Of all the pictures on display in the National Portrait Gallery, there are two that I particularly love. You see one of them from a distance and your brain says, “That one,” and your feet begin to walk towards it. Then you spend a long time in front of it, staring, because it radiates character. If you move closer to it, you find yourself wondering how that black line here or that gold smudge there can end up representing light and shade so accurately. It’s Robert Hannaford’s portrait of Lowitja O’Donoghue and it glows off the wall. There’s a disappointingly flat photo of it here, but I urge you to go and see the real thing. It’s much more impressive.
Around the corner, tucked away on a side wall, is another of Robert Hannaford’s paintings. It’s of Robert Dessaix. “Robert,” you feel like saying, “how are you? What are you working on?” because he seems really to be there. You could almost walk into the painting, sit down and have a cup of tea with him.
The Portrait Gallery is my second favourite building in Canberra. I’ll tell you about my favourite another time. I love the concrete, the soaring geometric ceiling and the lighting. Hell, I even like the toilet doors, but I didn’t take a photo of them because that would be weird.
I’m in love with the tactile orange blob that greets you as you arrive. I adore the shop, with its eclectic book selection and imaginative gifts. Yesterday I treated myself to a book and took it to the airy, light-filled cafe to read while drinking real leaf tea from a teapot the colour of the sky in winter. I once took a friend from Yorkshire to the Portrait Gallery, and now I hear his voice in my head every time I go there for tea: “Ooh, I loov a posh gallery caff.”
A possibly little known fact about the Portrait Gallery is that it contains Ned Kelly’s death mask. Two things strike you when you look at it: he seems to be smiling in death, and he had an extraordinarily small head. “Surely not?” you think. “Surely if that were true, someone somewhere would have mentioned that Australia’s most famous bushranger had a teeny-tiny head?” Then you realise that the guy who made it must have plonked the face on to a little blob of plaster and made some not-at-all-in-proportion shoulders. At least, I hope he did.
Not far from Ned Kelly’s puzzlingly small head is a carte de visite, a photographic calling card, of Madame Sibly, phrenologist and mesmerist. Apparently she travelled around with her daughter, Zel the Magnetic Lady, feeling the bumps on people’s heads or hypnotising them and making them do silly things. She also claimed to be able to cure gout. That’s quite a CV. If she’d ever had the chance to feel the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head, no doubt she could have warned his mother: “This one’s trouble.”
A short walk from the Portrait Gallery are the Old Parliament House rose gardens. I wasn’t a big rose fan until I moved to Canberra. Even in my first garden here, I took a hard line: only vegetables and native plants. But the next two houses I lived in had roses climbing up the brickwork and they were so cheery and bright that they changed my mind. Also, they required very little effort from me and still looked bloomin’ marvellous every year. So now I’m a convert.
There are two rose gardens, one each side of Old Parliament House. When you walk through the gates of the first one, a cloud of scent hits you. The roses are arranged by colour: a garden of white, a garden of pink, a garden of yellow and so on. There’s a loggia and a rotunda thingy and it’s all terribly picturesque. People like to get married there. In fact, there was a bride-to-be there on Sunday, planning where to stand for her wedding photos, while I wandered around sticking my nose into Fragrant Cloud and Golden Celebration and Taboo. She seemed tense and distracted. “Don’t expect it all to be perfect,” I wanted to say to her. “Just enjoy the flowers.”
While the first rose garden is pretty and manicured because it’s looked after by hundreds of volunteers, the second rose garden is like the Secret Garden or something out of a fairytale by the brothers Grimm. It’s overgrown and much wilder. If you had your wedding there, your expensive dress would become snagged on trailing thorns and you’d end up with big spiders in your hair.
This is the garden where the year 5/6 primary school classes that come to Canberra to visit all the important buildings stop to eat their lunch. On a weekday you’ll find kids running in the maze of rose bushes or doing cartwheels on the grass. It’s a wilder garden and you can run wild in it.
Or you can sit on a bench in a secluded corner and take in its quiet charms. In its own way, this garden is as enchanting as the other one; you just have to look a bit harder for the pretty things.
Portraits and petals: a good day out.