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Art + Design Store – Friday Feature – Sugar Cane

July 1, 2011

The popular Art + Design Store – Friday Feature column, allows me to give you all a closer look at one of the artworks in my Art + Design Store, and today we’re visiting the limited edition letterpress print Sugar Cane, which featured in my recent solo exhibition: Collected Patterns: The botany of Walter Hill. Part of a series of six letterpress prints, printed on Magnani Incisioni 100% Cotton Rag Paper using rubber-based inks, this black on white work was inspired by the dedicated research of Walter Hill, the Brisbane Botanic Gardens’ first and most significant curator (1855-1881).

Walter Hill noted in his 1864 Annual Report on the Botanic Garden, “The anticipations that the sugar cane will be extensively cultivated in Queensland are, in my opinion, sure to be realized; and it gives me great pleasure to state that I have been enabled to distribute a great number of canes amongst intending growers, and that the demand for them far exceeds the supply which can be sent from this establishment without detriment to its interests.” Little did he know just how well it would do in the region, becoming one of Queensland’s most exportable products!

Many dozens of varieties of Sugar Cane from warm, temperate climates, such as South-East Asia and India, were cultivated and experimented with in Queensland. With short, fibrous stalks rich in sugar, they can measure between two and six metres tall! The process for crystallising sugar is quite involved and Walter Hill was part of a group in Brisbane testing varieties grown in Queensland. A cutting from the Brisbane Courier on the 25th of April, 1862 by Walter Hill reveals:

“Sir, – I have much pleasure in forwarding for your inspection a sample of sugar manufactured from the canes in our garden by Mr John Buhot, a gentleman passenger per ship Montmorency. He is a native of Barbados in the West Indies, where he was employed in the planting and manufacture of sugar. The canes were in a very green and imperfect state, but Mr Buhot found no difficulty in the granulation, the soil giving no deliquescent salt, very often found in similar soils in the West Indies.

It was simply a hurried experiment, to see if the canes would produce a granulated sugar. The utensils made use of were three iron pots hung in the open air, boiled at night by the uncertain light of a candle.

A much clearer quality might have been produced, had there been a sufficient quantity to have retained warmth to part with its molasses.

A further trial, at Mr Buhot’s request, is contemplated, that gentleman feeling confient that, with proper appliances, a superior quality of sugar, to what has generally been sold in Brisbane, can be produced from similar canes, only riper.”

Windswept and scruffy, aesthetically, Sugar Cane is no beauty. As a hardworking and hardy plant, it proved unruly to tame on the design board. In fact, I couldn’t tame the Sugar Cane in the same structured way as the other prints in this series, but instead, had to find balance in an asymmetrical composition, while still maintaining a sense of movement to evoke the wind through the reeds of the Sugar Cane fields. 

I hope you enjoyed learning more about the work, as I had a ball researching and developing it! The prints are part of an edition of 10 and there are still some available in the Store.

Want more Queensland history, keep following on Fridays for the next artwork featured in the Art + Design Store!

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