A closer look at the Coat of Arms in the House of Representatives

  • DateFri, 01 Sep 2023

As we restore the House of Representatives chamber, we continue to unearth surprising stories from Old Parliament House's past.

The restoration work focuses on much needed repair to the building fabric and to protect and preserve the chamber for ongoing sustainable use.

Tradespeople have been working on ceiling high scaffolding, repairing cracks in the walls, replacing old render and installing double glazed windows. We removed the Coat of Arms from high above the Speaker’s Chair for conservation.

Gifted by the British government after the original was replaced with a design that encompassed the federated states, this Coat of Arms hadn’t been touched since it was affixed over 50 years ago. Dulled with age, our heritage team assumed it was made of metal, but after a closer look, discovered it to be intricately hand carved in wood.

Only after receiving a thorough, methodical clean at the hands of experts, did the Coat of Arms reveal its story.

A close up of a wooden coat of arms with a kangaroo and an emu on either side of a shield.

Commissioned from Otto Brothers Woodcarvers and Sculptors of Sydney in 1968, the beautiful piece is more intricate than the Commonwealth Coat of Arms the family carved for the High Court of Australia.

The Ottos used cedar, and the design they worked from comes with strict guidelines, prescribed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who oversee its authority and ownership. The centre of the shield includes symbols of Australia's 6 states and territories, and the border of the shield symbolises federation.

The shield is held up by animal motifs including the kangaroo and the emu, which were chosen to symbolise a nation moving forward, as neither animal can move backwards easily. A 7-point gold Commonwealth Star sits above the shield. Six of the star's points represent the Australian states and the seventh point represents the territories. A wreath of gold and blue sits under the Commonwealth Star. Gold and blue are the Commonwealth Coat of Arms' 'livery', or 'identifying', colours. Australia's floral emblem, the golden wattle, frames the shield and the kangaroo and emu and at the bottom of the shield you will see a scroll containing the word 'Australia'.

A detail close up of an ornate wooden coat of arms with 'Otto Brothers' carved into the wood.

MoAD’s Heritage and Collections Officer Noel Lane dug through articles and files to learn more about this unique piece. He also spoke with Laurens Otto, a member of the second generation of Otto Brothers Woodcarvers, who revealed exactly how his father and uncle created the Coat of Arms.

Laurens’ father, Peta Otto, drew the outline of the Coat of Arms onto timber from a drawing provided by the government. Peta undertook the initial hand drilling/cutting of the fretwork before his brother Frank Otto completed the carving. The brothers did not use any machines in their work, relying only on handmade chisels. ‘During the war we could not get chisels in Holland,’ Frank Otto said, ‘so we had to learn how to make our own over (at) the local blacksmith's forge.’ They then continued to make their own instruments upon moving to a tiny workshop in Sydney with the help of a blacksmith in Woolloomoolo.

The 1968 Commonwealth Coat of Arms has now been reinstalled in the House of Representatives chamber, due to re-open at the end of 2023.