Strutt and friends

Strutt and friends
Exploring an artist's odyssey in Austraila
16 October 2015

Periscope up!

This Sunday, the National Library of Australia is holding its first ever event that will be live streamed using #Periscope via Twitter.

The Library is hosting a conversation exploring the legacy of English artist William Strutt who visited the colony of Victoria from 1850–1862, and within that period briefly stayed in New Zealand. This Antipodean part of his career is presented in Heroes and Villains: Strutt’s Australia. From 2pm, on Sunday 18 October, curator of the exhibition Matthew Jones will be joined by Elisabeth Findlay, Sasha Grishin, Chris McAuliffe and Richard White to examine the context and significance of Strutt’s time in Australia.

Matthew Jones, Sasha Grishin, Elisabeth Findlay, Chris McAuliffe and Richard White    

We asked the question “Why should Australians want to know about William Strutt?”

National Library Exhibitions Curator Matthew Jones believes Strutt’s work is important as “his pictures are distinctive and ambitious, a rare example of the intersection of French academic training with Australian colonial subject matter. His ability to draw the human figure and execute large and complex compositions sets him apart from other artists working in Australia during the 1850s and early 1860s; a time of great change in our colonial history.” Matthew will make some brief introductory remarks about the life and art of Strutt; how he’s been exhibited and collected by major Australian institutions and why the Library decided to do an exhibition on this most interesting artist 100 years after his death.

Queensland College of Art’s Professor Elisabeth Findlay is an art historian specialising in portraiture and nineteenth-century Australian art. Her previous research has included the work of Augustus Earle, and the portraiture of Aboriginal Australians. Findlay believes “Strutt deserves much more recognition in the history of Australian art”, and will examine Strutt's portraits and the patronage of early Melbourne pioneer, businessman and politician John Pascoe Fawkner. Portrait commissions were a critical source of income for Strutt but they also reveal his ambitious plans and vision for a local arts industry in Australia.

Heroes and Villains: Strutt’s Australia was developed in partnership with the State Library of Victoria, which recently mounted a counterpoint exhibition Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill. The latter exhibition, which will be hosted at the Library in 2016, is devoted to the art of Strutt’s contemporary, English-born Australian artist Samuel Thomas Gill.  ANU’s Professor Sasha Grishin, as the curator of the ST Gill exhibition, will compare the work of the two artists and discuss them within a broader context of nineteenth-century colonial art in Australia. Strutt was in contact with other artists in the colony, including Eugene Von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier and Ludwig Becker, although his training led him to take a more academic approach in his choice of subject matter which it is thought resonated less with the public at the time.

For Chris McAuliffe, Professor of Art (practice-led research) at ANU’s School of Art, College of Arts and Social Sciences, his significance lies in how “artists often have to defend the relevance of their work. Yes, it's beautiful or provocative but what does it do for us? Colonial artists like William Strutt show how deeply involved artists can be not only in picturing our society but also in defining its values, building its social institutions and developing its myths. Strutt recorded colonial experience but also helped establish museums and cultural activity, advocated for social reform and helped shape colonial consciousness.”

Strutt’s paintings on an Australian theme were mostly completed once he returned to England including Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 which McAuliffe suggestsspoke to a London audience in 1887 of an event that had occurred in Melbourne three decades earlier. Strutt’s revival of an episode of gold rush era lawlessness reveals his persistent interest in colonial governance and progress. His claims expertise in matters colonial also offers insights into the professional practice of artists of empire.”

Richard White recently retired from the University of Sydney, where he taught Australian history and the history of travel and tourism. On the importance of Strutt, Richard thinks “the amazing thing about Strutt is that he conceived of history painting in Australia when hardly anyone imagined Australia had any history. He was imaginative enough to paint history in the making and the subjects he chose—bushfires, bushrangers, dying explorers—would become staples of Australian history.”

White's interest in Strutt stems from a broader interest in the ways in which Australia became an object of tourism. “It took some time before tourists began to look at the history around them—long after they discovered nature. It’s fascinating to ask how a country that imagined itself as new came to think of itself as old. What I find especially interesting is that the tourists who first became interested in Australia’s past tended to be disreputable: they got excited by subjects like convicts and bushrangers and the Eureka stockade, aspects of Australian history that respectable opinion generally sought to play down.”

Strutt sought to record a new country’s evolution which, as a foreigner to the Victorian colony, he obviously felt was a history worth painting. Whilst there is a general consensus that his ambitions were out of step with the tastes of colonists at the time, the legacy of his ambitions to paint Australian history can be appraised again in the first major survey of his work in 25 years, at the National Library of Australia until 15 November 2015.

The conversation begins at 2pm, Sunday 18 October, in the Conference Room, National Library of Australia. Register here.

If you can’t make it in person this Sunday, join the conversation with curator Matthew Jones and our guests LIVE on #periscope: Strutt and friends: an artists’ odyssey #williamstrutt @nlagovau.