Eugene von Guérard is one of the most well known colonial painters of Australian landscapes. The Austrian-born artist spent 28 years in Australia, but he also travelled in Europe and England, and he recorded his journeys in dozens of sketchbooks. Many of these are on view in the exhibition, Eugene von Guérard: Artist-Traveller, at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until 27 May.

In the accompanying book, The Artist as Traveller: The Sketchbooks of Eugene von Guérard, Ruth Pullin (who also curated the exhibition) reexamines the painter’s career through focusing on his sketchbooks. The extract below, reproduced with permission, describes his arrival in Australia.

The Artist as Traveller: The Sketchbooks of Eugene von Guérard, cover image.

Sketchbook XIX, No. 1 Australia, 1852–53: the first missing sketchbook

by Ruth Pullin

Thirteen loose sketches on sheets of cream wove paper from the State Library Victoria collection can confidently be identified as belonging to the sketchbook von Guérard used on the voyage to Australia and on the first days of his overland trek to Ballarat. The combination of the sketches and accompanying written entries in the Journal gives a vivid and detailed record of the voyage.

Where possible, the artist spent his time on deck, observing and sketching the ‘wonderful waves’, sunsets that tinged the clouds (light effects and colours recorded in notes on the sketches) and the occasional visiting seabird. (1) As the Windermere approached the equator and the ‘heat and smells below’ became ‘intolerable’, the ever-resourceful von Guérard described waiting for nightfall to ‘creep into a boat which is suspended from two iron davits over the side of the ship, where, wrapped in my old cloak I am soon rocked to sleep’. It was from here, on 26 September, that he saw his first ‘lunar rainbow’. (2) Occasional diversions enlivened long days: as they crossed the equator unsuspecting passengers were shown ‘the line’, a hair stretched across the lens of a telescope. (3) On 4 December, he was on deck to witness a ‘terrific hailstorm’. He and a fellow passenger, Mr Adamson, gripped the rope ladder of the main mast with ‘all our strength’ as ‘waves broke on the deck with a shattering violence’, and witnessed the ‘chaos both on deck and in the cabin’ at first hand — and a little later, ‘every kind of utensil, and every variety of food’ floating about ‘in a lake of sea-water’. (4) Twelve days later, on hearing the cry ‘Land in sight’, the passengers flocked to the deck and von Guérard had his first glimpse of the Australian coastline. This was Cape Bridgewater on the south-west coast of Victoria, where five years later he would produce one of his freshest and most exquisite sketchbook drawings, in pen, ink and watercolour, of the white sand dunes of the Discovery Coast. (5) At 6 a.m. on 22 December, he was on deck as the Windermere entered Port Phillip Bay, his excitement evident when he inscribed ‘The first house I saw in Australia’ on his sketch of the Point Lonsdale lighthouse.

The Windermere’s entry to Port Phillip Bay was delayed, first by the wait for a pilot to bring the ship in (there were ‘so many other ships ahead of them’), and then by the unfavourable ‘sea and wind’.

Finally, on 28 December 1852, after four months and ten days at sea, they docked in Geelong. Von Guérard and a companion immediately transferred to a small steamboat going to Melbourne, ‘hoping to find letters from home’.(6) On a ‘delightful walk’ he saw Governor La Trobe’s house, strolled along the banks of the Yarra River to the fine Princes Bridge, and on the next day sketched his first-ever gum tree in what is now the Fitzroy Gardens. On 30 December, he returned to Geelong by steamer, impatient to be on his way to the goldfields.(7)

It took von Guérard and his French colleagues a week to walk from Geelong to Ballarat.

They followed the ‘East Road’ through Batesford, Burnt Bridge and Buninyong, their gear carried on two bullock wagons that lumbered slowly over the uneven, deeply rutted dirt track; a steady stream of wagons had clearly preceded them. It was mid-January, no doubt hot and dusty with plenty of blowflies, but von Guérard’s delight at this new environment sings through the snatches of his diary that survived because of the tiny sketches embedded in the text, such as this illustration of a bullock-drawn wagon. Evocative phrases hint at the artist’s first impressions: the blueness of the sky, the dryness of the forests, and an admiration for gum trees, parrots and a bird with ‘yellow wings and black eyes’.

On their first day on the road, 11 January 1853, he and his party encountered ‘a group of three or four mia-mias, the abode of some eight or ten Aborigines. In front of each burned a little fire, and some spears lay at hand. The mia-mias are made of the branches of trees in the form of half an open umbrella of large dimensions. Some were covered with the skins of animals’.(8) Von Guérard’s party had just crossed the Moorabool River, where diggers apparently often stopped for water and rest, as the Wadawurrung people had quickly identified it as a potential place for trade. One of von Guérard’s first Australian paintings, Aborigines Met on the Road to the Diggings 1854, shows a transaction at this site between a group of Aboriginal traders and two European miners, one of whom kneels to examine a possum-skin cloak being offered for sale.

In depicting the miner in what could be interpreted as a subservient position, kneeling before the upright Wadawurrung man, he presented an image of power relations distinctly at odds with prevailing colonial attitudes.

The close observation he brought to his drawing of the ‘mia-mias’ and the way they were constructed was in keeping with the desire for knowledge about other races that von Humboldt had demonstrated on his travels in South America. The German scientist unequivocally rejected the ‘assumption of superior and inferior races of men’ and von Guérard’s painting speaks eloquently on this subject.(9) In his first weeks in Australia, his knowledge of the dispossession, disease, starvation and genocide that the people of the Kulin nation had suffered at the hands of the invading European settlers was no doubt relatively limited; what he saw, clearly and objectively, was the agency that the Wadawurrung people brought to their dealings with the diggers.(10)

The event portrayed in this work had a personal resonance for von Guérard.

On the goldfields, possum-skin cloaks were highly valued for being exceptionally warm and durable, and this painting may record the moment when von Guérard acquired his own.(11) His cloak, well used, was sold in 1879 to the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, along with the collection of Aboriginal artefacts the artist had assembled during his years in Australia.(12)

The Artist as Traveller: The Sketchbooks of Eugene von Guérard is available from the Art Gallery of BallaratReadingsThe Avenue BookstoreHill of ContentQAGOMA StoreSubiaco Bookshop, The Hobart BookshopAGNSW Gallery ShopThe Johnston Collection, and online from the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

The Artist as Traveller: The Sketchbooks of Eugene von Guérard, cover image.

1. [Cloud study over waves] (recto); [Sea bird] (verso), pencil on cream paper, SLV H2388.
2. Journal, 28 September 1852; 2 October 1852, p. 4.
3. ibid., 13 October 1852,p. 5.
4. ibid., 4 December 1852, pp. 7, 8.
5. ibid., 18 December 1852, p. 8; ‘Sandy coast from the mouth/of the Glenelg to Cape Bridgewater’, in Sketchbook XXVIII, f. 24.
6. Journal, 24 December; 28 December, pp. 9, 10.
7. Melbourne 29 December 1852. Inscr. ‘Nach der Ankunft in Australien (später Fitzroy Gardens), Melbourne 29 Dec. 1852’,pencil on blue paper, 20.2 x 15.3 cm. SLV H2380.
8. Journal, 11 January 1853, p. 11.
9. A. von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, vol. 1, trans. under the supervision ofE. Sabine, Longman, Brown, Green & Longman, London, 1846, p. 355. Reprinted by CUP, New York, 2010.
10. See F. Cahir, Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850–1870, ANU E Press and Aboriginal History Incorporated, 2012, pp. 71–75; N. Thomas, Possessions: Indigenous Art/Colonial Culture, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999, p. 77.
11. Cahir, 2012, pp. 71, 72.
12. Decke von Opossumfellen, New Holland[possum-skin cloak, New Holland], acc. no. 2580, Ethnologisches Museen, Berlin.

Book Extract