As printing became cheaper in Australia during the latter half of the nineteenth century, agricultural shows began to award paper prize certificates to winning exhibits. These cards detailed the relevant class and section and included space for the name of the successful entrant to be written or typed in on the day of the show. Certificates were also usually decorated with sometimes detailed drawings of agricultural animals such as horses, cows, pigs and chickens, and representations of country and historical scenes. These images provide a rich ground for considering how shows have constructed ideas about agriculture.
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First prize certificate awarded to Mrs Wilson for her entry in Class 46 (1), an afternoon tea throw-over, at the Canowindra Pastoral, Agricultural and Horticultural Association show, New South Wales, 1962. Donated by Myrtle Wilson.
For its 1962 show prizes, the Canowindra Pastoral, Agricultural and Horticultural Association chose certificates featuring a drawing of a rural scene. Sheaves of harvested wheat stand in a small, fenced paddock, with larger haystacks, or possibly thatched cottages, sketched in behind them. A few lines of ploughed ground, to the left of the image, remind us of the cycle of tilling, sowing, growth and harvesting. In the far distance, a row of hills appears as a welcome barrier to the outside world, creating the idea of a farm in a secluded valley. In the foreground, a tree branch arches over, framing the scene and suggesting the sense of a view, perhaps encountered as the viewer emerges to look over the country from a forest walk.
The drawing's composition reflects the style of the 'picturesque', an aesthetic movement that flourished in Great Britain and its colonies from the late 18th century. Exponents encouraged people with leisure and means to tour the countryside, seeking out views that moved them with their drama and beauty. Artists began to see the landscape, or parts of the landscape, as literally a 'picture', developing compositional techniques, such as a tree in the foreground or hills in the distance, that framed and consequently created a 'scene'. The movement was initially centred on wild, natural views, but it also came to encompass cultivated rural landscapes, dovetailing with other cultural currents that romanticised the country as an escape from modern, industrial cities.
In this certificate, agriculture is represented as a peaceful, pre-industrial activity. The stooks of stacked wheat and the haystacks reflect agricultural techniques prevalent before widespread mechanisation; and the post and rail fence suggests a modest field, more suited to subsistence farming and highly fertile soils than broad-acre production in marginal landscapes. Though no people are evident in the certificate's image, it arguably constructs agriculture as the province of yeomen, private farmers working small-scale, mixed crop and livestock farms, feeding themselves and their families and producing some surplus for sale. This ideal has a long cultural history in Australia, expressed in, for example, governments' drive during the 19th century to break up vast pastoral runs for closer settlement and schemes implemented after World War One to settle returning servicemen on the land. It has never, however, reflected the reality of agriculture in Australia, which has always been largely characterised by broad-acre, mechanised farming.
This certificate very strongly associates agriculture with 'the rural', but with a rural environment that is avowedly not an industrial landscape. Not only machines but also people are absent from the farming scene depicted here, perhaps suggesting that food production is simply a part of the natural landscape rather than the intervention of labour and technology to transform ecologies. It is perhaps important to note that the Canowindra Society encompasses the 'pastoral', as in the raising of livestock, the 'agricultural', understood here to mean the growing of crops, and the 'horticultural', the production of fruit and vegetables, but not, as with many show societies, the 'industrial'. Canowindra show historically would have incorporated displays of the tools of industrial agriculture, such as machinery. However, interestingly, these items are absent from the images on the certificate.
First prize certificate awarded to Mrs V.M. Wilson for her entry in Class 139, a lady's worked apron, at the Wangaratta Agricultural and Industrial Society show, Victoria, 1968.
The prizes awarded by agricultural shows from different parts of Australia and in different periods use widely varying decorative techniques and styles of graphic design. This certificate, awarded in 1968, is relatively plain, adopting a contemporary, minimalist style. The text elements are laid out in a highly organised and ordered style, rendered in a blocked font celebrating its industrial rather than human origins. The only decorative element, located in the top left-hand corner, is the Wangaratta Agricultural and Industrial Society logo, featuring a Merino ram, stalks of wheat and interlocking cogs. The certificate uses a 'typographic' style of graphic design that was, in the late 1960s, popular across the world. It is a style that embraces mechanised production and its capacity for clean sharp lines, regularity and uniformity. Its use in this certificate asserts that the Wangaratta annual show is not about the past and tradition but rather that it is a part of modern, industrial society.
The show society logo in the top left-hand corner of the certificate joins together three images: a sheep's head and partial body, the curling horns and neck folds identifying it as a Merino ram, two stalks of ripe wheat and two inter-locking cogs. The images are highly stylised, suggesting that they should be read as symbols representing certain activities or values. The ram stands perhaps for animals exhibited at the show, but also for agricultural achievement and the role of agriculture in Australia's prosperity. In the 1960s, Australia was still 'riding on the sheep's back', and the Merino ram was often used to signify a history of Australian ingenuity in developing the breed and the significant contribution of sheep and wool to the nation's economy. The ram was also often associated with masculinity, with his upright stance, bulky shoulders and powerful horns seen to embody male strength and virility.
The wheat stalks can be read as representing crops and horticultural produce exhibited at the show, and more broadly the role of agriculture in civilising land and people. For centuries, the development of agriculture organised around the cultivation of cereal crops has been constructed as the moment in which humans ceased being hunter-gatherers at the mercy of the seasons and began to control their environment and develop civilisations. The growing of wheat, in particular, has been seen as a civilising force, an activity that ennobles the farmer, domesticates the land, makes it productive and enables the progress of human society.
The interlocking cogs may reference agricultural machinery and other innovations and inventions on display at the show, but they also stand for industry, manufacturing and the 'machine age'. Processes of mechanisation and the development of new machines have often been seen as synonymous with social and economic progress, liberating people from labour, increasing production and creating prosperity. Mechanisation has also, however, sometimes been understood as destructive of rural landscapes and lifestyles. The arrival during the 19th century of railways in parts of Australia, for example, was both celebrated as bringing new possibilities for transporting commodities to markets and reviled for destroying the peace, quiet and harmony of the country.
This certificate brings together these three symbols, asserting the compatibility and indeed interdependence, between pastoralism, agriculture and industry. The certificate does not make overt arguments about the nature of food production as a rural enterprise, and indeed the associations in the logo might open room for an imagination of urban agriculture. The certificate's design and the featured logo do, however, strongly affirm that agriculture is an industrial system. As with other prizes considered in this website, the certificate's stylised illustrations deny the particularity of individual sheep or crop plants, and render mute the specific terrains to which particular animals are ecologically bound. Animals, plants and machines are rendered as commodities, enabling their flow through systems of food production, manufacturing and consumption, but blocking possibilities for consumers to know and care for the particular life forms that feed them or the landscapes that nourish them.
First prize certificate awarded to Mrs V. M. Wilson for her entry in Class 151, an article in tatting, at the Gloucester, New South Wales, show, 1970. Donated by Myrtle Wilson.
In 1970, agricultural show societies across Australia marked the bicentenary of the landing of Captain James Cook and officers and crew from HMB Endeavour on the continent's east coast, celebrating the event as a foundational moment in the nation's history. The Gloucester Agricultural, Horticultural and Pastoral Society was no exception, awarding at its show that year certificates provided by the New South Wales government printer to commemorate the landing.
In the centre of the lower third of this certificate, a drawn medallion features a profile of James Cook and the words '200th Anniversary 1770-1970'. Around this central element, a drawing imagines the event of the landing. On the left, Cook, his officers and sailors disembark from a long boat, carrying their muskets and a flying British ensign. They appear wary but confident. To the right of the medallion, the Endeavour rides at anchor and in the foreground two Aboriginal men strike a defensive posture, one with spear raised aggressively. As the British advance towards the centre of the image, the Aboriginal people appear to be retreating off the right-hand corner. The drawing suggests that Cook's landing in 1770 was a peaceful affair, the British striding ashore to take command of the land, opposed only by a lone pair of agitated and rather diminutive and poorly sketched Aboriginal inhabitants.
The British confidence and calm is echoed in the figure in the top left-hand corner of the certificate. Here, a drawing, again framing the legend 'Captain Cook Bi-Centenary N.S.W.', depicts a vast, pastoral landscape where a mounted stockman surveys his domain of paddocks and trees. To the right of the legend, a flock of bulky merino rams occupy the same position as the Aborigines in the lower part of the certificate, though the sheep stand placidly rather than threatening the stockman or backing away.
These two drawings together create a frame for the certificate, asserting connection and continuity between the first British landing and the modern pastoral industry. Indeed, the certificate arguably suggests that Cook's claiming of the continent is the promise or foundation realised in the stockman's masterful gaze over the land and its plants and animals. The pastoralist is represented as fulfilling the British colonists' ambition to make the Australian continent productive, with the relatively barren landscape of the drawing at the bottom of the certificate replaced at the top by a verdant vista.
On each side of the central prize information, the certificate depicts the heads of a series of agricultural animals. On the left, from top to bottom, a Merino ram with extravagant curling horns, a pig and a Hereford bull gaze out at the reader. On the right, a snarling sheep dog, a rooster and a cow. There is nothing particular about these animals, no clues as to where they were raised or the specifics of their individual lives. Rather, they are portrayed as universal examples of the sleek, plump, almost perfect, livestock produced through contemporary pastoralism. They stand for the wealth of the terrain won from the Aboriginal people by British settlers, and it is interesting in this context to consider whether they embody attitudes and qualities seen as essential to the pastoralist. Does the sheep dog's snarl, for example, suggest the aggression seen as necessary to controlling land and protecting stock?
This certificate confirms an understanding of agriculture, or at least pastoral aspects of it, as a rural enterprise. Of course, this reflects Gloucester's interests as a country town, but it is worth remembering that the certificate may also reflect more widely shared understandings, as it was created in Sydney by the New South Wales government printer. The certificate's portraits of farm animals further suggest an understanding of agriculture as an industrial system. The drawings honour not individual animals, but examples of agricultural commodities. These animals demonstrate the wealth of land made productive through colonisation, but they do not embody the particularity of local ecologies or experiences.
First prize certificate awarded to Mrs V.M. Wilson for her entry in Class 7 (1), a piece of tapestry, at the Warren, New South Wales, Show, 1967. Donated by Myrtle Wilson.
This Warren show prize certificate features not only sheep, cattle and wheat but also a plethora of horticultural produce. In the top two corners, the design depicts, on the left, a flock of three merino rams and, on the right, two cows, all standing in lush pasture and fringed with woolly, soft clouds. The rams' solid bulkiness and the front cow's full udder suggests health and productivity. The certificate does not explicitly locate the animals in the country, but it is easy to associate the grass underfoot, the clear sky and the lack of built structures as indicative of a rural location. Flourishing between the animals and extended around the central printed text, the certificate features agricultural produce. Heads of wheat provide a decorative border on the bottom, but they are interspersed with fruit and vegetables. In the centre bottom, the assemblage includes a pumpkin, corn and possibly tomatoes, the vertical edges are decorated by vines carrying some kind of round fruit, and, in the centre top, a small mountain of apples, orange, grapes and pears is surmounted by a large pineapple.
These decorative elements may reference horticultural exhibits at the show but it is more probable that they were used to symbolise richness, bounty and luxury. It is highly unlikely, for example, that pineapples were included in any displays as it would be very unusual for this tropical fruit to be grown near Warren, which lies about 125 kilometres north west of Dubbo in central New South Wales, in relatively dry country. Moreover, the produce is, in general, difficult to identify. The vines along the side, for example, are reminiscent of grape vines but seem to be carrying a round fruit like apples. Rather, these elements may be seen to signal, like the animals, abundance and nourishment, referencing the symbol of the cornucopia used to signal these qualities since classical antiquity.
This certificate alludes to agriculture as a rural practice but does not construct it as an industrial system. While the animals are idealised, they are not overly stylised and could almost be imagined as actual individual sheep and cows living in specific paddocks. The horticultural produce is more abstract and fantastical, and the images of fruit and vegetables could be understood as constructing the produce as movable commodities. These images could also be interpreted, however, as opening up room within agriculture for small-scale farming and gardening. The variety of crops depicted on the certificate references the range of produce normally grown in a home garden, and this resonance is reinforced by the prominence in the design of backyard favourites, such as the pumpkin. These elements suggest that the certificate could be constructing agriculture as encompassing home gardeners growing food, and indeed as incorporating this practice as a valued and honoured aspect of agricultural production.
First prize certificate awarded to Mrs V.M. Wilson for her entry in Class 12 (2), the best throwover, at the Bathurst, New South Wales, show, 1975. Donated by Myrtle Wilson.
Royal shows are held not only in capital cities but also significant regional centres such as Bathurst, New South Wales. The Bathurst Agricultural, Horticultural and Pastoral Association proudly proclaims this fact on this prize certificate from 1975, with the top legend describing Bathurst Show as 'The "Royal" of the West'.
Like the Gloucester show certificate from 1970, this Bathurst show certificate features images of the heads and shoulders of agriculturally important animals, with a merino ram in the top left-hand corner, a bull in the lower left and a haltered horse in the top right-hand corner. The style of the portraits of these animals is open to a number of interpretations. In one sense, the images assert the nature of the animals as industrial commodities, obscuring their individuality by providing no information as to where they were raised or the quality of their lives. It presents them as exemplars of breed characteristics with a promise of high productivity. The positioning of these images in this certificate, however, and particularly the space allowed around each of the heads, gives the depicted animals an anthropomorphic quality. The images resonate with portraits of humans, an assertion of the value of the individual, captured through the close study of each face.
In the lower right-hand corner of this certificate, the design features a gathering of horticultural produce, including wheat, fruit, vegetables and flowers. Like the 1967 Warren show certificate, this prize seems to include these design elements primarily as decoration conveying ideas of plenty and productivity. It is possible, however, that these images reflect produce exhibited at the show. It's interesting to note, for example, that long stems of gladioli are prominent in the design, perhaps reflecting the popularity during the period of comic Barry Humphries' character, Dame Edna Everage, who often carried the flowers and who stimulated new interest in growing gladioli.
This prize certificate was won by Myrtle Wilson for a 'throwover' but, notably, the certificate references exhibits related to pastoralism, agriculture and horticulture but not handicrafts. Agricultural shows have historically featured a range of classes for home-made and hand-made items, including cooking, preserves and sewn, knitted, crocheted and embroidered items, and women have been particularly strong contributors to these competitions. The absence in the certificate of references to these activities suggests their incompatibility with dominant understandings of agriculture and the historical marginalisation of women in agricultural industries and agricultural societies. Hand-made items value and express non-industrial modes of production, with show classes honouring the individual skill and creativity of the producer. They consequently sit uncomfortably with an industrial agricultural system that renders plants and animals as interchangeable commodities. Moreover, the presence of hand-made items at the show, and particularly food items like cakes and preserves, contest constructions of agriculture that separate food production from food processing and manufacture, a division central to industrial agricultural systems.
Images, symbols and designs can be interpreted in many different ways. What do you think this object says about agriculture? Send us a comment