Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cabinet a $1.5m masterpiece inspired by priceless bond

Among Geoff Hannah's earliest memories of his parents are Ruth working on the end of a cross-cut saw in the 1950s, helping David, a sleeper and girder cutter, cut down trees.

Their simple bush life left a legacy with Mr Hannah that will sit for centuries in a multi-layered cabinet full of mystique he handcrafted, now displayed at Bungendore Wood Works Gallery.

Under one drawer is a portrayal of a secretary bird holding a snake that's seeping rich red blood. Each colour is a different type of wood, inlaid into the drawer.

Under another drawer, a barn owl lands. A wedge-tailed eagle reveals its talons under another drawer and a black condor soars in another.


The cabinetmaker spent more than six years building a shrine to his parents using 34 different types of timber, leaving surprises such as rosellas behind the doors and at the end of tortoiseshell-lined drawers.

There are 140 handmade drawers in all - small ones in nests, long, slender ones inlaid with precious stones that glide open with precision, or sink softly into place.

Only Mr Hannah can get to the core of them, the one with woven material from Marie Antoinette's bed.

His love of woodwork began with that sleeper cutter who wielded a broad axe and brought wooden milk crates back from town for his little boy to work on.

Mr Hannah named one of his early pieces ''Dad''. It's since been renamed the Yarralumla Cabinet and is in Government House, Sydney. A private collector in Belgium paid $500,000 for his Australiana Cabinet.

The Hannah Cabinet, worth $1.5 million, stands more than 2.4 metres high and deep and will remain at Bungendore until late November.

Watching the number of visitors rise more than 10 per cent since unpacking the cabinet in May, exhibitions marketing co-ordinator Stan d'Argeavel hopes an Australian buyer will be among them.

''It's pulled people from everywhere. The response is just tremendous,'' he said.

Long-time friends of Mr Hannah, Mr d'Argeavel and gallery director David Mac Laren have his permission to pull apart and demonstrate the cabinet, which has pardalotes, a tailorbird, kingfishers, wrens and figbirds eating figs made of pink ivory, a spider, bees, butterflies, fish and flowers.

To shade the wildlife in different hues the master craftsman scorched the veneers in hot sand.

''It's a real cabinet which you just keep going into and into and there are sections that we can't get into where he has special locking devices,'' Mr d'Argeavel said.

Buying ebony from New Guinea worth $13,000, Mr Hannah lined every cabinet section with a string line of ebony, so it could be pulled out and repaired.

An apprentice at 15, Mr Hannah later won a Churchill Scholarship to hone his considerable skills in the workshops of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Palace of Versailles, France.

The Hannah Cabinet is his first extensive work with stone. Petrified wood from two quarries in Chinchilla forms a stone gallery lining the cabinet's top. He made a $12,000 saw and spent 3½ months cutting, just for the gallery.

''I didn't know it would take six years. I spent two years on the marquetry. I don't put any time limit on [a project], it will be finished when it's finished,'' he said.

When the cabinet was unveiled in 2009, an emotional Mr Hannah revealed his parents' hard life on farms and raising Richie, his Down syndrome brother.

When he was 17, he discovered he was adopted, and burst into tears.

For fear of upsetting his parents, he didn't mention this again until after they died. ''I just loved them so much,'' he said.
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