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A Fishy Tale from 1926

By: Patricia Egan, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 06 Feb 2013

In 1925, Museum staff were contracted to prepare fish exhibits for the Fijian Government. Unfortunately, all did not go to plan.

Preparation of Queensland groper

G.C Clutton © Australian Museum

In May, 1925, the Australian Museum agreed to mount some fish specimens for the Fijian Government. The fishes were to be displayed at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin which was opening on 17 November 1925. The instructions were for the fishes to be painted in natural colours and mounted on pedestal stands.

The four fishes arrived in Sydney aboard the S.S. “Sierra” in mid-October. Staff quickly realised that the fishes were too big to be processed at the same time.

As well, current Museum tanks were not big enough for the largest fish, a 250 pound Queensland Groper. No tank large enough for the specimen could be found in Sydney. So before the Museum could accept the fishes, staff purpose-built a large tank.

As the Queensland Groper was thawed artist, Ethel King began a series of colour sketches. Within a short time all the fishes had been sketched, measured, skinned and the skins placed in spirits for preservation.

Given the size of the groper, a wire gauze & paper pulp manikin was constructed. On December 7th the groper’s skin was sufficiently preserved to be carefully placed around the manikin.

Then things started to go wrong. Ethel King informed the Museum she had to go to hospital for an operation. Her condition was worse than anticipated and she was ‘ordered’ to the country to convalesce. In mid-January a telegram was sent to Ethel asking if she could commence the colouring “at once”.

Unfortunately she was unable to return and recommended the work be given to Mrs North (formerly Phyllis Clarke). As she was not available well-known Sydney artist - Mr Thomas - agreed to undertake the work.

Before the Museum could breathe a sigh of relief it became obvious that Mr Thomas was unable to satisfactorily complete the task. In desperation another telegram was dispatched to Ethel King at Lismore. Despite being “in a delicate state of health” she returned to Sydney and commenced work on the groper on 3rd February.

Ethel worked on the fishes for a number of weeks. Finally, on 1 March, the groper left for New Zealand where it was displayed until the close of the exhibition on 1 May 1926 and admired by the thousands of attendees.

Tags fishy tale, Ethel King, Queensland Groper, archives,