Red Cedar in Australia

The stranger is much struck by the handsome appearance given by the profuse use of cedar in the fittings of the Sydney dwellings' -

Lieutenant-colonel Godfrey Mundy, 1848

Australian red cedar, Toona ciliata, was first discovered in rainforest soon after European settlement about 10 km from Parramatta and has played an important part in the natural and cultural history, as well as the economic development of Australia. By 1798 it was the colony’s third largest export.

Australian red cedar was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney from 8 May to 15 August 2004.

Curated by John McPhee, the exhibition looked at the discovery and description of cedar and its close relationship with the Toons of India and south-east Asia and the impact of the rapacious 19th century timber industry on the rainforest environment and the traditional hunting grounds of Aboriginal people.

Once plentiful in NSW and Queensland rainforests, cedar proved easy to cut, cure and transport, and useful for building, joinery and furniture. As early as the 1790s the government was aware of the possibility of destroying too much timber, yet by the 1870s cedar was scarce in NSW. By the end of the 19th century the best quality timber had been logged-out and timber-getters turned to the rainforests of Queensland. Today the best stands of cedar are found in remote locations. The largest readily accessible red cedar is in the Gadgarra State Forest in NSW and stands 35m tall and has a clear bole of 18m and a diameter of 7m.

Furniture and joinery attest to the extravagant 19th century use of cedar and remarkable loans from Government House, Sydney, and Sydney Town Hall, showed how cedar was used to promote Australian primary produce, celebrate local craftsmanship and even express an emerging Australian nationalism. 'No other Australian timber has been used in the same way as cedar and achieved similar iconic status and popularity’, said John McPhee.

The exhibition was not just a furniture exhibition. Objects as diverse as a pre-1840 Sydney coffin and a 1910 rowing scull were included. Some of the most outstanding examples of cedar furniture were lent from private and public collections throughout Australia. An extraordinary loan, including a pair of elaborately carved doors, the Mayoral canopy and Lord Mayor’s chair and other furniture from the Council Chamber came from the Sydney Town Hall collection.

A publication accompanied the exhibition and presented new research assessing the place of red cedar in Australian history. Contributing authors included Margaret Betteridge, Curator of the Sydney Town Hall Collection for the City of Sydney, Clive Lucas, practising architect with Clive Lucas, Stapleton and Partners, David Mabberley, the Leidsuniversiteitsfonds Professor at the Nationaal Herbarium Nederland, University of Leiden, The Netherlands, and an Honorary Research Associate, for the Botanic Gardens Trust, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, John McPhee, the exhibition curator, Rod Ritchie, the author of Seeing the rainforests in nineteenth century Australia and Ann Toy, Supervising Curator, Government House, Historic Houses Trust.

Past exhibition

  • 8 May 2004 - 15 August 2004