The legend of Jimmy Possum
The legend of a reclusive bush carpenter named Jimmy Possum persists in craft-minded Deloraine – and his chairs are treated with respect by knowledgeable collectors far beyond the town.
A researcher from Queensland’s Griffith University, Mike Epworth, travelled to Tasmania this year to investigate the tale.
Locals took Mr Epworth to a tree stump which is reputed to have once been part of Jimmy Possum’s makeshift residence.
He is said to have lived in the Deloraine area during the 1890s and until approximately 1910 in a bush dwelling either made from, or joined to, a hollow log or tree.
Locals say he produced his chairs of simple stick construction from local timbers with a bushman’s tool set – an axe, adze, drawknife, spoke-shave, penknife and try plane.
Once complete, the chairs were often painted green or grey and sold for two shillings and sixpence.
It is believed that somewhere between 200 and 300 Jimmy Possum chairs exist, including examples held by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and other institutions around the country.
Some say the sheer number of chairs suggest that Jimmy Possum was a local style of the period, rather than an individual.
Others insist that Jimmy was a real person – perhaps Aboriginal – who was a fringe-dweller in Deloraine society and traded chairs for warm shelter during winter, as well as selling them.
Woodwork blogger, Chris Schwarz, a well-credentialed aficionado based in Kentucky, is a skeptic.
“Lots of people have debated whether Jimmy Possum was a real man or more of a hoop snake or drop bear from the Australian imagination,” he wrote recently.
“To my eye, [a Jimmy Possum chair] looks a lot like an Irish stick chair, with some interesting variations.
“The most unusual part is the role of the legs in the chair’s structure … they pass through the seat to become the stumps for the armrests.
“The legs are tapered so that the seat simply wedges on to them. And, like a Windsor or Welsh chair, the more you sit on the chair the tighter the joints become.”
Surviving Jimmy Possum chairs are made from blackwood or eucalypt – materials that were in abundant supply around Deloraine more than a century ago.
Their structural heart, the slab seat, was roughly trimmed with an axe or adze. A drawknife or crude plane was used if further shaping was needed to the top surface of the seat.
The underside remained roughly hewn in most cases, and an auger or a brace 'n’ bit may have been used to bore holes for the spindles and leg inserts.
There are some examples where it appears that a burning iron was used for this purpose.
An impressive line-up of furniture makers produced their own versions of the rustic chairs and sales were brisk.
More recently, Mr Epworth told the ABC: “Jimmy Possum is a very mysterious character, he’s very enigmatic, there’s no images of him, no photographs, there are no records of him.”
Mr Epworth thinks a picture of a man sitting next to a hollow tree, painted by an artist on a visit to northern Tasmania around 1905, could be Jimmy Possum.
“I’ve long thought there could be a possibility that Jimmy Possum could be Indigenous and it was just a vague feeling, but as the strands and the pieces of evidence come together that seems to be getting stronger,” he told the ABC.
The researcher believes Jimmy Possum stayed with a local farming family, the Larcombes, over one winter and taught William Larcombe to make chairs.
It is thought the technique was then passed down through the family.
With the backing of the National Trust, Mr Epworth ran a workshop in Deloraine, teaching present members of the Larcombe family how to make the chairs.
Gary Larcombe told the ABC he was planning to continue the tradition.
“I’m going to start making them myself after this experience, just to keep the family heritage going,” he said.
There has been an upsurge of interest across the region, with the Deloraine and Districts Folk Museum hosting the first public exhibition of Jimmy Possum chairs in almost 40 years.
The gallery’s Senior Curator of Decorative Arts, Peter Hughes, said: “I'd say there may have been a Jimmy Possum and he may have been a chair maker and he may have made some of the chairs, but equally it remains a possibility that he is a mythological figure.
“I think the chairs have immense aesthetic appeal, as very simple, functional and a very clever design,” he said.
Deloraine Mayor, Craig Perkins, said: “One of the great things about this mystery is that people are starting to come up with different theories and people are looking at different connections within the community.”
Mystery and aesthetics are a heady mixture.
Whether or not Jimmy Possum ever lived in Deloraine, it seems his legend is unlikely to die there.
Image courtesy of the ABC
3 October 2017, Edition 188