The South Australian Art Gallery has a broad and diverse collection of Australian and international artworks. This article focuses on seven selected works and artists from the Australian Colonial Art section of the gallery. Most of the pieces are associated with the history of South Australia. They are representative of the how Australia was first realised and essentially romantically portrayed by English and European artists during the 19th century. Many of these ‘travel artists’ had colourful and adventurous lives, leading them to explore ‘brave new worlds’ and creating works that stand as unique in the first appreciation of this new ‘great southern land’ we now call Australia.
AUGUSTUS EARLE – Barnett Levey (c. 1825) Augustus Earle (c. 1793-1838) was arguably Australia’s first major artist. Born in London, Augustus Earle was a member of a prominent American family. He trained at the Royal Academy and was exhibiting at the age of 13. From 1815, when he was 22 years old, Earle began his many and extensive travels throughout the known world. He was able to finance his travels through the sale of his art work. Augustus Earle came to Australia in 1825, arriving first in Hobart and then up to Sydney. Earle remained in Sydney, with excursions to its outer regions, as well as New Zealand, until 1828. One of his first commissions was this wedding portrait of Barnett Levey (1798-1837). Barnett Levey was the young colony’s first Jewish free settler. He was also the person responsible for building, creating and operating Australia’s first professional theatre, the Theatre Royal, which opened on the 26th December 1832 with Douglas Jerrold’s burlesque Black-Eyed Susan. Unfortunately, Barnett Levey’s fortunes and efforts were not successful. He died in 1837 leaving his family in poverty. Nonetheless, as the Sydney Times (21 October 1837) wrote, ‘to his spirit and perseverance are the public indebted for the introduction of theatricals into New South Wales’.
JOHN GLOVER – A View of the Artist’s home and garden in Mills Plains, Van Dieman’s Land (1835).
John Glover (1767-1849) was born at Houghton-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. He had a highly successful career in England, although never a member of the Royal Academy. In 1830 John Glover decided to move to Australia, arriving in Hobart, Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), on 18 February 1831, which coincided with his 64th birthday. John Glover has been called ‘the father of Australian landscape painting’. His work in Australia is noted for the first realistic impression of the Australian natural bright light and unique flora and bushland.
EUGENE VON GUERARD – Early Settlement of Thomas and William Lang, Salt River, Port Phillip, New South Wales (1860)
Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) was born in Vienna, Austria, and came to Australia in 1852. Guerard was a prolific and influential landscape artists in a particular style known as stemming from the ‘Dusseldorf School’ of painting. This relatively ‘romantic’ style involved a new realistic approach and realisation based on empirical observation of nature. Eugene von Guerard initially came to Australia to try his luck on the Victorian Gold Fields. He was not successful, but did produce numeros drawings and sketches of the life of the ‘diggers’ on the Gold Fields. By the 1860s he had established himself as the country’s foremost landscape painter, mainly working by commission for wealthy pastoralists. In 1870 he was appointed the first Master of the School of Painting at the National Art Gallery of Victoria, a position he was to occupy for the next 11 years. During this time he taught future important Australian artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. He also assisted another German artist from the ‘Dusseldorf School, Louis Tannert when Tannert came to Australia in 1876. Eugene von Guerard returned to Europe in 1882, but his fortunes rapidly declined after his wife died in 1891, and he lost all his money in the 1893 Australian bank crash. He lived in poverty for the rest of his life, dying in Chelsea, London, 17 April 1901.
NICHOLAS CHEVALIER – Memorandum of the Start of the Exploring Expedition (1860)
Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and studied in Lausanne (Switzerland), and Munich (Germany). He moved to London in 1851 where two of his paintings were shown at the Royal Academy. After further study in Rome he came to Australia in late 1854, and by August 1855 he was working as a cartoonist for the Melbourne edition of Punch magazine. He also worked as an illustrator for the Illustrated Australian News. This relatively large oil on canvas painting shows the start of the ill-fated ‘Burke and Wills’ expedition from Melbourne on the 20th August 1860. This was a relatively large expedition comprising of 19 men from different ethnic backgrounds – English, Irish, Afghani and one American. They had 23 horses, 6 wagons and 26 camels, and their departure was witnessed by over 15,000 spectators. Chevalier’s celebratory painting with it’s finely observed detail of the backers of expedition in the right-hand corner, gives little indication of the tragedy that was follow; although the disproportion of the man on the white horse at the central front of the painting in contrast with what is behind him does give a hint of the miss-match of respective personalities that was to play its part in this epic disaster. Nicholas Chevalier worked in Australia until 1869 when he returned to London. He remained in London, constantly having work exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1871 and 1887. Thereafter his output radically decreased and by 1895 had virtually given up painting. He died in London on 15 March 1902.
JOHN MICHAEL SKIPPER – Corroboree (c. 1864)
John Michael Skipper (1815-1883) was born in Norwich, Norfolk, and was a solicitor as well as an artist. He was always a rather free-spirited and rebellious individual, preferring to work as an artist than a lawyer. This was evident as early as 1833 when he abandoned his legal studies and went to sea for the East India Company. However, he used his legal skills and knowledge to finance his artistic and adventurous achievements. In 1836 he decided to migrate to Australia and arranged to be appointed as an article clerk for Charles Mann, the advocate-general for South Australia. In 1840 he became an attorney and practised until 1851 when he joined others in the Victorian ‘Gold Rush’. He returned to Adelaide in 1852 having not much luck finding gold and worked as a court clerk at Port Adelaide until 1872. Throughout all this time John Michael Skipper also produced numerous drawings and sketches, as well as a few paintings, that reflected his personal experience at sea as well as life on the gold fields and the early history of Adelaide. He retired in 1872 to his farm in Kent Town, Adelaide, where he died 7 December 1883. This spectacular large painting is an exception to John Michael Skipper’s overall canon of work. The painting has a theatrical nature with a small group of wealthy white colonists being dazzled by an aboriginal corroboree under a full moon in front of what may be Mt Abrupt in the Grampians mountain range. Whilst the white colonials dominate the front of the painting, particularly the lady in black riding side-saddle, nonetheless, the eye is drawn to the fiery phalanx-like army of indigenous warriors – two different worlds lined up in juxtaposition with one another.
CHARLES HILL – Georgetown (1877)
Charles Hill (1824-1915) was born in Coventry, England, into a military family. Charles Hill, however, did not follow the path expected of him but became a relatively successful artist. He studied at the Newcastle Fine Arts Academy and at the Government School of Design. He emigrated to South Australia in 1854 where he taught art at St Peter’s College and Adelaide’s Educational Institute. In 1856 he opened his own School of Art in his own home on Pulteney Street, Adelaide, and was instrumental in setting up the South Australian Society of Arts. When the South Australian School of Design was founded in 1861 Charles Hill was appointed at its first Master. He moved to ‘Alix House’ 100 South Terrace in 1866. He eventually retired from the School of Design in 1886. Charles Hill painted numerous landscapes and cityscapes, including this one of Georgetown in 1877. Georgetown is a small town in the mid-north of South Australia, 196 kilometres (122 miles) north of Adelaide.
H. J. JOHNSTONE – Evening Shadows, backwater of the Murray River, South Australia (1880)
Henry James Johnstone (1835-1907) was born in Birmingham, England, and studied at the Birmingham School of Design before joining his father’s photographic firm. He came to Australia in 1853 when he was only 18. By 1865 he established in Melbourne, with Emily O’Shannessey and George Hasler, the photographic company of Johnstone, O’Shannessey & Co., which became Melbourne’s leading portrait photographers. Whilst Johnstone may mostly known as in influential early photographer, he was also a successful artist. In 1867 he joined the Melbourne National Gallery School of Painting, and 1871 he became a member of the Victorian Academy of Arts. In 1876 he left Melbourne for South Australia where he remained for the next four years. He then toured extensively throughout the USA, and finally ended up in London in 1880 where he remained for the rest of his life. He regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy until 1900. He died in London in 1907 at the age of 72. The above painting is one of a few he painted whilst residing in South Australia. It is truly an extraordinary work, prefiguring ‘photorealism’ by nearly a century. Hardly surprising considering H. J. Johnstone’s knowledge, skill and talent as a pioneer photographer.
I hope you enjoy this brief journey through Australian Colonial Art. They are amongst my personal favourites and give a hint of the many marvellous works that are on display in the South Australian Art Gallery.