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If These Walls Could Talk

If These Walls Could Talk – Famous Australians at Prahran

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Sir Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly, 1946

The opening ribbons have now been cut and the inaugural Melbourne Polytechnic students are settling into their classes.

There is an exciting buzz of activity around campus – a sense of new beginnings and bright futures, but standing on the same site in Prahran is a rich wealth of history and some incredible past artistic talent that has made on impact on the world art stage.

Art and Design have always been a focus at the site, initially through the Prahran Mechanics Institute in 1864 through to 1915. It was then that Prahran Council supported a project to grow the site as Prahran Technical School. In 1967, due to growth and changes in Melbourne’s political and educational climate, the school changed its focus -and name – to Prahran College of Technology. This incarnation as one of Melbourne’s most distinguished Art and Design Schools was present until 1991. The site changed hands in 1992 with Swinburne University taking up residence, still heavy with an art and design focus until 2013. Now, in 2014 and going forward, Melbourne Polytechnic has opened its doors for learning.

What most Melbourne Polytechnic students won’t know is that throughout the last century, some of Australia’s most influential and prolific artists have walked these same corridors, starting their careers with the same dreams and ambition as the students of today. Below is a brief encounter with some of these legends and we believe by no means will they be the last.

Sir Sidney Nolan

Australia’s most famous artist, recognisable for his ‘Ned Kelly’ themes, Sir Sidney Nolan studied at Prahran Technical College in 1934 at the age of 14 and although it would be some time before Nolan would be prolific in the art world, he undoubtedly made his start at Prahran Tech, first by correspondence in 1933 and then by attendance.

Nolan’s most influential years between 1941 and 1947 were at the ‘Heide’, (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art located at Bulleen) it is here that he started the Ned Kelly series, a theme that would recur during his career and likely to be his most recognisable work.

The Sidney Nolan Trust is now located in Powys, Wales – his last years were spent here and it is now a place of creativity and knowledge for artists globally. Sidney Nolan was knighted in 1981 and was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1988 and was also made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. His works can be seen across the globe; however the ‘Nolan Collection’ is housed at the National Gallery of Australia.

Howard Arkley

Howard Arkley is widely recognised as Australia’s foremost leading artist when it comes to Australian suburbia. Having grown up in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills and being interested in art from a very young age, Arkley studied at Prahran Technical College in 1969 – 1974 as an art student before moving to his residence and studio in Oakleigh.

Known for his use of the airbrush, Arkley was one of the first artists to delve into the menial material of suburbia which caught the public’s attention in 1988. Arkley’s work can be seen at the National Gallery of Victoria and various regional galleries. The NGV also has an extensive Arkley education resource on its website.

Bill Henson

Bill Henson, one of Australia’s most talented – and controversial – photographers studied at Prahran Tech in the early 70’s, learning and honing his photographic skills that have led to international acclaim. Henson represented Australia at the 46th Biennale of Venice, the most prominent contemporary exhibition in the art world.

Henson has exhibited in galleries from the Guggenheim in New York, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Henson now exhibits every two years in Australia. Bill Henson’s work can be seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and various Australian locations biennially.

Elizabeth Gower

Elizabeth Gower was the recipient of the first major art prize – The Lynch Prize – at Prahran Technical College, receiving $400 in in 1973 for her painting titled ’Chairs’, using an airbrush, this was a technique that she had learnt from her partner at the time Howard Arkley.

Gower now exhibits annually, and Elizabeth Gower has also been commissioned to make artworks for Victorian Ministry for the Arts painted tram project, Melbourne World Trade Centre, Melbourne Cricket Ground-Great Southern Stand, and the Sydney Olympics Superdome. Most major art galleries in Australia holds a piece of Gower’s work.

John Davis

One of Australia’s most well-known sculptors, John Davis was born in Ballarat and studied art at RMIT in the late 1960’s. From here, Davis taught sculpture at Prahran Technical College, and soon became Head of Sculpture in 1973, a post he was in until 1992. Davis was the Australian representative at the Venice Biennale in 1978.

Having what would now be considered an insight into the environment of that era, Davis used outside objects to show their fragility, he is renowned for collaborating with Aboriginal artists and creating most of his work in the Murray River region. John Davis has work displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria, various regional galleries and private collections.

More information on these and other past students and faculty, as well as the changing times of the era, can be found in ‘Design for Living – A History of Prahran Tech’ by Judith Buckrich. The publication can be purchased through the Prahran Mechanics Institute.

If you would like to walk in the shoes of these famous Australians, contact Melbourne Polytechnic to see what programs we have to best suit you – 03 9269 1900



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Last Modified: 1st March 2017