‘Sydney from Paroquet Hill, Parramatta Road. From Grose’s Hill’ by Edward Charles Close (once attributed to Sophia Campbell) is a watercolour painted around 1820 showing the view from a partially fenced paddock over a landscape that appears to be recovering from bushfire – thin trunks of eucalypts with bushy remnants at their tops; low shrubs at their base; a fallen tree with blackened trunk and brown leaves. In the distance are two windmills – one on Observatory Hill, and one closer to the military barracks (now Wynyard). Sydney’s first windmill wasn’t built until 1797, Governor Hunter bringing the parts with him from England in 1795. The windmill was built where Sydney Observatory now stands, but can’t be the one in this painting as it was, by 1820, no longer in use, having lost its top and sails and left only with its stone tower. This painting probably shows the wooden windmill that was built in 1803 or 1804 on the southern side of Observatory Hill – the third mill built. The other mill in the painting is probably the Military Windmill, finished in 1802 and given over to military use in 1814.[i]How do I know so much about windmills? A few weeks after interviewing Mona Brand I found a book called Old Sydney Windmillsby her husband, Len Fox, in a second-hand shop. I bought it for the joy of the synchronicity before seeing how useful it was.
The distant straggling town, with the newly built Hyde Park Barracks and Rum Hospital dominating, is similar in two paintings by Joseph Lycett. They are painted from the same spot, but dated one year later. They show a green rolling hill with a picturesque wooden fence – bucolic, compared to Close’s more believable sparse bush. There are four windmills in one (Mitchell Library ML 55) but at least seven in the other (National Library of Australia RNK Accn. T 1631) – two at Miller’s Point, the same two as in Close’s painting, two where the Conservatorium now stands, and one at Darlinghurst.
Now when you stand on Grose’s Hill you’re standing in front of the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. When I look out and try to see Hyde Park Barracks my view is blocked by massive fig trees, and a cluster of tall buildings beyond. I have to go to the ninth floor of Fisher Library and peer through the narrow slits of windows to see where I am. I see the Anzac Bridge and Rozelle Bay and Pyrmont. The glimpse of water in Edward Close’s painting must have been Blackwattle Bay, when it came right up to Bay Street. He’s looking across the ridge of Pyrmont, the city in the centre of the painting and North Head an unexpected feature in the distance. I can see the fall of the land in front of me to the water, the ridge of the city, and the plateau of the northern suburbs that reaches to Middle Head. I can’t see North Head, but from the windows on the other side of the building I can see Botany Bay, its blue waters deep and glistening from this distance, its damaged seagrasses and degraded shoreline invisible.