symbolism and Identity
The architecture of Sydney Town Hall has a decorative language which uses symbols to interpret aspects of civic tradition and gives the building its unique identity. Some of Sydney’s best talents are showcased in the work of the craftsmen who made these special features.
Lions, the recognised king of beasts, are traditionally used as symbols of authority, strength and power. They have been used since ancient times as sculptural decoration for public buildings. The lions which guard Sydney Town hall can be found carved in sandstone on the corner facades of the building. Legend has it that one of the lions was carved with a ‘winking eye’ to imitate the head stonemason who lined up his work by squinting along the courses of stonework.
The City of Sydney’s coat of arms can be found throughout Sydney Town Hall in stone, glass, mosaic, and wood. This coat of arms, granted by England’s College of Arms in 1908, uses symbolism to identify some of the aspects of the city’s history. The crown and anchor are traditional symbols for a city and a port. The central shield bears a three-masted ship in reference to the discovery of the sea-port of Sydney, the coats of arms of founding fathers important to Sydney, Viscount Sydney, Captain Cook and Sir Thomas Hughes, Sydney’s first lord mayor. (Sydney’s first mayor was elected in 1843 but the title lord mayor was only introduced in 1902). The supporters standing on either side of the shield acknowledge the Aboriginal people of Sydney and a European sailor. The motto ‘I take but I surrender’ was meant to imply that the early settlers came to New South Wales and took the land, but in doing so, also gave it back. Today this concept is regarded as ambiguous so the City of Sydney uses a simpler version of the coat of arms.
Possibly the grandest symbolic statements in Sydney Town Hall can be found in the stained glass. High above the Vestibule is an elliptical dome decorated with panels of stained glass which are decorated with Classical figures representing the four Classical Greek elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water and eight virtues – Justice, Prudence, Temperence, Industry, Peace, Plenty, Trust and Liberty. These were meant to reflect the values which Council aspired to achieve in all its dealings. Made by John Falconer and Frederick Ashwin in 1877 they are the only known examples of eliptically curved stained glass in Australia.
The spectacular stained glass windows in the northern and southern stairwells in Sydney Town Hall were commissioned from French designer Lucien Henry and made by Goodlet and Smith in 1889. They are some of the finest 19th century stained glass in Australia and were designed to celebrate the centenary of the founding of Sydney in 1788.
The northern window, titled Captain James Cook 1728-1779 depicts a figure of Lieutenant James Cook RN dressed in his naval uniform, holding a telescope and standing on the deck of his ship, HMS Endeavour. On either side are small images of the ships Endeavour and Discovery, on which he journeyed to Australia in 1770 and 1779. The large central window is flanked by panels of glass decorated with English roses and together, the triptych is a tribute to the discovery of Australia by Lt James Cook RN.
The southern window is titled New South Wales 1788-1888 and features an allegorical figure standing on a globe inscribed ‘Oceania’. She is draped in the Union Jack and the flag of St George (representing England) and wears a solar halo with a headpiece fashioned from ram’s horns over hair which cascades down in the form of wool. These attributes suggest the prosperity of the colony’s wool trade. In her hands she holds a trident, a symbol of maritime authority as ruler over the southern oceans, and a miner’s lamp which might represent the colony’s wealth of mineral resources. On either side of the figure there are Australian wildflowers including waratahs, Stenocarpus (firewheel) and Lambertia (mountain devil).