Imagining Landscapes

Having seen how the Canadian landscape was depicted during the colonial period, we should not be surprised to learn that when Europeans came to depict Australia, a dry country of open everbluegreen forests, utterly unlike either Canada or England, their cultural and artistic training prevailed. Throughout the nineteenth century, romantic and picturesque renderings of the Australian bush abound.


Conrad Martens, North Head from Balmoral, 1874
Watercolour, 43.4 x 64.7 cm
Dixson Galleries, Sydney

View on the north side of kangaroo island


W. Woolnoth (after W. Westall), View on /he north side of Kangaroo Island, 1814
Engraving from Flinders, Voyage to Terra Australis 1801-1803, London, 1814

North head from balmoral

Mount kosciusko


Eugene von Guerard, Mount Kosciusko, 1866
Oil on canvas, 107 x 153 cm
National Gallery of Victoria
Purchased with the assistance of a Government Grant 1870

We may accept the abundant evidence that colonial painters often portrayed bushland as parkland, but did they really see it that way? Did they truly believe their pictures gave honest account of what they had seen? Art historian Bernard Smith has assembled a number of verbal descriptions by early explorers and settlers which seem to suggest that many did see with English eyes. Consider, for example the words of artist Sydney Parkinson, naturalist on Cook's first voyage: 'The country looked very pleasant and fertile; and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentlemen's park'. Elizabeth Macarthur wrote in a letter to her friend, a Miss England, 'the greater part of the country is like an English park'.

View upon the south esk river


Joseph Lycell, View upon the South Esk River, 1820
Aquatint, hand-coloured
From Views in Australia, or New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land delineared.
London, 1824-5

The greens in the landscape by convict artist Joseph Lycell are those of an English pastureland. The dense forest in the background is really nothing like the open Australian bush, although several trees in the fore and middle ground are recognisably eucalypts and others sustain what might be called a 'rough go' at the casuarina (she-oak). Were it not for the encampment on the river bank, the look of an English country estate would be quite marked. Lycell fails with the casuarina in much the same way that Davies fails with Canadian vegetation on the River Puce (see ITEM 3.3): certain details are captured but the overall configuration of the tree is lost.

Swan river 50 miles up


J.W. Huggins (artist), E. Duncan (engraver), Swan River 50 miles up, 1827
Coloured aquatint, 25 x 35.4 cm Rex Nan Kivell Collection,
National Library of Australia

Whatever his or her artistic training, no observer could long ignore the essential differences of the English and the Australian landscape. After all, the interest of their European audience might be expected to focus precisely on what was novel in these 'new' lands. Thus, artists included within the confines of their noble parks 'exotic' artefacts such as we see in ITEM 3.18: native people, black swans, grass trees, kangaroos, and in the grove across the river an araucaria (the pine-like tree in the middle).

Before reading on, take a moment to compare the two paintings (ITEMS 3.19 and 3.20). Can you guess what city is depicted?

A direct north general view of


Thomas Watling, A direct north general VIew of _____,
Oil on panel, 88.2 x 129.5 cm
Dixson Galleries, Sydney

Taken from the west side of


Thomas Watling, Taken from the West Side of _____, 1794
Pen and wash, 38.1 x 52 em
By courtesy of the Trustees, British Museum (Natural History)

View of


Robert Whale, View of _____,1853
Oil, 90.8 x 120.7 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Unless you are familiar with either of the pictures, you might be forgiven for naming almost any city of the British empire in the early 19th century. In fact it is not one city, but two. The city in ITEM 3.20 is Hamilton, Ontario (1853) and that in ITEM 3.19 is Sydney, New South Wales (1794), both of course painted according to European aesthetic formulae. Thus, artists went out from the imperial centre to paint the colonies, and whether in Canada or Australia, the United States or New Zealand, they produced very few surprises. Nor should we expect surprises. Not only were artists limited by their training, but perhaps more importantly, if their work was to be taken seriously, if indeed it was to be understood at all, it had to conform to the accepted idiom of the day. This dictum holds true for our own century. In art, in science, in everyday commerce, we work within accepted paradigms, in accord with rules and methods which, in ordinary circumstances, may not be possible to modify.

Thus, if colonial artists gave us what now seem highly stylised and formularised landscapes, it is not simply that they lacked the skill of natural representation. Elements of these paintings may be highly naturalistic. Rather, the specialised techniques (learned through study and discipline), the mental set, the values, the social interests of these artists, and of their audience, required that they produce the paintings that they did, and even required that they see nature in the way that they did. If they did not see what they expected to find, then they looked until they found it. Nietzsche gave us a hint as to how this selection process works:

Can Nature be subdued to Arts' constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint!

Nietzsche, 1895 (translated in Gombrich, 1977)

Some artists made no pretence of producing an 'objective' representation of a scene from any single point of view but were prepared to produce composite landscapes based on several sketches and then reassembled according to the canons of picturesque beauty. Bernard Smith describes how Thomas Watling, a convict and the first professional painter to reach New South Wales, moved from his first wash drawing of Sydney (ITEM 3.21) to his final canvas (ITEM 3.19). Obvious changes include the picturesque break in the horizon line, the framing with trees, and the darkening of the foreground.

Next page