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. 

Image gallery

Click on an image below to take a closer look

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

Costume featured in Irridescent by Gerwyn Davies. Elizabeth Bay House, Gerwyn Davies, 2021. Sydney Living Museums. © Gerwyn Davies

About the Author

Woman standing in front of colourful mural.
Mel Flyte
Assistant Curator
City Museums Portfolio
Mel relishes the opportunity to get hands-on with the treasures in our collection.

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