Amongst the many triumphal images celebrating the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 was a drawing in the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘The March of Progress’. Above the new bridge – the “symbol of generations to come” – is a ghostly procession from the past. Aboriginal peoples lead a group of redcoats, gold diggers and sheep squatters marching off the stage as a cruise ship emerges to mark Australia’s place in the modern world.

The March of Progress
The March of Progress Extract from an advertisement celebrating the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1932 Image: Sydney Morning Herald
© Public Domain

But not all of the ghosts had marched off the stage. Present in the crowd at the Bridge’s opening ceremony was a contingent from the Aboriginal community of La Perouse on Sydney's Botany Bay. Impressed with the new structure, some of the La Perouse residents reportedly marched home and carved images of the bridge in the rocks near their home. Those pictures became part of a much larger and more ancient suite of rock engravings including pictures of fish and a 12-metre-long shark. Sadly the rock art at La Perouse has not survived, but the Sydney Harbour Bridge continued to feature in the art produced by the community’s Aboriginal artists including the carved boomerangs and shell models sold to generations of tourists.

Models of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, elaborately decorated with shells, are amongst the signature artworks produced by contemporary La Perouse shellworkers Esme Timbery and her daughter Marylin Russell. Two of these works were recently collected by the Australian Museum for display in the new gallery Garrigarrang: Sea Country.

Harbour Bridge artwork
Esme Timbery, Shell work Harbour Bridge, 2014 Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

According to Esme, born the year before the Bridge opened, her inspiration to start making them was her mother Elizabeth. Esme says of the Bridge:

I was scared … the first time I went across as a little girl [but] my mother used to make them. I just got the idea one day that I could do the Harbour Bridge. So I got a piece of cardboard, and I got somebody to mark it out for me, so I cut it out, glued it together … then put the material on, and we shelled it and that was the first Harbour Bridge that I did, it was only a small one.

While the model may have been small it was the start of Esme’s lifelong fascination for reproducing the iconic steel structure. Even now in her eighties Esme says “I love doing Harbour Bridges, I’d sit all day and shell the Harbour Bridge. So relaxing.”

Marylin learned to make shellwork models of the Sydney Harbour Bridge the same way, by watching her mother as a child. Marylin recalls that on her first attempt she did “…a little bridge, wasn’t as good as Mum’s, but then I said I keep trying and trying.” Today Marylin finds her bridges are particularly popular amongst collectors: “They are demanding them. A lot of people love the Harbour Bridge.” It’s a demand Marylin is happy to fill: “…my favourite object is the Harbour Bridge. Its beautiful.”

For Esme and Marylin, making shell bridges is part of a long family and cultural tradition. Esme’s great grandmother was a celebrated nineteenth century La Perouse artist known as Queen Emma Timbery.

According to Marylin: “The thing that is most dearest, nearest to us is to keep this culture alive, because it goes back to generations and generations…it comes from a lot of beautiful ladies that sat together, worked together, ate together, they sorted shells together...”. She speaks of her sense of connection with the people who made the ancient shell middens and shell fishhooks scattered around Sydney’s beaches. “Makes you really proud of what you do … our dear old men that made fish hooks … you know they were recycling like us with the shells.”

Here is a marvellous irony: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, arguably one of Australia’s most potent symbols of modernity, has been adopted by Aboriginal artists with direct family and cultural links to the ancient Indigenous peoples who gathered shells on Sydney’s beaches. But then almost in the shadow of the Bridge at Balls Head is a cave with two ancient Aboriginal hand stencils still visible on the wall. It seems the Aboriginal peoples parading over the bridge in the 1932 ‘March of Progress’ were not leaving the stage of history at all. Instead they are getting ready to walk off to one side, to mingle with the cheering crowds on the harbor foreshore, and to help create the new symbols for Sydney’s generations to come.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Explore magazine (Autumn 2015 37(1)).