Charles Laseron was an early collector at MAAS and formative influence upon our applied arts collection. He was also present during the Gallipoli landings in 1915. In the week leading up to the ANZAC Centenary, we are publishing a series of posts detailing Laseron’s life. This post is the second of three.
In 1911, Sir Douglas Mawson started recruiting scientists for the first Australasian Expedition to the Antarctic. Laseron secured a prized interview. He was now aged 23 and was a collector at Sydney’s Technological Museum (today known as MAAS). Laseron impressed Mawson and was appointed biological collector and taxidermist. Granted 18 months’ leave from the Museum and the use of a half-plate camera, he set off for Hobart to help load supplies on the vessel Aurora. He became an explorer.
Almost as soon as the voyage began, the crew encountered fearful weather conditions. Seasickness became a recurring theme in Laseron’s diary, although such discomforts were punctuated with moments of exhilaration:
Great excitement, first berg … suddenly out of the fog loomed a big white shape … Fortunately the fog rose a little and we were able to view the most beautiful sight of our lives. The berg was full of cracks, which owing to the refracted light seemed full of bright sapphire (Laseron, November 1911).
After the expedition, Laseron’s return to the Museum was brief. With the outbreak of war in late 1914, he was one of the first to sign up, entering the Australian Imperial Force’s 13th Battalion. After a sojourn in Egypt, he landed at Anzac Cove late in the afternoon of 25 April 1915 and was wounded within 48 hours. He suffered a bullet wound to his foot. “I was very disappointed to get hit when I did, for we had been patiently waiting under a heavy fire for a bayonet charge“ (Laseron to Baker, May 1915). Laseron sent his graphic and moving account of his Australian experience of World War I and the Gallipoli landing to the Museum’s Director, Richard Baker. It was published in the Sunday Times on 11 July 1915.
While recuperating in London in late 1915, Laseron wrote to Baker that he had visited most of the city’s museums and art galleries. What he saw must have been a revelation because in his next letter he wrote that he had used the proceeds made from selling postcards of the Front to buy up pieces of old Japanese and Chinese porcelain from the city’s second-hand shops. Three weeks later he confessed that he had a box of these items ready to be shipped back to Australia. Convinced this could be a new direction for the Museum, Laseron offered to give it “first pick.”
Laseron resumed limited fieldwork back at the Museum in September 1916 but was still recovering from his war wound. His time was divided between reorganising and relabelling the collections of the country branch museums and taking charge of the geological and ornamental building stones collection. He also took up the study of Chinese porcelain and bronze which led to a passion in applied arts. This passion was so strong it would see an end to his time at the Museum.
This post was adapted by Alli Burness from “The Many Sides of Charles Laseron” by Jill Chapman. The original chapter appears in Greame Davison and Kimberly Webber (ed.s), Yesterday’s Tomorrow: the Powerhouse Museum and It’s Precursors, 1880 – 2005, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing in association with UNSW Press, 2005, 124 – 125.
Mitchell Library, series MSS 385, Laseron Papers. Antarctic Diary 1911-13, 29 November 1911.
MAAS Archives, series MRS 203, Laseron to Baker, 13 May 1915, 1213-5.