• Snelling painting a mural at the US Navy club, 1945.

Maramanah, Macleay and Elizabeth Streets, Potts Point, NSW, 1944–45

After a fire burned the roof and top floor of Maramanah, a gracious 1882 villa on the site of today’s El Alamein fountain at Potts Point, its then-occupants, the United States Navy, commissioned Snelling to renovate the building to improve its hospitality amenities for sailors on rest and recreation leave.

A crew of 20 sailors demolished ‘old-fashioned ornamental’ fittings throughout the house; then Snelling painted the walls of various rooms with an estimated 1,400 sq ft of cartoon-style murals to entertain the Americans and remind them of their national folklore. The chief petty officer’s room was illustrated with southwest Pacific and New Zealand native scenes; the former ballroom displayed a road map of the United States, from Mexico City to Siska, Alaska; the bar was decorated with life-sized murals of American comic strip characters, and murals in the ratings room included replicas of every US Navy ratings badge superimposed by naval insignia. All these murals were painted above shoulder-height dados, each defined by a dark-painted horizontal stripe.

On the courtyard wall above the entrance arch, the head of a sailor was depicted with one hand across his mouth, below a notice warning departing revellers: ‘Silence Sailor’.

Few images remain of this interior, and most of them focus on the murals, but some suggest that Snelling built seating banquettes around the walls and supplied timber dining tables and chairs. He had not yet begun selling his Snelling Line chairs and tables, but his first wife, Nancy Springhall, recalled that he prototyped his first chairs around the time of their marriage in 1945.

To paint the murals, Snelling used the ‘alsecco’ and ‘alfresco’ techniques. Alsecco required chalk-proof paints mixed with either water or (for durability) chalk milk (water gathered from the top of a chalk tin that had been left standing for a day or two). Painting would be done with light coats, 'almost in the water color technique' or the wall surface would be drenched with water to allow ‘wet in wet’ painting. Alfresco, as a more permanent technique, could be used externally. In this case, sand or silica was mixed with marble flour to create a plaster applied to the wall surface. While the last coat of plaster was wet, Snelling would trace his design onto the plaster from a full-sized sketch and then rapidly paint the mural in sections before the plaster dried.

Sources

—Decoration and Glass. 1948. ‘Technique of murals’, March–April, pp. 18–21.

—New Zealand Free Lance, The. 1945. ‘An artist who makes walls travel’, 26 September, p. 33.

—New Zealand Free Lance, The. 1945. ‘Leaves an attractive mark on Sydney: Artistry of New Zealander Doug Snelling’, 26 September, pp. 36–37.

—Springhall, Nancy. 2003. Personal communications, 26 August.

—Sunday Telegraph, The. 1945. ‘US artist paints murals for US club’, 14 January, p. 4.