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