West Coast Hotel’s famous frescoes

west coast hotel cooktown Oct 1995 Mick Roberts Collection

The West Coast Hotel, Cooktown, October 1995. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

By Mick Roberts ©

A HOTEL in Far-North-Queensland once featured lively frescoes telling the story of  the Palmer goldfield — from the early rush, to the rust which coated the derelict workings.

The frescoes were painted by 44-year-old Sydney artist, Garnet Agnew in 1930, who later went onto become a successful newspaper cartoonist and illustrator. 

While the frescoes are long gone, the West Coast Hotel at Cooktown has survived, albeit in a much-altered state from last century when Agnew stayed at the pub.

The two-storey timber pub, established in 1873, was almost destroyed by Cyclone Ida in 2014; however it reopened on April Fools day 2016 as a single storey building.

Aerial-shot-West-Coast hotel cyclone damage queensland police 2014

The West Coast Hotel, Cooktown after the 2014 cyclone. Picture: Queensland Police.

Australian News Agency, AAP reported how the cyclone almost destroyed the historic pub in April 2014:

A Cooktown publican who had half his hotel destroyed in a cyclone almost a year ago plans to bunker down in his cool room filled with booze when another severe storm hits the town.

West Coast Hotel manager Dave Gay says there was “a hell of a crash” when the roof and part of the second floor were ripped from the pub by destructive winds when Cyclone Ita hit in the early hours of April 12 last year.

“It was bloody horrendous,” he said in Cooktown on Thursday.

“That night we went into the bottle shop (beside the hotel) and when it got really bad we went inside the cold room.

“We had mattresses and swags in there and plenty of cold beer.”

Mr Gay, his wife and a few of their friends plan to return to the safety and refreshments of the cool room before Cyclone Nathan makes landfall north of the town as a category four storm early Friday.

“Tonight we’ll be sitting there at the back of the bottle shop eating a roast my wife’s got cooking at the moment,” he said.

“We’ll be right we’ve got plenty of beer.”

When Ita hit Cooktown as a category four storm large trees were toppled, debris was strewn across roads, fences were smashed and three buildings lost roofs, including the West Coast Hotel.

No one was injured but the top floor was totally destroyed and parts of the ground floor, including the bar, were left in tatters.

“It was pretty scary but when the roof went it went in one piece and it was the loudest noise you’ve ever heard,” he said.

Mr Gay had hoped to reopen by the end of the year, however, those plans may be pushed back depending on how destructive Nathan is.

Mr Gay, who has only lived in Cooktown for two years, says he’s done a roaring trade at the liquor store on Thursday as locals stock up on booze in preparation for the wild night ahead.

Asked whether he was worried about Nathan, he said: “Nope, because if the power goes out we’ve got loads of ice for the beer”.

west coast hotel cooktown oct 1995 streetview Mick Roberts Collection

The West Coast Hotel, Cooktown, October 1995. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

The West Coast Hotel’s famous frescoes were painted in two parlours by Sydney artist Garnet Agnew in 1930 while he was a guest at the historic pub.

Prior to arriving in Cooktown, Agnew worked on film cartoons in Bond Street, Sydney in the 1920s. Almost blind with a blurred vision, a Macquarie Street specialist told the artist to take a break from his work and go to a place where life was leisurely.

The artist chose Cooktown, a town of deserted buildings, which was the former port for the goldfields at the base of Cape York Peninsula. Here among the easy going northerners he started his road to recovery.  

West Coast Hotel publican Jennie Neill took the artist under her wing, allowing him to stay free-of-charge at her pub until his eyesight returned. In a 1950 interview, published in Smith’s Weekly, Agnew told the story of how he come to paint the frescoes.

“When one morning I found my sight restored,” he says, “I made the only return I could. I borrowed all the photographs of old Cooktown identities from relatives and friends.

“Using these as models, I painted a humorous version of the rush to the Palmer goldfields in the seventies.”

The first frescoes showed the mass desertion of posts on news of the rush in 1872. The final fresco was the most powerful of all, according to an article titled, Australiana published in the World News on February 17 1940.

The work portrayed an old lunatic, frenziedly spilling golden nuggets from an upturned dish into the stream, while above him towered in macabre majesty the dark robed spectre of Death, symbolising the searcher’s gold bought with his own heart’s blood.

Each unit of the polyglot population was said to have been depicted with stark realism.

Caucasian and Celestial — clerics and courtesans, diggers and doctors, gamblers and grocers stalk through the frescoes. Murders and lynchings of natives are dominant features in note of violence and rapine, which characterises the series.

A Courier Mail reporter visited the Cooktown and the West Coast Hotel on December 21 1946 where he met ‘Alligator’ Jim Bentley. He reported:

AT the West Coast Hotel I met ‘Drat it All’ Alligator Jim Bentley, 76 years old character of priceless vintage. Jim showed me the famous strip, painted on the shabby V-J walls by former Brisbane artist, Garnet Agnew. It is a wonderful bit of documentary work in paint showing the panorama of events of the Palmer rush. Greed, hate, joy, humour — all the bathos and pathos are there, and many living Cooktown character’s with true likenesses are incorporated. As the eye sweeps along the characters come to life and the illusion of animation is startling.

But to revert to ‘Drat it all’ Jim Bentley. When a boy he promised his mother he wouldn’t swear and substituted his ”Drat it all” for cuss words.

This phrase comes into every second sentence of his conversation and it is excruciatingly funny to reflect just how fiery his delivery would be but for his boyhood vow.

Jim came to Cooktown 35 years ago. His has been a lifetime of adventure. Twenty-two years in the British Army in four campaigns — Burma (1892), South Africa, Zulu Rebellion, and in the Great War with the AIF including the Gallipoli show.

He was originally in the Royal Navy — deserted from HMS Ganges at Falmouth in 1887, the year of the Queen’s Jubilee. Received honourable acquittal while on service in South Africa.

alligator jim bentley cooktown 1946

‘Alligator’ Jim Bentley. Picture: A Courier Mail December 21 1946

Agnew returned to Brisbane after his Cooktown recovery and news of his magnificent work at the West Coast Hotel soon was reported across the country. In 1935 Agnew was engaged to decorate Stewart’s Criterion Hotel in George Street, Brisbane for Christmas.

criterion hotel brisbane xmas decoration 1935

The private bar of the Criterion Hotel, Brisbane decorated by Garnet Agnew for Christmas. Picture: The Brisbane Telegraph December 11 1935. 

High over the centrepieces of each angle of the bar Father Christmas presided over a huge cask of “xxxxmas” cheer. More than 100 gnomes, arc lined up along the complete length of the counter, joined Santa at the bar. No two of the many gnomes were alike and their faces reportedly “depicted almost every expression of the festive human male”. The talented artist also became famous for his cartoons and illustrations for the Brisbane Courier, The Queenslander and Brisbane Telegraph newspapers during the 1930s and 40s.

Garnet Agnew 1950

BRISBANE artist, Garnet Agnew at work yesterday painting a float for the G.P.O. for the Australia Day procession on Monday. Mr. Agnew has painted floats for the G.P.O. for the past 14 years. Picture: The Courier-Mail January 28 1950

Garnet Agnew died in Brisbane on November 5 1951 after a long illness at the age of 65. He was survived by his widow, two sons and daughter.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019

Categories: Queensland hotels

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2 replies

  1. We saw this pub in 2014 just after Cyclone Ida. It was looking rather sad and roofless.

  2. I stayed in the hotel for 4 months as part of a geological survey up the Cape York peninsula in 1972.

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