Throughout history, paintings have mirrored the ever-changing world, exploring our place in it as these shifts unfold. Artists have produced some of the best visual records of history, and have provided valuable insights and interpretations beyond what photos and written material could reveal. While paintings have long been valued for their visual beauty, it’s what we as viewers learn from the subject that makes its way into the history books.

Kenneth Jack’s work Melbourne encapsulates the boom of post-war Australia in a way that harmonises both urban, industrial and immigrational shifts in the country.

From an early age, Jack developed an interest in trains and Melbourne’s industrial landscape. His father was a lifetime employee with Victorian railways, which meant that Jack was constantly surrounded, and naturally inspired, by the industrial environment.

This interest continued when he began collecting vintage British posters favouring subjects of the London underground and British railways. He later joined the Air Force as a draftsman.

Upon his return from the war, Jack pursued his studies at the Royal Institute of Technology, however it was not until further into his career that the prospect of an art competition presented itself – The Caltex Art Prize. Marking the opening of their new premises, Caltex Oil would offer the winning artist 500 pounds.

Their title, Our Changing Cities, was fitting for a city in resurgence from the war. With WWII behind them, soldiers had returned home, and European migration meant that the population boom was under way and the need for expansion was evident throughout all cities in Australia. Living standards had risen and the suburban dream was flourishing. After the woes of WWII, this was a time for celebration as goods and materials from abroad were available freely and the city was on the mend. Caltex’s award was a prestigious, sought after prize; to many, this new, budding company signified prosperity and hope.

Jack’s submission to the prize, reveals his fascination with infrastructure and its position within the natural landscape. In a mechanical fashion, Jack addresses key themes across the three panels that make up the work. The Lord Mayor is the central figure, sharing the space with equal parts family (left) and work (right), a reference also to employment and family values of the time. This symmetry appears throughout the piece, dancing through city life, industrialism and the urban growth of the suburbs. The 1956 Olympics were also in town so a state-of-the-art sports stadium and pioneering construction were at the helm of what Melbourne had to offer. Architecture also serves a key focal point in this piece, presenting a well-balanced depiction of the old and new buildings dotted across Melbourne, while carefully positioning Caltex’s iconic symbol amongst the illustrations of everyday life.

While Jack may have followed a set criterion in this captivating body of work, it’s clear that he had a deep understanding of the Australian landscape. Melbourne is a balanced depiction of a key time of growth, and offers an important visual piece of the history of a city we all know and love today.

LUCY FOSTER / Fine Art Specialist