Letters from America
Monday 8 May 2017
This is a 1944 painting by Sali Herman of the McElhone Stairs.
These Stairs are at the end of Victoria Street and lead up from Woolloomooloo to Potts Point. I have often walked these stairs down to the City or to Lady Macquarie’s Chair and the Botanic Gardens and sometimes just to do a circuit alongside HMAS Kuttabul which is at the bottom of Potts Point. I think the Stairs date from the 1870s.
Sali Herman distorted his painted view to make the Stairs much wider and steeper looking than they are. And he made the figures smaller to add to the effect. The male figures in the bottom right are uniformed, perfectly suited to 1944 (though there are always uniformed service people about with the local naval base and the dock). The house on the right is a fine house also from the 1870s, with very fine detail in the balconies and ironwork. I think there have been continuing battles with successive owners over the tackiness of renovations that get done from time time to the heritage listed building (the down pipes got painted a shiny gold not so long ago :-)). On the left at the top of the Stairs is an enormous ventilation pipe – which is a structure of 1930s engineering, quite impressive!
Here is a really interesting image of the Stairs taken in 1927 in a silent film that was miraculously discovered in the 1950s and reprinted. I think it also captures that sense of the Stairs having a great size, which is exactly what Sali Herman’s painting was after.
The photo shows a very spare environment. Woolloomooloo, at the bottom of the Stairs, was a dockside slum district. It is still home to relatively deprived people with a lot of house commission homes built in the 1970s and 80s, following the amazing green ban campaign and federal government intervention to save the area from the worst forms of rapacious Sydney property development.
I love these Stairs for their own sake. But I also have loved them because of a small animal spirit who has occupied the Stairs for a very long time.
Over the years I have taken quite a few photos of this cat, even though it was not mine, it didn’t seem to belong to any person so much as to the place. I had a real affection for her. Here are some pictures, the ones I found on the phone anyway.
She frequently dozed in the sun on a broad sandstone rocky outcrop next to the Stairs and that is where her minder left her food and water.
And I was very sad to see today this little sign at her usual sunning place. The woman in my photo above with the lilac shirt, was her minder, Hill, who had herself lived on the streets a few times in her life.
It’s a clever photo, it even lines up the wires running along the wall behind her sunny spot on the sandstone. And the cards and flowers were touching. I did not know she had been living there as long as 15 years, no home, just her minder diligently feeding her on the street.
Farewell philosophical cat.