An iconic Melbourne painting you’ve never heard of

An iconic Melbourne painting you’ve never heard of
Jack Hayes

If you found out about a little secret, one that has been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years, completely unobstructed to view and meticulously maintained, can you truly call it a secret?

Well, according to Block Arcade manager, Grant Cohen, this secret, an ethereal painting adorning the ceiling of a store in the eastern corner of the famous arcade’s Collins St entrance, is “one of Melbourne’s best kept [secrets],” because “unless you come into The Block and you look up, you would never know it was there.”

The mural is the work of scientific artist, Phillip Goatcher, who was commissioned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to decorate the ceiling with scenes depicting references to new technologies and science, which was completed in 1907.

“This ceiling is the only ceiling in the Block Arcade left untouched from major renovations in the 1980s,” Mr Cohen said.

“Goatcher was a theatre set designer who used his skills to paint this. If you could imagine a theatre’s drop curtain displaying a scene in Paris behind the actors, that is what he did. So, fitting with his skillset, this artwork was painted on a fabric or hessian and then laid onto the ceiling.”

“The mural cost an enormous 900 guineas at the time. If you were to go back to the record books, the brother of John Batman, Henry Batman, purchased the land for the Block Arcade for only 18 pounds … you can see what the gold rush has done to Melbourne over those 50 years.”

The artwork, Melbourne’s answer to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, features Renaissance-style motifs of classicly-garbed women accompanied by angels, a bald eagle holding an American flag, presumably an ode to the commissioning company’s origins, and the words “chemistry”, “mathematics”, “astronomy”, and “electricity”.

According to Mr Cohen, as the ceiling is heritage-protected, renovations to meet compliance with fire safety meant sprinklers would need to be installed into all shops and ceilings, however, you won’t find a single sprinkler in what is now occupied by L’Occitane En Provence. Instead, you’ll find a smoke beam which ensured every inch of the iconic artwork remained untouched.

The Block Arcade opened in 1892 and is home to some of Melbourne’s most iconic shopfronts including The Tea Rooms 1892 (previously Hopetoun Tea Rooms), The Art of Dr Seuss! and Haigh’s Chocolates. •


This feature is proudly supported by Hidden Secrets Tours

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