Mural paintings (2), from the Rural Bank of New South Wales Building, oil on canvas, made by Norman Carter, Australia, 1936-1938
The Rural Bank of New South Wales was founded by the State government in 1922 to provide loans to farmers and graziers. During the Depression its role was expanded to offer forms of financial assistance and general banking services to rural areas. At a time when the financial power of private banks was widely regarded as prejudicial to the interests of farmers and other small businesses, the State-owned Rural Bank was regarded on both sides of politics as an important force for economic opportunity. The Commonwealth Savings Bank enjoyed a similar public admiration.
The construction of a major city headquarters for the Rural Bank was thus a symbol both of post-Depression economic recovery and of public enterprise. FW Turner's design for the Rural Bank added US skyscraper style to this potent mix. Although Sydney's 150 foot building height limit restricted the Rural Bank Building to twelve floors, its combination of podium (housing the public spaces) and recessed office tower presented an impressive facade to Martin Place. No expense was spared in the interior fitout.
Mural painting was a popular form of the mid-twentieth century decades. The public situation and populist content of most mural work aligned with the political aspirations of the Modern movement in architecture and design. In the USA and elsewhere governments frequently commissioned and encouraged mural art works celebrating the ideals of the New Deal and other social and economic programs.
In Australia murals were most commonly produced for retail spaces. The genre's leading practitioner Douglas Annand was responsible for numerous murals in milk bars, hotels, restaurants and similar locales. However Annand's best-known work was produced for public buildings, notably Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne, while several Commonwealth Bank buildings and Central Railway Station were among Sydney public buildings to gain mural decoration during the 1930s and 1940s.
Against this background it is not surprising that the Rural Bank Building also featured mural paintings emphasising the bank's connection with rural Australia. Unlike the stylised or non-figurative approach of much mural art, Norman Carter's Rural Bank paintings adhere closely to the well-worn path of Australian rural scenes, complete with suitably worthy human archetypes. Carter's approach eschewed the exhortatory and futuristic character of many contemporary murals with a quiet evocation of Australia's rural heritage. The truck and harvester are the only modern intruders into this rural reverie.
Charles Pickett, Curator
The murals do not seem to have been installed at the completion of the Rural Bank Building in late 1936. The paintings are not mentioned in a typically detailed description of the new building in Building (December 1936), nor do they appear in the extensive photographic record created by Sam Hood and held by the State Library of NSW. Surveys of Art in Australia, Architecture in Australia, Decoration and Glass and other contemporary journals have so far not revealed a completion date or other information.
As a result the only visual record currently available is from un-named publication copied by the Art Gallery of NSW.
Norman Carter (1875-1963) studied art at the National Gallery School while apprenticed to a stained-glass maker in Melbourne. Carter moved to Sydney in 1903 and commenced a successful career as a commercial illustrator and portrait artist. He taught art at Sydney Technical College from 1915 to 1950 and freehand drawing in the Architecture school, University of Sydney from 1922 to 1947.
Carter became a fashionable portraitist and his depictions of prime ministers, judges, professors and other establishment figures can be seen in numerous public buildings. A friend of Sydney Ure Smith, he also painted other artists and members of Sydney's art establishment. He painted landscapes, though primarily for pleasure. Carter employed his youthful training to create stained-glass windows for several churches and cathedrals including St Stephen's and St Andrew's, Sydney.
In 1921 Carter painted two murals in the philosophy lecture room, University of Sydney, at the request of Professor John Anderson. One of two panels represents Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the other Descartes, Bacon, and Spinoza. In addition to his murals for the Rural Bank building, Carter also painted murals for the Maritime Services Board building at Circular Quay.