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Wunderlich, Ernest Julius (1859–1945)

by Florence Taylor

from Construction (Sydney)

News of the passing of Ernest Wunderlich at his residence on 11th April has been received in the building and musical worlds with feelings of great sadness, for with his passing one of their greatest supporters, and one of the finest of our country's patriots goes to his great reward.

The writer just recently received a little book entitled "All My Yesterdays—A Mosiac of Music and Manufacturing," by Ernest Wunderlich, with the inscription: "This insignificant little book I respectfully present to Mrs. Florence M. Taylor, a great woman, whose friendship I have been privileged to enjoy for many years."

Thus it will be seen that up to the last his personal modesty and his gallantry in paying a compliment, that were ever a part of his nature, were maintained. The book was far from being insignificant, whilst the privileges, I thought, were all the other way round.

Ernest Wunderlich was a Londoner, born near the old Canonbury Tower within the sound of Bow Bells, May 16th, 1859. His father was a Londoner — a city Indigo Merchant, and his mother a highly cultured Hanoverian lady.

"Dear old London in our young days!" he writes, "neither its cold drizzle, fog, and smoke from a million chimneys could weaken our love for the place of our birth, nor make us forget the loveliness of its parks, their lakes, their trees, and their beds of flowers."

He married in 1885, and came with his bride to Australia on "The Carthage," 4000 tons, the largest and most up-to-date vessel of the time—the first to have electric lighting in the dining-room and lounge.

"Everything in Sydney in those days was plentiful and cheap. There were no taxes to speak of, and no trade union tyranny.

"St. Mary's Cathedral was only partly built, but was added to on several occasions; only the two towers on the southern facade are now still uncompleted. The Cathedral was evidently designed to have a groined ceiling, but as the ceiling is in wood, the flying buttresses are at present unnecessary. Some day, no doubt, the groining will be carried out.

"There was hardly a house in what are now populated districts—Bellevue Hill, Vaucluse, Coogee, Bondi. Coogee was a pure white beach. Surfing was unknown; we bathed in rock pools. Bondi was still unpolluted, and Manly's wonderful Auracaria Pines made a most picturesque show. Rose Bay, which used to be a smelly place, is now a pretty spot on the Harbour foreshores. The wonderful sunshine, the easygoing people, were to me a happy world. This was all before the invention of the internal combustion engine revolutionised life, and transformed it into a rush.

"The lovely South Coast—then called the Garden of New South Wales, has been almost denuded of trees by ring-barking. This has altered the climate, and the lovely district that never knew the failure of rain, now suffers nearly every year from drought and soil erosion.

"Wireless, the cinema and flying have destroyed rather than encouraged culture.

"There were no 'Neon Signs' to disturb one; nor illuminated shop windows without any business doing. Then, most shops were open for trade. Compulsory sloth had not yet affected life.

"Music was in a poor state. Concerts were given in the awful Exhibition Building in Railway Park, now a mass of rusty iron.

"The present Town Hall (named Centennial Hall) was completed about 1889. It was never designed as a concert hall, and the immense organ (tuned to the old discarded philharmonic pitch) must have been an after-thought, because the architects had specified an elaborate plaster ceiling with console and pendentives, that certainly would have fallen on the audience as soon as the 64-ft. lower C pipe sounded. I induced the City Council to substitute stamped zinc for the ceiling and all its decorations. This ceiling is intact after half a century. The Great Hall was a terrible place for echoes, draughts, discomforts, noise. No provision had been made for warming in winter, nor for adequate cloak-room arrangements. The Austrian chairs closely battened together were beneath contempt. It took over half a century to tune the organ so that it could be used with the orchestra, and to scrap the awful chairs."

His criticisms were terse and well merited.

"Marshall Hill fired the Melbourne musicians with enthusiasm, though the latter killed the first orchestra by asking ridiculous pay for all rehearsals, and the guarantors lost their money."

The choice of words throughout this book is fascinating. He used so few of them to such wonderful effect. How beautifully he described Vienna "What a glorious place it was in the golden age of the Emperor Franz Joseph—now a ruin in every sense of the word—a happy population who appreciated the good things of life. Can I forget the summer evenings in the Prater (Vienna's Park). Everything seemed to go con amore in that happy age of courtesy and culture."

When he revisited Vienna with his wife in 1925, he wept—unutterable sadness came over him, and he was glad to turn his back on the ruin of former greatness. (What would Ernest Wunderlich think of it now? Even the buildings have gone.)

The little heart-throbs and sobs in memory of other days show how easy it is to tear down the beauty of culture and refinement from its high pedestal, and leave nothing but drabness, sadness and meanness in its place.

To go through this book is like an enchanted travelogue of life, where a keen sense of observation and knowledge of the subjects being observed has enabled the author to pick the best from everything.

It was this knowledge of the best of everything that he brought to Australia, where, besides being known as an artist, musician, and man of letters, he became a man of business enterprise, an educator for his advanced lines, enriching all States in Australia with the products of the firm he established, and which later his two brothers, Alfred and Dr. Otto Wunderlich joined.

Because the firm did small things, such as French roofing tiles, metal ceilings, texture bricks, garden effects, asbestos and fibrous plaster boards in many homes, as well as big things like the Town Hall ceiling previously described, the copper sheathing on St. James Church Spire and heavy bronze doors, etc., the epitaph applied to Sir Christopher Wren may, with greater justification, apply to Ernest Wunderlich: "If you want to see his monument, look around."

The trio's motto: "To laugh, and never be downhearted," kept the trio young, although their combined ages amount to 247 years.

The book covers all his travels, and pays tribute to his brothers who have been left to mourn as well as all those whose privilege it was to contact him.

Original publication

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Citation details

Florence Taylor, 'Wunderlich, Ernest Julius (1859–1945)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/wunderlich-ernest-julius-9204/text35263, accessed 16 September 2019.

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