I am no historian. I once hoped to become a pre- and post-Islamic medieval Javanese historian, but I took up botany instead. Never mind why; I was pursuing temporary obsessions—as I still do.
In 2012, I began researching a collection of unattributed nineteenth-century natural history images in the collections of the National Library. A number of similarities led me to believe that they might have come from the hand of Louisa Atkinson, her mother or sister.
As a child growing up in Melbourne, I remember my Dad pointing out to me the stately GPO building in the city and telling me that the great colonial artist, ST Gill (1818–1880), died there on the steps and, unrecognised, was buried in a pauper's grave. Children are impressionable and the story stuck in my imagination.
I almost didn't open the envelope. It had been 10 years since I had moved on from Radio National's Social History Unit but I was still on the subscription list for magazines from many of our cultural institutions. I still loved reading them when I had time but, more often than I should have, I slipped them into the bin.
It is always interesting to try and work out where an idea came from, and I know exactly when and where I got the idea for Emporium. It was in the National Library of Australia a couple of years ago, and I was reading through old newspapers trying to find out exactly which paintings went up in flames when Sydney's Garden Palace burned down in 1882.
An invitation from the National Library of Australia to undertake a study of convict artist Joseph Lycett and his artwork did not take me long to ponder over. Lycett and his work have long held great fascination for me, particularly as someone born in Newcastle, one of the areas most strongly connected to his work. The result of this study is True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett's Art.
The wonderful thing about getting older is an increasing appreciation for both beauty, and relics from the past. In the case of Australia's early botanical artists, both 'beauty' and 'the past' readily apply.
The idea for a book about Australian cavalrymen training in England and leaving from there for the Boer War came to me 15 years ago, when I was in England myself.
I was a fellow at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, the only time I’ve ever been attached to a university department. I was doing just two hours’ teaching a week, some editing and writing, and a lot of research, much of it towards a book on Australia’s experience of the Boer war.