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Posts from the ‘Visual Art and Design’ Category

Call of the Wild

In March I gave a lecture for the Art Gallery Society of NSW as part of their lecture series in the lead-up to the opening of The Photograph and Australia, a new exhibition by curator Judy Annear at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a summary of my talk.

‘Wilderness Photography’ today represents a sub-genre of photography in itself. Despite the term being relatively modern, its roots stretch back to early photographic experiments of the 1860s.

Wilderness photography is generally that branch of landscape or ‘nature photography’ that focusses on wild locations as places of beauty and spiritual renewal.

However, this attitude to ‘wilderness’ is a relatively new phenomenon. Wild land was traditionally seen as hostile and threatening. The term ‘Wilderness’ implied places that were actively hostile to humans, and early European colonists in Australia tended to regard un-tamed regions as a frightening waste land.

Changes in this attitude came from two directions. Growing scientific awareness in the 19th century encouraged many photographers to venture further afield and develop a love for the outdoors. The other important shift came with the growing influence of the Romantic Movement. Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement which was at its most popular and influential during the first half of the 19th century. Romantics placed intense emotion at the heart of experience. In art and photography, romanticism was exhibited through a particular interest in nature. The natural world was seen both as a reflection in art of the human spirit and personality, and through action as a vehicle for this spirit.

This movement was reflected in photography through two main styles: the Picturesque (and its sister the Pastoral) and the Sublime. These represented two stylistic extremes, both of which were represented by photographers of wild landscapes. The Picturesque represents nature as friendly, sometimes otherworldy, but non-threatening. The Sublime expresses the power of nature and the experience of ‘awe’.

The composition of photographs to express these ideas has been a constant in the development of the ‘Wilderness Photography’ genre. Despite changes in technology, and movements in art, the romantic tropes of the picturesque and the sublime tend to remain in wilderness photography.

From the early 1900s, a growing awareness of conservation issues began to shape the attitudes of photographers. This led to the development of a new political dimension in the production of what was to become wilderness photography. I argue that it is the development of conservation activism as a primary driver that led to the inherent conservatism in style and retention of Romantic modes of composition amongst wilderness photographers. No longer was photography simply about the creation of beautiful images – there was a purpose. The tropes of Romantic composition which had remained in use were the ideal way of encouraging audiences to respond to images with strong emotion, and it was emotion that was and is still needed in any conservation campaign.

The QVMAG has in its collection works by a number of wilderness photographers including Spurling, Beattie, Perrin, Truchanas and Dombrovskis.

The Photograph and Australia:


Jon Addison, History Curator

Stephen Spurling III - On the DuCane Range, Tasmania 1913. QVMAG Collection QVM.1993.P.1607

Stephen Spurling III – On the DuCane Range, Tasmania 1913. QVMAG Collection QVM.1993.P.1607


William Buelow Gould (1803-1853)

As a young man Gould took painting lessons from William Mulready, a keen follower of 17th Century Dutch art. Living in London, he developed a life of drinking, gambling and petty crime. After marrying, he worked at the potteries, probably as a painter of scenes and plants. Soon in trouble with the law, he deserted his wife and fled to Northampton.

In 1827 he was charged with stealing clothes and transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

In Hobart he was put to work in the potteries, and in 1829 he was convicted of forgery and sentenced to the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement. During the sea voyage a mutiny was planned by the prisoners; Gould attempted to thwart the uprising. Governor Arthur rewarded him by assigning him to the Colonial Surgeon and amateur botanist, Dr James Scott, of Boa Vista, Hobart, where he made watercolour drawings of plant specimens collected by Scott.

While with Scott, he was sentenced to Macquarie Harbour for repeated drunkenness and absconding. In 1832, he was assigned as house servant to Dr William de Little.

The Macquarie Harbour Drawings
Sarah Island on Macquarie Harbour was reserved for second offenders. It was feared for the harsh and cruel punishment handed out to prisoners. Dr de Little was a keen observer who encouraged Gould to paint from nature. Gould drew and painted the trees, plants, flowers and seed pods in watercolour on hand-made sketchpads. He would have been encouraged to draw dissected seed pods and individual plant specimens for artistic and scientific purposes.

The building of Kew Gardens outside London in the 18th century led to the search for new species and the building of botanical collections for the description and order of the natural world. Tasmania provided a unique supply of specimens; Gould became an important recorder in this expansive world of collectors, recorders and publishers.

These historic paintings have the original names of the plants inscribed by James Backhouse (1794-1869), a naturalist and Quaker missionary. He developed an interest in Australian plants while working as a nurseryman in England. This, with his concern for prison reform and his unease with transportation and the convict system, led him to visit the Australian colonies. The dates and locations are believed to have been inscribed by Dr de Little.

The entire collection comprises 143 works and was purchased in England by the Launceston City Council in 1958.

We wish to acknowledge the assistance of Mich Visoiu, Ecologist of the Biodiversity Conservation Branch DPIPWE for the re-classification of the plants.

William Buelow Gould: The Macquarie Harbour Botanical Drawings exhibition is on show at the Art Gallery until 17 May 2015. Admission is free.

Yvonne Adkins, Curator 19th Century Australian Art

Podocarpus asplenifolius (Celerytop pine), QVM.1958.FD.28

Podocarpus asplenifolius (Celerytop pine), QVM.1958.FD.28

Blanfordia punicea (Christmas bells) QVM.1958.FD.13

Blanfordia punicea (Christmas bells) QVM.1958.FD.13