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Richard Ford: Artist, teacher, horticulturalist

The Clunes Town Hall and Courthouse is a striking municipal building designed by Percy Oakden. Built in 1872, the distinctive building reflected the prosperity of a gold mining town in its heyday. But this is not a story about the Clunes Town Hall as such, though it is worth mentioning that the grand building has recently had a substantial makeover, returning to its original glory.

Instead the subject here is Richard Ford, arguably one of the town’s most well known and revered artists. He was born in 1875 and died in 1961 and over the course of a long life he was a council foreman, horticulturalist and park curator and later taught woodwork at the Clunes Higher Elementary School. In addition to these many talents he was a prolific painter. Where Ford received his artistic training is unknown but his skills were considerable.
He executed numerous works of Clunes and its surroundings very much in the tradition of English landscape painting, casting the town in a soft bucolic light. An interpretation in great contrast to the many photographs of the period featuring rickety shacks, industrial-scale mining operations and denuded hills. Nonetheless, over the many years many people wound up owning a Richard Ford work and there was even one found at the Senior Citizens Centre during its recent revamp which has been donated to the Clunes Museum.

Corner of Fraser and Templeton Streets, circa 1920 by Richard Ford

However, it the aforementioned Clunes Town Hall which was the recipient of some of the most substantial creations. They came about in the form of a detailed stage proscenium and a war memorial painting, both of which can still be viewed today in the large public meeting room.
A century ago town halls were one of the main spaces for regional dwellers. There people would gather to dance, listen to music and watch plays. And the proscenium backing the stage was as essential as chairs and lights. Generally the featured a painted backdrop, movable wings and a physical proscenium arch. The entire installation then served as the frame into which the audience observed a theatrical performance. By 1916 the time had come to replace the old proscenium and as a council foreman , Ford was uniquely placed to offer his skills in the creation of a new one.
The result was spectacular. The backdrop depicted a paved patio bracketed by neo-classical balustrades looking out over a sumptuous lake and dramatic mountains. Four rectangular wings around three metres high featured sturdy oak trees thick with foliage. On their reverse side were framed vignettes of subjects such as native flowers and swaggies by water holes. With the flick of a latch, the stage could go from a European theme to Australian theme in moments.

The proscenium in the main meeting room of the Clunes Town Hall and Courthouse.

Needless to say the council and town loved the final result and many spoke in “most eulogistic terms of the fine painting executed by Mr Ford,” as reported by the Clunes Guardian and Gazette. In response: “Ford said he could hardly express his feelings. He had done the work to the best of his ability and he was pleased to know that his efforts had been appreciated.”

Six years later a memorial was created in the same space featuring photos of soldiers and nurses who served in the Great War and Ford was able to contribute once again. “In the centre is the representation of a rising sun,” reports the Clunes Guardian and Gazette, “brilliantly and artistically painted by Mr Ford to whom much praise is due for the skill and care has has bestowed upon the whole work”.

The rising sun war memorial designed by Richard Ford. Image Tony Sawrey.

A century later his works remain in good condition. And with the Town Hall refurbishment and restoration works now complete, a new generation of Clunes residents and visitors will have the chance to experience them again in their glory.

Richard Ford in his garden in 1941