Christo­pher Allen and Public Works

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He­roes and Vil­lains: Strutt’s Aus­tralia

Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, Can­berra,

un­til Novem­ber 15.

When cities be­gan to grow again in the Mid­dle Ages, civic life was dom­i­nated by the pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions called guilds, which over­saw craft stan­dards, li­censed prac­ti­tion­ers and pro­tected lo­cal busi­nesses against com­pe­ti­tion from out­siders. As late as the early 17th cen­tury, it was in prin­ci­ple illegal for any­one but a mem­ber of the guild to work as a pain­ter in Paris.

One of the guild’s func­tions was to reg­u­late stan­dards of train­ing, which was car­ried out through the sys­tem of ap­pren­tice­ship. When a young man had reached a cer­tain stan­dard of pro­fi­ciency, he ceased to be an ap­pren­tice and be­came a worker paid a daily wage, or jour­ney­man. Once he was able to demon­strate a su­pe­rior level of ex­per­tise, he could be ad­mit­ted as a master, which en­ti­tled him to open his own work­shop and take on ap­pren­tices. The spec­i­men of his work that he sub­mit­ted to the guild for ap­proval was called a mas­ter­piece — the ori­gin of a much overused word to­day.

The mod­ern sys­tem of academies arose from a com­bi­na­tion of the new literary and artis­tic clubs of that name in 16th-cen­tury Italy and the slightly later em­pha­sis on more for­mal train­ing in draw­ing from the end of the 16th cen­tury and the early 17th. The first academy in the mod­ern sense — with an em­pha­sis on sys­tem­atic teach­ing — was the one founded in France in 1648 as a ri­val to the old guild.

Across the fol­low­ing decades it de­vel­oped into a new kind of pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tion, un­der the aegis of the equally new cen­tralised state. The academy of­fered a com­mon train­ing in draw­ing as the foun­da­tion of all art prac­tice, as well as lec­tures in history and the­ory, but stu­dents were still ap­pren­ticed to a master to learn the spe­cific crafts of paint­ing and sculp­ture.

It was only with Napoleon III’s re­form of the academy in 1863 that paint­ing and sculp­ture were brought into the in­sti­tu­tion it­self. But although these re­forms were in­tended to cor­rect many faults in the old sys­tem — and ef­fec­tively cre­ated the mod­ern art school — they also ended up pro­duc­ing ex­actly the kind of mono­lithic and uni­form art train­ing against which modernism would soon rebel.

Wil­liam Strutt (1825-1915), of­ten de­scribed as the first aca­dem­i­cally trained artist to work in Aus­tralia and now the ob­ject of a very welcome sur­vey at the Na­tional Li­brary, was trained in the old sys­tem, draw­ing at the academy but still at­tached to the stu­dio of a master, and thus learn­ing the craft of paint­ing from a prac­tis­ing artist rather than an art teacher. He stud­ied with Michel Martin Drolling, him­self a pupil of Jac­ques-Louis David who had won the Prix de Rome in 1810 with his paint­ing of The Anger of Achilles.

Strutt came from a fam­ily of artists, and no doubt this is why he was sent to Paris to en­rol in Drolling’s ate­lier at about the age of 13. There is a touch­ing lit­tle self-por­trait draw­ing in the ex­hi­bi­tion, show­ing the artist as an earnest boy of 15, work­ing at his easel. He was clearly tal­ented, as we can see from a fine copy of the left-hand por­tion of Raphael’s en­grav­ing of the Mas­sacre of the In­no­cents, ex­e­cuted with a light and del­i­cate hand that fore­shad­ows his later style.

But not ev­ery­one who was nat­u­rally gifted and prop­erly trained had it in them to be­come a sig­nif­i­cant artist, even if the num­ber of grad­u­ates who re­mained prac­ti­tion­ers was far higher than it is to­day. None of Drolling’s pupils be­came an artist of the first rank, although sev­eral were sig­nif­i­cant in their own way. But Strutt, like many oth­ers in the 19th cen­tury, found op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges in Aus­tralia that helped him be­come a more no­table pain­ter than he oth­er­wise would have been.

His tim­ing was good: he came to Mel­bourne in 1850, just in time to celebrate Sep­a­ra­tion Day, when Vic­to­ria be­came a colony in its own right; find­ing work ini­tially as an il­lus­tra­tor, but al­ways with an eye for great events that might be the sub­ject of a history paint­ing, he il­lus­trated a com­mem­o­ra­tive litho­graph boast­ing that “Vic­to­ria has not a par­al­lel in the an­nals of an­cient or mod­ern coloni­sa­tion.” And this was still a year be­fore the be­gin­ning of the gold rush that would trans­form the new city of Mel­bourne.

The still very young Strutt — he was about 25 — be­came friends with one of Mel­bourne’s found­ing fig­ures, John Pas­coe Fawkner, of whom he did a strik­ing and per­cep­tive por­trait; there is also a smaller full-length fig­ure of Fawkner as a mem­ber of the new colo­nial assem­bly, look­ing a lit­tle be­mused as he as­sumes the part of a vi­sion­ary states­man. Pa­tron and artist also en­vis­aged a large paint­ing com­mem­o­rat­ing the first sit­ting of the new assem­bly, although only sketches re­main.

Among many other im­ages of colo­nial life in Mel­bourne, of­ten il­lus­tra­tions for pub­li­ca­tion, one of the most in­ter­est­ing groups is of the

newly formed na­tive mounted po­lice: there is a dash­ing litho­graph of a na­tive mounted trooper in a red and yel­low uni­form, rem­i­nis­cent of the way na­tive reg­i­ments in Bri­tish In­dia or French North Africa were part of the pageantry of em­pire. Another litho­graph is a dou­ble por­trait of two of the Abo­rig­i­nal troop­ers in uni­form with a con­fi­dent mil­i­tary bear­ing that is very un­usual in 19th-cen­tury im­ages of in­dige­nous peo­ple.

Por­traits were an im­por­tant way of earn­ing a liv­ing for an artist who seems to have had a gift for cap­tur­ing like­nesses, and at the same time a light­ness of touch that, as we see in sev­eral draw­ings, was par­tic­u­larly suited to the sub­tlety of fem­i­nine fea­tures. In the case of Fawkner’s wife El­iza, whose phys­iog­nomy was less grace­ful, we sense the por­traitist’s peren­nial bal­anc­ing act be­tween like­ness and flat­tery.

The ex­hi­bi­tion re­veals other gifts that we may not have sus­pected. It is no sur­prise — if one has looked at Black Thurs­day — that Strutt is a fine an­i­mal pain­ter, but there are a few sheets of ex­tremely ac­cu­rate and sen­si­tive stud­ies of leaves and flow­ers that show that he could easily have been a botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor. Most un­ex­pect­edly, per­haps, there are some very good plein-air oil sketches, in­clud­ing one record­ing a close en­counter with bush­fires in 1851, vivid in the vis­i­ble ra­pid­ity of its ex­e­cu­tion. The charm­ing lit­tle Wer­ribee En­camp­ment (1861), on the other hand, could be slipped into a group of the Hei­del­berg 9 x 5 pan­els with­out look­ing in any way in­con­gru­ous.

Strutt’s aca­demic train­ing, how­ever, had im­bued in him the con­vic­tion — shared, for that mat­ter, by a pain­ter such as Tom Roberts — that the high­est form of paint­ing was a sub­stan­tial nar­ra­tive sub­ject, what was tra­di­tion­ally known as history paint­ing; and, like Roberts af­ter him, he be­lieved the mod­ern artist should find such sub­jects in con­tem­po­rary life.

A new and am­bi­tious pi­o­neer so­ci­ety, in the- ory, should have been an ideal place to paint im­por­tant pic­tures about the emerg­ing na­tional story, but in prac­tice the in­ter­est in nar­ra­tive — while in some ways more lively than ever — seemed to have mi­grated from the medium of high art to the more pop­u­lar and ephemeral one of il­lus­trated pa­pers.

The case of the Burke and Wills ex­pe­di­tion in 1860 is a telling one. Strutt re­alised at once that it was a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­tak­ing and did many sketches and stud­ies of the party as they de­parted — not know­ing that the tragic end of the ex­pe­di­tion with the death of Burke would raise the en­ter­prise to an even greater height in the Aus­tralian imag­i­na­tion.

At the end of his life, in his 80s, when funds be­came avail­able to com­mis­sion a me­mo­rial pic­ture, Strutt was bit­terly dis­ap­pointed to be over­looked in favour of John Longstaff but pro­ceeded to paint his own pic­ture of the death of Burke, ev­ery de­tail based on his metic­u­lous doc­u­men­ta­tion at the time. Both of the other im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary history paint­ings that he com­pleted were done in Eng­land, af­ter his re­turn there in 1862. The first of these was Black

Thurs­day, Fe­bru­ary 6th, 1851 (1864), com­mem­o­rat­ing the largest bush­fire in the history of Aus­tralia, which dev­as­tated about a quar­ter of the area of Vic­to­ria.

Here, too, as we have al­ready seen, the artist was at once alert to the sig­nif­i­cance of the event, mak­ing stud­ies and sketches then and on later oc­ca­sions when he had the op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness bush­fires. The fi­nal pic­ture is a long but small-scale panorama of a nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe that threat­ens the lives of hu­mans and an­i­mals alike; in­deed its weak­ness, apart from pro­por­tions that make it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to achieve a sat­is­fac­tory com­po­si­tion, is in the ex­ag­ger­a­tion of an­thro­po­mor­phic ex­pres­sion in the fea­tures of the an­i­mals.

Ex­pres­sion was one of the cen­tral val­ues of clas­si­cal art; the aca­demic tra­di­tion, how­ever, from the later 17th cen­tury on­wards, had be­gun to os­sify an orig­i­nally fluid and in­tu­itive idea into a reper­toire of me­chan­i­cal fa­cial types, which are too of­ten wooden and histri­onic.

This is the trou­ble, too, with Strutt’s other im­por­tant nar­ra­tive sub­ject, Bushrangers, 1852, com­pleted this time many years af­ter the event, in 1887 — although still sev­eral years be­fore Roberts’s fa­mous Bailed Up (1895-1927). If Roberts’s hold-up is a be­nign and leisurely af­fair, Strutt’s is a ter­ri­fy­ing or­deal.

There is un­doubt­edly an el­e­ment of Vic­to­rian melo­drama in the pic­ture, but see­ing it ex­hib­ited with a whole wall of prepara­tory stud­ies forces us to con­sider the se­ri­ous­ness of Strutt’s pur­pose, his de­ter­mi­na­tion to pro­duce an au­then­tic his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment. He has taken enor­mous care with ev­ery de­tail of pe­riod cos­tume and set­ting, but he has also been con­cerned to evoke dan­ger and the grip of fear.

Wil­liam Strutt’s Black Thurs­day, Fe­bru­ary 6th,

1851 (1864)

Wil­liam Strutt’s Bushrangers (1852), left; Por­trait of John Pas­coe Fawkner, Founder of Mel­bourne (1856), above

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