Art and Artists, Cooks River

Tranquil Waters – Cooks River

In 1891 a letter to the Editor alerted Sydney Morning Herald readers that a number of men and boys had taken to bathing naked in Cooks River. Standing on projecting rocks “without the slightest show of concealment” the writer goes on to say “something should be done to make this pretty little river bearable in the summer time”.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 6 January 1891, page 6 (REF: Trove)

One would wonder if artist Sydney Long read the words “pretty little river” and rushed out to capture it (and it’s naked bathers) resulting in his painting “By Tranquil Waters” which was finished and sold to the trustees of the Sydney Art Gallery  in 1894.

Image Source:

 Sydney Long painted a number of paintings depicting the “pretty little river” including the one below.

Summer by Sydney Long. Image: National Gallery of Australia

This wasn’t the first time the Editor had received a complaint about skinny dipping in the Cooks though. The previous summer John Wales had written “At almost any time during the day men and boys may be seen at every turn of the [Cooks] river swimning in a state of nudity.” He did not, however, leave the reader with a tranquil image of a “pretty little river” instead he painted a picture an image of a river littered with dead dogs and weeds. Wales, ironically predicted, though somewhat tongue in cheek, that Cooks River would soon  be an unfavourable place to swim.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 30 January 1890, page 9 Ref: Trove

 Well swim they did but not for long. In 1896 there was an outbreak of typhoid amongst the children who swam in the river. It was attributed to the sewer and street run off that entered the river after storms. (Ref Cooks River Org)

On the 19th May 1896 a public meeting was held about the poor condition of Cook’s River. This lead to an act of parliament resulting in the enactment of the “Cook’s River Improvement Bill”. (Ref: Cooks River Org)

The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 19 May 1896, page 5 (Ref: Trove)

Inspite of this law, 100 years later the Cook’s River is still not able to be swum in. In 2011 “The Cooks River Alliance” was launched creating an organisation to “effectively address the complex problems of the Cooks River in the long term”. (Ref: Cooks River Org)

Let’s all hope, it doesn’t take another 100 years before we see some major improvements to a place that was once described as a “pretty little river”.

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