A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Angus Trumble, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 16 April, 2003

Tonight I wish to consider the common wombat, not perhaps as most Australians know it, a healthy and characterful burrowing marsupial much in evidence in this part of the continent, nor indeed as a symbol in the national iconography, although this is a very intriguing subject. In our pockets and purses we carry around decimal coins, of which the best designs were produced in the mid 1960s by the gold and silversmith Stuart Devlin. The kangaroo and emu, the platypus, echidna and lyrebird are all represented. The koala and kookaburra made it onto rare high-denomination gold and platinum coins. The two-cent frilled lizard and the one-cent feather-tail glider, also known as the pygmy possum, were victims of inflation.

Native fauna have also been used on decimal banknotes. Kangaroos and lizards were prominent on the reverse of the old one-dollar bill, liberally harvested from Aboriginal bark paintings, and from unacknowledged drawings of rock art sites originally done for a German archaeological publication, not something I think that is generally known. While the Queen, by convention, occupies the obverse of every coin, the wombat is conspicuously absent from the currency, and is likewise rarely included among our national symbols.

Many of you will know the roundels in the courtyard of the old Institute of Anatomy building in McCoy Circuit at ANU, currently occupied by ScreenSound Australia. Though many people mistake them for the heads of koalas, they are in fact wombats. As well, there are The Muddleheaded Wombat books by Ruth Park, and such rarities as a glamorous old fashion photograph by Max Dupain. But on the whole, as in life, the wombat is surprisingly fugitive.

The one exception to this rule is place names. Gazetteers offer up dozens of topographical features that carry the name of wombat. There is the town called Wombat, the so-called Wombat Pinch and the Wombat Range all of which are quite close to Canberra. There is Mt Wombat (799 metres), between Euroa and Strathbogie, and the Wombat Spur in the Great Dividing Range —both in Victoria. Wombat Hill is in the Parish of Wombat, not far from the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford, which before 1854 was itself called Wombat. No fewer than nine Wombat Creeks flow in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, while South Australia has a Wombat Dam and places called Wombat Tank, Wombat Flat and Wombat Wallow.

I suppose it is not hard to understand why, when nineteenth-century settlers found such plentiful opportunities to exploit the name and distinctive character of the dependable wombat, twentieth-century Australia should have paid so much more attention to the kangaroo—which is far better for airlines, and more in keeping with the mood of a society increasingly enthralled with the idea of velocity. So there is much to consider in relation to the construction of the identity of the wombat in modern Australian literature and art, not to say kitsch.

Now I would like to invite you to join me on a journey into the English imagination, where during the whole course of the nineteenth century the wombat was not only greeted with interest but also thrived, thanks in part to that remarkable group of young artists and poets who from 1848 called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The group consisted of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his brother William Michael Rossetti, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, F. G. Stephens, who went on to become an influential art critic, art student John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and James Collinson. Rossetti, Hunt and Millais formed the nucleus of the group.

The Pre-Raphaelites were much influenced and encouraged by the older artist Ford Madox Brown and the critic John Ruskin. In their different ways Brown and Ruskin served as catalysts, mentors and early supporters of the PRB. Brown was, I think, essentially a loner, rather gloomy, and something of an eccentric. Ruskin was worldly and ambitious and brilliant, belonging more to the world of Oxford, than to the metropolitan snake-pit of the London art world with its in-fighting and commercial cut and thrust.

The seven Pre-Raphaelite brethren were all very young: Millais was only 19; Rossetti 20, and Hunt 21 years of age. The others weren’t much older. Their stated aim was to resuscitate painting in England by committing themselves to the truthful study of nature, and to the example of fifteenth-century Italian painting. They thought the institutional art world of modern England was centreless. Lawrence and Constable were long gone. J.M.W. Turner was thought mad, and the best on offer at each year’s Royal Academy summer exhibitions were the sexless, anaemic nudes of William Etty and others.

Much later, in 1857, by which time he was a national celebrity, Rossetti was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls and windows of the library of the Oxford Union. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends, the future artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, as well as the artists Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Arthur Hughes and John Hungerford Pollen. Recalling the hugely enjoyable experience of working in the Oxford Union, another artist—helper Val Prinsep—recalled: ‘Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were “stunners” with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.’

While the murals were being painted with scenes taken from Arthurian legend—rather badly, as it turned out, because they have since deteriorated beyond recognition—the glass panes of the windows were painted over to reduce the glare. These whitewashed surfaces were soon covered with sketches drawn or scratched into the paint, mostly of wombats. These have vanished because, of course, when the frescoes were finished the whitewash was removed. Ned Burne-Jones was supposed to have done the best ones, and he continued to produce them for many years. A rather overheated Egyptological example, shown whizzing past the pyramids, was much later chosen by Lady Burne-Jones as an illustration for the part of her memoir that dealt with the Oxford Union episode.

Another example recently came on the market and though tempting—indeed at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide we seriously contemplated bidding for it—when I saw it in London the sheet proved too crumpled and faded to be seriously contemplated. Still, it remains a valuable document of Burne-Jones’ continuing interest in what must have seemed a very odd subject indeed.

‘Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.’ This strange remark is worth considering for a moment because while it was to some extent a joke, and a private one, nevertheless I think it strikes a note that echoes from the nineteenth century with insistent clarity. In his great book The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Owen Chadwick drew attention to the process by which, during this period, every strand of intellectual life in Britain gradually receded from engagement with the Church of England and contracted instead towards increasingly secular preoccupations. In this light, Prinsep’s remark about wombats and God could never have been uttered 50 years earlier, particularly in jest. Yet we have no reason to think that his recollection was not sincere. The Pre-Raphaelites and their friends were committed to the idea of the beauty of creation and, through Ruskin, to the essentially moral and Christian foundation of aesthetics as well. So this cantilevered sentence, which holds in balance the concepts of ‘wombat’ and ‘God’, leaps out of the nineteenth century, hits us on the head and teaches us that, at least in some respects, the Victorian mind was alert to just about to anything.

Why were Rossetti and his protégés so interested in wombats? Their friend the sculptor Thomas Woolner, who was an original member of the PRB, may conceivably have sparked their interest. For he alone actually travelled to Australia. It is not often remembered that the first item in the first issue of the Pre-Raphaelites’ ambitious new art and poetry journal The Germ, which appeared in January 1850, was Woolner’s poem ‘My Beautiful Lady’.

Like many such student ventures, The Germ, a monthly journal dedicated to art, poetry and literary criticism was hugely overambitious. After the first three months, there was a long delay before the fourth issue gamely appeared in May. But after that The Germ sank without trace.

It was good while it lasted, and Woolner’s part in it was central.

But unlike Hunt, Rossetti and Millais, whose careers went from strength to strength, largely thanks to the public support of John Ruskin and excellent sales at the Royal Academy summer exhibitions, in the early 1850s Woolner’s career as a sculptor was going nowhere.

Stylistically, his classicised portrait heads were, among all the works they produced, perhaps the least attuned to the PRB aesthetic. He spent months pursuing influential portrait commissions but he failed to win the success he hoped might come from being associated with such a celebrity subject. Instead he decided to emigrate to Australia, prompted to do so by his friends the artists Bernhard Smith and Edward La Trobe Bateman, who were going to Victoria to seek their fortune on the goldfields.

In due course, Millais, Hunt and Rossetti went with Woolner to see him off at Plymouth, and his departure prompted Ford Madox Brown to paint his famous emigration roundels called The Last of England. Though Woolner was still a bachelor, Hunt used him as the model of an emigrating father, contemplating the magnitude and dangers of the coming voyage. Later, the Pre-Raphaelites and their friends met regularly to read aloud from the letter–journals that Woolner sent home from the Victorian goldfields. He had no luck at all, and did not like the Australian landscape. He confided to his diary that he thought it topsy-turvy. The seasons were the wrong way around, as were the times of day. The birds, he claimed, did not sing, cherries grew with their stones on the outside of the fruit, the trees shed their bark, not their leaves, and so on. On one occasion he was shocked to encounter the fragrance of lilac because he had made his mind up that Australia was scentless, barren, ‘a land without fruit or vegetable’.

On his arrival in Melbourne, Woolner gained access to the circle of Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe—largely through Bateman, who was La Trobe’s cousin—and in due course he produced a number of portrait medallions, at the bracing price of 25 guineas each. La Trobe was, it seems, the first customer. During his long stay in Melbourne in 1853, Woolner lived in the household of Dr and Mrs Godfrey Howitt at the top end of Collins Street, and became further entwined in the Howitt–Cole–McCrae circle, which provided such a remarkable model of intellectual and artistic life in early Melbourne.

Woolner fell in love with the Howitts’ daughter Edith, much encouraged by Mrs Howitt, and in due course he proposed marriage and became engaged. Dr Howitt was dismayed, because at this time Woolner was poor, had few prospects, had spectacularly failed to make his fortune on the goldfields and, he thought, was opinionated and pushy. Nor was he impressed by Woolner’s shameless lobbying of Phoebe Howitt, to whom he sent pages and pages of poetry about Spring in Regent’s Park, a tactic which was very successful. Mrs Howitt thought he was wonderful, gorgeous.

Wombats captured the attention of English naturalists as soon as they found out about them from early settlers, explorers and naturalists at the time of first contact. The Aboriginal word wombat was first recorded near Port Jackson, and though variants such as wombach, womback, the hyphenated wom-bat and womat were noted, the present form of the name stuck very early, from at least 1797. Beautiful drawings survive from the 1802 voyages of the Investigator and Le Géographe. Ferdinand Bauer, who sailed with Matthew Flinders, and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who was in the rival French expedition of Nicolas Baudin, both drew the creature. These were engraved and carefully studied at home. Wombats were admired for their stumpy strength, their patience, their placid, not to say congenial manners, and also a kind of stoic determination. Occasionally they were thought clumsy, insensible or even stupid, but these isolated observations are out of step with the majority of nineteenth-century opinion.

From about 1803, a steady trickle of live wombats reached Europe. We know there was a wombat among the birds and animals that were delivered to the menagerie of the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte at Malmaison, near Paris. Another early wombat owner was the English naturalist Everard Home, whose paper on the subject, ‘An Account of Some Peculiarities in the Anatomical Structure of the Wombat,’ appeared in March 1809 in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts. Home’s wombat, a male, was in fact caught by George Bass, probably on King Island, where we know Bass and his companions shot several other specimens. Once provoked, this particular wombat put up a splendid struggle, tearing strips off Bass’s coat sleeves and making loud ‘whizzing’ noises. Evidently he took ages to calm down. Bass kept him alive, looked after him well, and sent him to England. There, in London, he lived in what Home described as ‘a domesticated state for two years’. The following description is no less charming today than it must have been for English scientific readers nearly 200 years ago. The wombat, burrowed in the ground whenever it had an opportunity, and covered itself in the earth with surprising quickness. It was quiet during the day, but constantly in motion in the night: was very sensible to cold; ate all kinds of vegetables; but was particularly fond of new hay, which it ate stalk by stalk, taking it into its mouth like a beaver, by small bits at a time. It was not wanting in intelligence, and appeared attached to those to whom it was accustomed, and who were kind to it. When it saw them, it would put up its forepaws on the knee, and when taken up would sleep in the lap. It allowed children to pull and carry it about, and when it bit them did not appear to do it in anger or with violence.

Some misconceptions lingered for decades. In 1827 an engraver working for the museum at Newcastle had the wombat sitting up like a kangaroo, something that clearly escaped notice throughout the galley and page-proof stages of publication.

But the most important development in the establishment of the wombat’s English reputation was the appearance in 1855 of John Gould’s de luxe The Mammals of Australia. Gould was in Australia much earlier, in the 1830s, and it was certainly through Gould that the artist Edward Lear, who illustrated Gould’s Birds but unfortunately not the Mammals, made a wonderful sheet of whimsical drawings of the ‘Inditchenous Beestes of New Olland’, a rarity which is today in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. These are plausibly accurate caricatures of various species of kangaroo and wallaby, the platypus, the ‘possum up his gum tree’ and the Tasmanian Devil. There are also mad renderings of the bandicoot, echidna and native cat, not to mention representative appearances in the margin of the cow, the dog, the sheep and the horse. Splendidly rotund and occupying the largest amount of space towards the bottom centre of the sheet is the wombat, with his ‘i’.

Lear drew on this material slightly later, when compiling his first Book of Nonsense. The transition from the autograph that you see here in a facsimile edition in the Library’s collection, to the finished version that was published in 1846, demonstrates the degree to which Lear had a reasonably clear understanding of the essentials of kangaroo anatomy and locomotion. We shall see that this was by no means true of nearly contemporary newspapers.

Gould’s 1855 description of the wombat is almost as captivating as Everard Home’s 50 years earlier. ‘In its habits it is nocturnal,’ he wrote, ‘living in the deep stony burrows excavated by itself, during the day, and emerging on the approach of evening, but seldom trusting itself far from its stronghold, to which it immediately runs for safety on the appearance of an intruder. The natives state, however, that it sometimes indulges in a long ramble, and, if a river should cross its course, quietly walks into the water and traverses the bottom of the stream until it reaches the other side … In its disposition it is quiet and docile in the extreme, soon becoming familiar with and apparently attached to those that feed it; as an evidence of which, I may mention that the two specimens which are now and have been for a long period living in the Gardens of the Zoological Society in the Regent’s Park, not only admit the closest inspection, but may be handled and scratched by all who choose to make so intimate an acquaintance with them.’

In September 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti bought the first of two pet wombats. This was the culmination of well over 12 years of enthusiasm for the exotic marsupial. If not from Thomas Woolner, whose view of the Australian landscape was pretty bleak, Rossetti and his friends may well have derived their particular enthusiasm for wombats from Gould’s or some other appealing description. Or maybe they simply fell in love with the wombats at the Regent’s Park Zoo. In the 1860s, Rossetti often took his friends to visit the wombats at the zoo, sometimes for hours on end. On one occasion Rossetti wrote to Ford Madox Brown: ‘Dear Brown: Lizzie and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [the Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair.’ In this period a number of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a rare, hairy-nosed wombat on 24 July 1862, and two common wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on 18 March 1863. As well, Rossetti made regular visits with his brother, William Michael, to the Acclimatisation Society in London and its counterpart in Paris, to keep an eye on the hairy-nosed wombats residing in both places. This was no passing fancy.

Earlier, in 1862, Rossetti had moved to Tudor House, at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Spacious, with plenty of room for family and friends including George Meredith and the deeply unattractive poet and semi-professional sadomasochist Algernon Charles Swinburne—who liked to slide naked down the banisters—the house had four-fifths of an acre of garden, with lime trees and a big mulberry. As soon as he arrived, Rossetti began to fill the garden with exotic birds and animals. There were owls, including a barn owl called Jessie, two or more armadillos, rabbits, dormice and a racoon that hibernated in a chest of drawers. There were peacocks, parakeets, and kangaroos and wallabies, about which we know frustratingly little. There was a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, a Pomeranian puppy called Punch, an Irish deerhound called Wolf, a Japanese salamander and two laughing jackasses. We know the neighbours were tolerant up to a point but Thomas Carlyle, for one, was driven mad by the noise. At length there was a small Brahmin bull that had to go when it chased Rossetti around the garden, and, in September 1869, a long-awaited wombat.

Shortly before this date there had been a number of animal deaths at Cheyne Walk, so Rossetti raised the animal-collecting stakes considerably. In November 1867, he was negotiating with his supplier of wild animals, Charles Jamrach of Ratcliffe Highway, Stepney (modern St George’s Street —the name was changed because of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders). His object was to purchase a young African elephant, but he balked at the price of £400. Rossetti’s income for 1865 was £2000.

Rossetti finally arranged to buy a wombat, again through Jamrach, when at length a suitable specimen became available. This wombat arrived in September 1869, when he was away in Scotland. Rossetti was recovering from a kind of breakdown, largely precipitated by failing eyesight, insomnia, drugs and above all his growing infatuation with Jane Morris, the wife of his old friend and protégé from the Oxford Union days.

A remarkable drawing of Jane Morris and the wombat in the British Museum illustrates the degree to which lover and pet merged in Rossetti’s mind as objects of sanctification. Each of them wears a halo. But Jane has the wombat on a leash, and it seems clear that Rossetti also used his pet wombat as a cruelly comical emblem for Jane’s long-suffering, cuckolded husband. Since university days Morris was known to his friends as ‘Topsy’; the name Rossetti chose for his Wombat was ‘Top’.

Still shaky, Rossetti could not wait to get back to Chelsea from freezing Scotland. He wrote to Janethe following mock-heroic lines:

Oh! How the family affections combat
Within this heart; and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul; neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained, until I clasp my wombat!

Meanwhile, within days, Rossetti’s sister, Christina, had sent him breathless verses in Italian entitled ‘O Uommibatto’, in which she described the animal as ‘agil, giocondo’ (nimble, cheerful), as well as irsuto e tondo’ (hairy and round). Writing from Scotland a few days later, Rossetti asked his brother William Michael also to thank Christina for the ‘shrine in the Italian taste, which she has reared for the wombat. I fear his habits tend inveterately to drain architecture … It appears the wombat follows people all over the house!’ At last, Rossetti returned to London on the 20 September, and the next day wrote to William Michael his most famous and suggestive remark about the new addition to his menagerie: ‘The wombat is a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.’ Unfortunately, the poor wombat was also an invalid.

From the beginning, William Michael had sensed that something was wrong: ‘I went round to see the beast, which is the most lumpish and incapable of wombats, with an air of baby objectlessness—not much more than half-grown probably. He is much addicted to following one about the room, and nestling up against one, and nibbling one’s calves or trousers.’ Top the wombat also got on well with the other animals, particularly the rabbits.

Soon, however, Top the wombat was ailing. William Michael wrote: ‘The wombat shows symptoms of some malady of the mange-kind, and he is attended by a dog doctor.’ The next day: ‘Saw the wombat again at Chelsea. I much fear he shows already decided symptoms of loss of sight which effects so many wombats.’ At length, on 6 November, the wombat died. Rossetti had him stuffed and afterwards displayed in the front hall.

Rossetti’s famous self-portrait with Top, the deceased wombat, is satirical but was apparently prompted by genuine grief. The accompanying verses are bleak indeed:

I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!

These verses are in fact Rossetti’s parody of the opening lines of ‘The Fire Worshippers’ a poem that appeared in a curious, but hugely popular novel by Thomas Moore called Lallah Rookh, published in 1817, which is all about the betrothal of the Emperor’s daughter to a foreign prince, and the journey she undertook from Delhi to Kashmir to meet her future husband. On the way she meets a beautiful minstrel with whom she falls in love and, of course, it turns out in the end that he is none other than the prince in disguise. These lines are sung by Lallah Rookh:

I never nurs’d a dear gazelle
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well
And love me, it was sure to die!

The substitution of the wombat for Lallah Rookh’s exotic gazelle is typical of Rossetti’s self-indulgent humour, and he clearly had no trouble adapting for himself the mood of a lovelorn oriental princess.

During its short life, the first of Rossetti’s two pet wombats secured a remarkable place in the mythology of his circle of friends. Rossetti gleefully reported to William Bell Scott on 28 September 1869 that the wombat had effectively interrupted a long and dreary monologue from John Ruskin by patiently burrowing between the eminent critic’s jacket and waistcoat. This must have been a marvellous thing to watch happen.

Much later, James McNeill Whistler invented a silly story about how the wombat had perished after eating an entire box of cigars. Ford Madox Brown thought that Rossetti’s habit of bringing the wombat to dinner and letting it sleep in the large épergne or centrepiece on the dining room table inspired the dormouse in the tea-pot incident at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is also impossible because Lewis Carroll wrote that chapter in 1863, and the novel with its famous illustrations by John Tenniel was published two years later in 1865. As my colleague David Marshall has also pointed out, either Rossetti’s épergne was enormous, or the wombat was dramatically small. As well, there were stories circulating about the wombat’s diet of ladies’ carelessly discarded straw hats, and so on.

Many years later, recalling the high jinks at Cheyne Walk, Max Beerbohm devised a series of ridiculous caricatures, with the garden menagerie as the setting. We do not know if this bizarre animal with enormous floppy ears was Beerbohm’s bizarre tribute to the wombat, but it seems possible.

In the short term, the Canadian woodchuck made up for Rossetti’s failure to preserve his two pet wombats. The woodchuck lasted much longer. For a long time it was mistaken for the wombat. On 9 February 1871, William Bell Scott observed the woodchuck nestling in Rossetti’s lap and made a charming pencil drawing on Cheyne Walk letterhead. He always assumed it was a wombat. I would say that it was, in fact, the woodchuck that slept peacefully in the épergne in the middle of the dining-room table, not the wombat.

Indeed it is the very idea of the wombat, not so much the creature himself, that consistently captured the imagination of visitors to Cheyne Walk, and stood out among the various Bohemian props with which Rossetti surrounded himself. The wombat craze of the 1850s and 1860s, while confined to a relatively small group of friends, represents a fascinating by-product of the British colonisation of this continent.

Australian birds and animals were very seldom noted in the London press. Palmer’s index to The Times newspaper lists only one reference each to a possum and an echidna in the whole extent of the nineteenth century, while kangaroos are likewise seldom mentioned—though the few mentions are so bizarre that they are worth repeating.

The first reference came in February 1834 and concerned an old woman who, living alone in a house on Castle Hill in South London, awoke one morning to find ‘a strange animal lying at her back, with one of its paws laid over her shoulder. Screaming with affright, she left her bed, and seizing a towel, she beat it with all her might, when, with one bound, it sprang to the furthest corner of the room, and at length took refuge in another bed which stood in the same apartment.’ This rather nonchalant kangaroo turned out to have escaped from Mr Wombwell’s Wild Beast Show, which had lately occupied The Mound.

The second reference comes 16 years later, in October 1850, and likewise concerns a kangaroo escapee, this time from a menagerie that belonged to a newly-elected Member of Parliament, W.J. Evelyn, of Wotton, near Dorking in West Surrey. Raising the alarm, Evelyn called out the local hunt, replete with huntsmen, a pack of beagles, whippers-in and so forth. The kangaroo sought refuge in a place called the Duke of Norfolk’s Copse, but was flushed out and cornered at Abinger Rectory. The report is worth quoting: ‘Here the animal’s peculiar mode of progression was exhibited in a style which astonished the field—a singular succession of leaps carrying it over the ground at a rate perfectly startling. Those who were well mounted alone were enabled to go the pace, and they speedily found themselves at the top of Leith Hill, where the kangaroo took to the road, and for about a mile and a half they all dashed along, “the field” rapidly augmenting in numbers as they proceeded in their novel chase.’

By contrast with these rare sightings of kangaroos, as a curiosity in Britain, the wombat, ‘the most beautiful of God’s creatures’, seems to have attracted far more attention than any other Australian animal, and reached into the recesses of the imagination—at least among that group of artists who in the 1850s and 1860s clustered around Dante Gabriel Rossetti.