at the Montague!)
      At school, students sometimes tell me about some place selling bargain books, but I always tell them that I don’t want to buy bargain books for them. Their parents can buy the bargain books, I like to buy beautiful expensive books that their parents are unlikely to buy. I’ve just paid megabucks for a stunning pop-up commemorative edition of ‘We’re all going on a Bear Hunt’ and the Preps were enchanted. I like to have gorgeous illustrated versions of fairy tales and fables, and classic myths and legends, and I’m very proud of the picture book collection which is the pride of my library.
      And it pays off, you know. Since I’ve been in the library, we’ve spent a small fortune on upgrading the collection and the children have responded by taking much better care of the books. Damage is very rare, and I can now entrust our most special books to almost anyone without a qualm. Our children love the library and many of them choose to come in at lunchtime and read. Not all of them are bookworms, but all of them love storytime:)


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