Madeleine Say, Pictures Collection Manager, State Library Victoria, discusses Strutt's iconic work, Black Thursday, which depicts the devastating fires that swept Victoria on 6 February 1851.
Audio transcript for William Strutt’s Black Thursday
Speakers: Nicola Mackay-Sim (N), Madeline Say (M)
Location: National Library of Australia
N: ... I think. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Nicola MacKay-Sim and I’m the Library’s Curator of Pictures. In welcoming you here today I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
This evening’s talk explores our exhibition Heroes and Villains, Australia, a celebration of the life and work of Australia’s first exponent of history painting, William Strutt. Tonight’s discussion will focus on the items in the exhibition from the perspective of the State Library of Victoria, our exhibition partner. I would like to take this opportunity of thank the State Library of Victoria for joining with us to bring you such a comprehensive exhibition. I would also like to thank other exhibition lenders, the State Library of New South Wales, the University of Melbourne, the Melbourne Club, the Parliament of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia. It is thanks to their generosity that we’re able to share a deep insight into the artistic work of one of Australia’s greatest colonial artists.
Born in England, Strutt arrived in Australia in 1850 at the age of 25. He spent most of his time around Melbourne until his return to England in 1862. During his 12 year stay, he experienced a gold rush, a population increase in Melbourne of over 100,000 people and the establishment of the colony of Victoria. He also saw firsthand the incredible destruction and awesome forces that an Australian bushfire season could unleash. The Black Thursday bushfires were a devastating series of fires that swept the colony of Victoria on the 6th of February 1851. They are considered the largest Australian bushfires in a populous region in recorded history with approximately one-quarter of Victoria being burnt. Twelve human lives were lost plus one million sheep, thousands of cattle and countless native animals. And one ambitious history painter, William Strutt, chose to record it.
To find out more about his work ... this work by Strutt as well as others it’s my great pleasure to introduce Madeleine Say from the State Library of Victoria. Madeleine trained in biological sciences and worked as a research scientist before becoming a librarian. She has been the Pictures Collection Manager at the State Library of Victoria since 2002, and has published in the La Trobe Journal amongst many other publications. Please join me in welcoming Madeline.
M: I was just thinking one of those laser pointers. Oh that’s alright, I can ... the audience I’m sure will indulge me when I try and ... sorry? Thank you. So thank you for the very kind introduction. And thank you to the NLA for this opportunity to speak tonight. I’m from the State Library of Victoria and this is to remind you of our address in 328 Swanson Street in Melbourne. I’m going to speak about ... I'm going to give a timeline of the period that William Strutt was in Victoria. I’m then going to talk about the works that we’ve lent to the exhibition downstairs and I’m going to finish up by talking about some of William Strutt’s portraits and that’ll include some for the works that are downstairs and some of the works that, for reasons that will become apparent, we couldn’t loan to this exhibition, but if you’re ever in Victoria we would encourage you to come and see them in the Library.
So I’m going to start with William Strutt’s period in Victoria because it was really very, very brief. He was there for just a decade. So he arrives in July 1850 and this is ... he’s a young man of 25 as Nicki has said. White settlement in Victoria started about 1835. There's a bit of debate about that, Portland and then the Enterprise arrives in the Yarra River but really the colony is only 15 years old when Strutt arrives so it’s terribly young. And it is a colony because it’s still governed from Sydney so it’s incredibly opportune that we’re ... this talk is being held today on the 11th of November because that’s a date that resonates throughout Australian history, not only the dismissal but this was known as Separation Day in Victoria. Sep ... the actual separation from Sydney didn’t happen until July the following year, 1851 but when the news arrived by ship that the British government had finally decided that Victoria cou ... or Port Philip as it was called ... could become a separate colony, the ... Melbourne went into three days of high jinks and street parades and everyone stopped work and this culminated in the opening of the new Princess Bridge across the Yarra River, which of course was a vital ingredient in the growth of Melbourne because it joined the two sides of the Yarra. Up until then there’d only been a punt.
So Strutt was there observing all of this. He’s working for Thomas Ham who is illustrated newspapers so he’s doing topical designs and illustrations and recording events. He was not ... I’m just going to read a little bit from The Argus, who stopped publishing for three days while all the high jinks were happening but then when they went all be ... and the reason they gave for that was they wanted everyone to take part in the celebrations ... but they then when they went ... finally went back to business they gave over a whole page to just describing every event that had happened including of course the decorations that Strutt had made for the windows of Thomas Ham’s shop for the night-time illuminations. So The Argus says, a few words are required to close this record, ‘harmony prevailed amongst all the classes, intemperance was all but unknown, freed from all restraint the people gave vent to their joy in rational entertainments and having celebrated the event separation in a spirit which reflects honour upon them and will be chronicled in history.’ So obviously Port Philippians, or Victorians as they became, were not going to behave like that rabble in Sydney or Hobart.
1851. This in February is the date of the bushfire and Strutt ... this is Strutt’s first Australian summer so he’s never experienced anything like this before you know the heat, the ... and of course the build ... as we all know as we’ve lived through the recent fires on the eastern seaboard, it’s not only the event of the day but it’s the dryness and the build-up and you know that something is coming. So he lived ... he records that in his diary and it obviously made a very deep impression upon him. Because he was working at Thomas Ham’s establishment people would come in with news reports of what had been happening and a lot of those reports that he heard are incorporated into the painting and when we go downstairs to see it we can talk about some of those.
Later that year reports started to happen about gold being found in Victoria and this is the start of the gold rushes and three months ... three months? Five ... four months after separation officially happens in July, the Victorians get their act together and they have their first parliamentary elections and they have their first representational parliament and that once again ... it’s a pretty amazing act of organisation, I think. Now this little ... cute little building here, this is St Patrick’s Hall which stood in Bourke Street between William and Elizabeth Street. And of course St Patrick’s Hall, it was set up by the Irish Catholics as their social hub but that’s where the first parliament was held because the other parliament of course hadn’t been built by then.
And St Patrick’s Hall, that’s the synagogue next door to it. It’ll appear later on in our talk. You probably can’t see it but all of these images that I’ve chosen tonight are digitised on our website and the text around there names all the people who were the first parliamentarians. We have J.P. Fawkner and we have a few other famous names that you’ll see so once again this was an illustration ... not done by Strutt but done by Tulloch, but it was, you know, they did these illustrations in order to sell copies to everybody who’s named there so definitely moneymaking ventures.
As the 1850s go on, as Nicki has said, Melbourne changes enormously, Victoria changes enormously. You have the establishment of all the ... the establishment of all the means of government you know law and order, responsible government. You also have this incredible social change that starts to happen when the wealth of gold rushes leads to people making a lot of money but also the demand for goods and services rising exponentially. I mean we all complain now about the property boom in Melbourne and the prices of land going up but the gold rush saw an incredible period.
So 1855 and 1856 are actually the period at which Strutt decides to take his wife and his growing family ... he has a few children by this stage ... and they go off to New Zealand and that’s represented separately in the exhibition downstairs but I hadn’t really reflected on this until I started putting this timeline together and of course this is the period that Eureka happens so Strutt goes off to New Zealand. Fortunately for us he’s back by November in that year when the first official parliament is opened in the new building but he completely misses the Eureka Stockade. And ... I mean Strutt I think really was a man of the establishment so I’m not sure what he would have made of Eureka. He does mention in his memories but it’s really interesting to think that he could have perhaps recorded the trial or done portraits of the people who was involved but he misses it, he’s just not there.
So the late 1850s, I’ve just mentioned here some of the sort of things that are established through this period. This photograph is by Charles Nettleton and it’s probably taken from the new parliament house which is up in Bourke Street at the ... corner of Spring and Bourke Street because one of the things about Melbourne is that it’s awfully flat so there’s actually ... very hard to get a good vantage point to take a photograph so I couldn’t find a photograph of the parliament from this period. So Nettleton’s standing on top of the parliament and that building behind him, that’s St Peter’s Eastern Hill, the Anglican church which of course is still there. That’s Victoria Parade, the long parade there and that sort of square cubic building in the distance, that’s in Albert Street and it’s actually the water tower and it was there for many years. It’s now the site of the Eye and Ear Hospital, that huge brown brick structure which you might ... some of you might know but the water tower was where they pumped the clean drinking water from the Yan Yean Reservoir and we’ve got hundreds of photographs of all the things about the Yan Yean Reservoir because it was such an important piece of infrastructure, to be able to provide clean drinking water to a growing population. So that’s what that little building is.
So the 1860s. Strutt as we know, he leaves. He and his family, they leave Australia in January 1862 for Britain, never to return and I don’t think any of his children even came back. The 1860s, dominated by the Burke and Wills saga and it’s really hard for us to imagine how this unfolded in real time over the 18 months between when the exhibition left Royal Park and all the fanfare to when the second par ... second search party actually really found the dead bodies. We’re of course so familiar with this story that it’s hard for us to comprehend the drama that unfolded but Philip Adams once described sitting through his film on the subject in France and he said when they got to the end of the film there was this stunned silence because none of the people in the audience had realised that all the protagonists were actually going to die. Oh sorry, John King did make it back. But yeah it’s ... I mean Strutt lived through that sort of entire period of wondering what was going to happen and whether there was going to be a happy or a sad ending. So his time in Victoria was incredibly brief, just really a decade but what a decade, it was the foundation decade of Victoria. And he lent ... he lived through most of the events that also became our enduring social myths such as you know parliament, the Burke and Wills, the bushfires and many of these still resonate today.
So I’m not sure how many people in this audience have visited the State Library. All of you, I trust, at some stage, probably very familiar with it. But we’re not an art gallery, we’re a social history collection and our ... the paintings in our collection are not judged entirely on artistic merit but they ... the stories that they tell us about Victorian lives and the times. So we’ve got five major paintings by William Strutt. We’ve also of course got a number of sketches and prints and when they’re not off on loan we like to display them in the Cowen Gallery. So this is our central part of our building and it’s ... it once housed the National Gallery of Victoria before they got their new building in St Kilda Road so it’s really wonderful to have it returned as a picture gallery after the refurbishment of the library in 2004 ... 2003, 2004. So we’ve even reconstituted the salon hang where we hang work, you know, works double hang and as you can see Black Thursday takes pride of place in this central gallery with the buff walls and Burial of Bourke is sort of down where those little figures are and that’s in a section of the room that’s devoted to the Burke and Wills legend.
At the north end of this central ... long central room we have this red rotunda, named for obvious reasons, and that’s where we have our colonial portraits. It’s known colloquially by the staff as the ‘Stuffed Shirts Gallery.’ And on the south end, which I haven’t included here because it’s the gallery that has the contemporary portraits, so of course Strutt’s not part of that. So without ... oh I should have explained that Mr and Mrs Fawkner normally hang in the red rotunda. They hang over there on the left-hand side but we have a number of portraits of that particular size so there’s a bit of a rotation there depending on whether they’re off on loan or whether they’re ... somebody else is deemed to be a little bit more important in the scheme of things. That huge portrait on the right, that is Sir John O’Shanassy, his portrait done by Strutt and I’ll talk a little bit more about that at the end of the talk tonight.
So Black Thursday. It’s our largest and obviously our most valuable painting and it has pride of place in the gallery. That door beside it leads into the Redman Barry Reading Room so it’s at ... it’s in an incredibly busy thoroughfare and it does ... it’s incredibly popular with the public, you often have people standing in front of it looking at it and we had to move the label from the traditional left-hand part to the central part because people would stand there reading the label and just block the doorway so ...
Even if it wasn’t a very popular painting we would have it always on display because we can’t really store it, we can’t fit it into any of our stores, we can’t fit it into any of our lifts. It’s a logistical nightmare to get it up and down and around the building. So ... so it stays there when it’s not away on loan.
The story of Black Thursday is well known and there’s also a really good article about it in the La Trobe Journal, which is online if you wish to read that so I’m not going to repeat it here and I think it’s also better to talk about the painting when we’re downstairs in front of it. Suffice to say that this was the first colonial work that Strutt completed on his return to England in 1864 and I think it’s really his best colonial work. He brought a lot of his elements together to construct this work from his academic training and ... and he was also just passionate about the subject. I mean the bushranger’s picture I think is equally as engaging and equally a crowd-pleaser but Black Thursday has definitely got a lot. It’s a unique picture which has a lot to say.
In contrast, the Burial of Bourke was one of Strutt’s last paintings. He completed it four years before he died in 1911 and really it’s not very exciting you know we have it because of the subject matter and because it was given to the Library but it you know the figures are wooden, the poses are stiff, it’s just really basically a dog of a painting. Sorry. So in short the Library has the best and the worst of William Strutt and some of the in-between ones.
So how else are we to judge his legacy? Strutt’s sketches and water colours of the Victorian parliament and other subjects are ... and his works on the portraits of the Burke and Wills and their leaving from Royal Park, they’re terrific documents of record and the exhibition has a really good display of those. But in contrast to ... for example S.T. Gill whose wonderful exhibition you’re going to see next year … Strutt in no way in my opinion is ... compares as a recorder of the goldfields period. For me a really important part of Strutt’s legacy is his portraits. So I was really pleased to see on display downstairs his portrait of Robert O’Hara Burke and if you looked at the timeline he was completing that virtually the day before he packed and got on that ship back to Britain but it’s a beautiful luminous work and I’m no fan of Robert O’Hara Burke’s but it ... I did check beforehand that I’m allowed to mention that it normally hangs in the Melbourne Club so ... which is not open to the public and unless you’re a you know friend of someone in the Melbourne Club you won’t get to see the portrait again so do appreciate it downstairs.
So these are our portraits of Mr and Mrs Fawkner and Strutt’s often described as J.P. Fawkner’s ... J.P. Fawkner’s often described as Strutt’s patron in Melbourne and I think they were probably on the same wavelength shall we say? This ... the one of John Pascoe Fawkner here is done in 1853 and Mrs Fawkner was one of the his and her pair that Strutt completed later on in 1856 so this earlier portrait of John Pascoe Fawkner, he’s memorialised as a member of the Victorian parliament and that’s probably him in St Patrick’s Hall, not in the new Parliament House because that of course hadn’t been built by that stage.
Now both Mr and Mrs Fawkner were people from incredibly modest backgrounds, in fact you know they had the convict stain in their past so they were self-made people who shall we say in contrast to John Batman and his family became very much establishment figures in Melbourne. They were hardworking, conscientious, civicminded people. John ... this by contrast is the pair of portraits that Strutt completed later on in 1856 and I’ve always been really intrigued to know how they became separated because we have Mrs Fawkner and the National Library of Australia has Mr Fawkner. So ... I mean ... John ...
N: But we share.
M: We do but I mean they were obviously painted as a pair. It’s interesting that the portraits aren’t signed, I don’t think ... is he signed? Yeah. No, so in fact the Library didn’t really attribute this portrait of Mrs Fawkner to Strutt for many years because it wasn’t signed. I think we knew who it was but we didn’t know who it was by. Now John Pascoe Fawkner was a very generous donor to the State Library of Victoria. In 1869 ... 1860 ... yeah, I was getting the 18th and 19th century confused ... in 1869 just before he died he actually gave about 200 foundation documents relating to Melbourne to the Library and that of course includes the drawings of the Victorian parliament by Strutt. But we think these portraits that probably came in the 1930s from Fawkner’s descendants when they gave a lot of material to the Library during the 1930 ... 30s centenary hoo-ha that was happening when we had the first ... the 100 year settlement of white Victoria. So at that stage Fawkner and his wife didn’t have any children of their own but they had nieces and nephews and we got a large bequest of material including his writing desk, his inkwell, his walking stick, his dressing gown you know and probably the portraits at that stage, I imagine.
Mrs ... John Pascoe Fawkner and Mrs Fawkner, neither of them I ... you’ll have to excuse the pun but neither of them were oil paintings, like, you know, this is a really ... a portrait of a really ugly powerful face, Mr Fawkner and Mrs Fawkner is ... she’s shall we say matronly or well-upholstered perhaps? She ... even contemporary accounts describe her as plain and she apparently had a cast in her left eye which Strutt’s very carefully sort of not focused on but we have hundreds of photographs of John Pascoe Fawkner, he was very keen on having himself photographed but in the Library collection we have no photographs of Mrs Fawkner so I really don’t know if this is a very lifelike portrait of her but I would imagine it is. I mean from ... to me there’s something that’s really weird about that figure, she’s got such a high bust line and she’s sort of kind of squat but anyhow Strutt has done his best with her, I think. Sorry. I think it’s a testament to the man’s skill as a portrait painter, that he didn’t pretty them up. I mean he’s put flowers in her hair and he’s made her look very much an establishment person but yeah, the ... I think we can be sure that these are reasonably good portraits of the people as they were.
So to finish up I’m just going to talk about this monumental portrait of Sir John as fantasy and I’ve ... this isn’t a particularly good photograph but I’ve photographed it in-situ with just one of our patrons in the Library wandering by, just to try and give you an idea of the monumental size of this work. It’s enormous and even if Matthew had wanted it for the exhibition we couldn’t have got out the building and lent it to him. It’s also incredibly heavy you know so it hangs up on this wall and it’s ... stays there. But it’s a really interesting work because it doesn’t appear in Heather Kernot’s definitive book on Strutt beca ... and that’s no reflection on Heather. At the time that she was writing the book in the 1980s this work was not available for ... it was away in a crate, it was damaged, it was not available for her to see, the Library itself didn’t have a photograph of it and for s ... by some weird sort of connection they decided that it was a portrait of George Coplin, the theatrical impersonator. Anyhow so once they finally got it out of the crate and they found the money to restore it in preparation for the Cowen Gallery ... it’s signed by Strutt down the bottom and it is obviously of Sir John O’Shanassy.
So here I’ve just listed some of Sir John’s ... he was a very busy man. He’s almost forgotten in history today. There’s an O’Shanassy Street in North Melbourne but there’s really no other sort of major legacy of his in Melbourne. He arrives with his wife ... he’s an Irish Catholic ... he arrives with his wife in 1839 and they open a drapery business after some time spent not being very successful farmers. I had thought when I first started researching this that probably the you know all the drapery in the background referred to his background as a draper but I don’t think that’s at all the case, I think that it’s an ... they’re allegorical or allusions to power. App ... you can see the volumes of legislature down on the floor that are under his feet and then on the table there’s all the trappings of him being a lawmaker and member of parliament. Why it’s so big and why there’s so much space ‘round the figure I don’t really know but possibly that’s who ... when it was commissioned by St Patrick’s Hall perhaps that’s ... they wanted a portrait that size and it’s life-size as you can see from ... it’s actually exact size that Sir John O’Shanassy would have been.
So he was .. he started off as a very modest immigrant and then he became ... through h ... apparently his wife was quite a shrewd businesswoman and the pair of them made a real go of being in Victoria. It’s a common enough story but he ... very successful man and very wealthy by the time he in died in 1883.
This is a ... two illustrations to show you that once again Strutt really had got the portrait of the man I think pretty good. On the left we have a cartoon from Melbourne Punch which is having a dig at the shenanigans in the Victorian parliament when it was up at St Patrick’s Hall and you can see that they’ve drawn Sir John as the harp of Erin down there. And then on the right-hand side we’ve got this early photograph by the prominent photographer, Anton Fauchery, who was a French émigré and he’s pictured Sir in a ... on a very bad hair day ... and this went into some pictures of Victoria so I think the only other people in there were Sir Henry Barkley and the French consul and photographer himself so he was obviously a man of great importance at the time. And I think the portrait really does credit to the man.
So here we are back at St Patrick’s Hall and this is a later photograph, 1870 when it had gone back to being the hall. And you can see that they rebuilt the Jewish synagogue next door. The ... if you look at that first interior of the Victorian parliament that is inside this building and you can see the ... how plain the walls must have been. It’s ... it was designed by Samuel Jackson who was an early colonial architect and gave his name to Jackson Street in St Kilda and it ... the pair of these buildings lasted until the 1950s when they were demolished sadly for some you know very ordinary office block but the painting must have dominated that hall and once again we don’t really know when the painting came to the Library, we don’t have any provenance information but my feeling would be that it probably was at the time at which this hall was demolished because that’s normally when we get things, we get things when people are moving house or when they’re you know something’s being demolished or somebody ... some ... someone’s died and their estate’s being broken up.
I should have probably zoomed in on this photograph. The portrait of Sir John had been to the Library before, it was lent by Sir John in 1869 to this fine arts exhibition that was held at the Library. It was the brainchild of Sir Redmond Barry and envisaged it ... it was part of the exhibition craze and mania during the 19th century and he envisaged it as an educational experience. So this large wooden barn was built ... the Library’s a jumble of buildings and it’s always really hard to kind of think exactly where ... which was where but it was kind of ... it was finally demolished for the building of the store hall where ... which is where the Cowan Gallery is now so it was there for quite some years.
This photograph by Nettleton, he’s had trouble with the light coming in through those open windows up there and ... but you can clearly see that on this dais and we’ve got a number of portraits in the centre ... of course there’s Queen Victoria, she’s quite recognisable, we’ve got the equestrian portrait of MacArthur which is in the exhibition downstairs up there on the left. I think on the right we’ve got C J La Trobe and this is Sir John O’Shanassy down here. It’ll become clear in a minute when I read a bit from The Argus why I think that’s the portrait of Mrs O’Shanassy above him. And then those sort of dotty portraits that are in ... hung in groups across there, they’re called the oval portraits and they were another one of Redmond Barry’s brainchilds and those still exist in the Library collection and you can see them online. He commissioned somebody to make a series of portraits of the founding fathers of Victoria and they were done over a photograph and they were hand painted. So there is Sir John in all his glory at the high table. I mean you know we don’t remember him very much but obviously in 1869 he was quite important enough to get a place on the official dais.
So I’m going to conclude by reading part of a review from The Argus newspaper of this exhibition. I think it’s as good a comment as any on the revolving fashion of art and the ups and downs of painters’ reputations. This is from 1869 which is o ... which is less than 10 years after Strutt had left England ... Australia and already he’s ... as we’ll see ... already his reputation was in decline. His reputation really didn’t rise for many years afterwards and yeah, no, it’s interesting to think about the vagaries of art. So The Argus says ‘The first picture, which challenges attention at once by its size and the position and its subject, is the copy of Winterhalter’s portrait of Queen. The portraits which surround it are all bad with one exception, that of Mrs O’Shanassy which is why I think she’s hung up there. This however is the work of a modern Roman artist and is a production of considerable merit. The taste in which it is executed is even purer than that of the Winterhalter. The portrait of Mr O’Shanassy by Strutt is a disgrace to colonial art, and that of the Chief Justice is very little better. I think this is probably the portrait on the other side. The only remaining oil painting in this quarter is the equestrian figure of General MacArthur, a picture which is principally remarkable for the extraordinarily bad drawing of a horse.’ Poor old Strutt.
So that concludes my talk tonight and I think we should really go and look at some real art.
End of recording