Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2018

The Artist as Traveller, the Sketchbooks of Eugene von Guerard (2018) by Ruth Pullin (Author event)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful event at the State Library of Victoria.  Ruth Pullin is the author of The Artist as Traveller, the Sketchbooks of Eugene von Guerard and the SLV (who part-funded the publication of the book) hosted her in conversation with Alison Inglis.  This is the blurb that lured me into the city to be there:

Dr Ruth Pullin is the curator of the exhibition Eugene von Guérard: Artist–Traveller  (Art Gallery of Ballarat, 25 March – 27 May 2018), and the author of The Artist as Traveller: the sketchbooks of Eugene von Guérard. She was co-curator of the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2011 travelling exhibition, Eugene von Guérard: nature revealed, and principal author of the exhibition catalogue. Her research on von Guérard’s sketchbooks has been undertaken with the support of a Creative Fellowship at State Library Victoria and has been published in Australian and international journals.

Associate Professor Alison Inglis teaches in the School of Culture and Communication and coordinates the Master of Art Curatorship program at the University of Melbourne. Her research focus is 19th-century British art and museum studies, and she is an Emeritus Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria.

(The same blurb has me making plans for a quick train trip to Ballarat to see the exhibition before it ends on May 27th.  The book was published to coincide with the exhibition of Von Guerard’s work at the Ballarat Art Gallery)

If you’ve been inside any of Australia’s major art galleries, you’ve almost certainly seen the work of Eugene von Guerard. (1811-1901) He is the best known artist of the early colonial period in Australia, and his works celebrate pristine landscapes in southeast Australia.  You can see quite a few of them at his Wikipedia page.  If you view them full size you can see the extraordinary detail and often the inclusion of tiny figures which are dwarfed by the majesty of the landscape.

Waterfall, Strath Creek,1862 (Wikipedia Commons)

Sydney Heads 1865 (Wikipedia Commons)

Dr Pullin describes von Guerard as ‘one of our most adventurous landscape artists’ because he travelled to the most inaccessible of places to paint ‘what had never been painted before’.  She became fascinated by this artist when she discovered his sketchbooks, most of which are held in the State Library of New South Wales. There are 35 of 47 extant, and the SLNSW has 32 pf them, covering von Guerard’s 28 years in Australia (1854-1891), his travels in Germany and Italy (1835-52), and his English sketchbook (1891-1900).  Pullin says that while others had ‘dipped into’ these sketchbooks for research purposes, no one had studied them as a body of work.  (Which is amazing, eh?)

The sketchbooks went with von Guerard everywhere he went.  They were mostly small (about 10 x 17cm) and leather bound with a clasp.  Von Guerard was methodical: he numbered them in sequence, and he also numbered them in series by location because they were a record of where he’d been.  He used the back of them as a sort of diary, recording a description of the landscape, the people he met, the distance he travelled, his expenses (revealing his fondness for coffee, cigars and sweets) and also the mode of travel used (which was mostly on foot since he was mostly off the beaten track).  Pullin had to learn a bit of High German to decode them, but also had the services of a translator (whose name I unfortunately did not catch but I’m sure he’s credited in the book).  It is sometimes possible to track the sketches through to a completed painting, and conversely, von Guerard’s paintings of Melbourne, Ballarat and Geelong make it possible to deduce the content of some of the missing books.  (It’s such a shame that the first three in Australia are some of the missing ones.  It is possible that von Guerard’s son-in-law cut them up to include in his book about von Guerard the painter.  I remember from other sources that there was great interest about Australia in the UK in this period and anyone who could publish anything about it could be confident it would sell.  But where is this book now, if it ever existed?)

Von Guerard managed to capture extraordinary detail in his sketches, even in the panoramas which cover a double page spread and sometimes continue onto the next page or pages.  Some have little detailed drawings of plants which are linked to notes at the back of the book.  There are also a few done in water colour or oils too.  Given von Guerard’s reputation as an unsuccessful gold- digger (see Wikipedia) Dr Pullin was at pains to convey that he was a dedicated artist who was motivated by a desire for travel and a curiosity about science.  19th century landscape painting grew in importance as scientists like Humboldt promoted botanical geography as a basis for biogeography.  He encouraged artists to go to the New World and paint the vegetation and landscapes with a scientist’s eye and an artist’s sensibility.  Dr Pullin thinks it is wrong to characterise von Guerard as a proponent of German Romanticism because he was much more than that.

Oh, one other thing.  People are inclined to dismiss von Guerard’s artistry as Eurocentric because ‘he couldn’t draw gum trees.’  I’ve said it myself about paintings like this one:

Dandenong Ranges from ?Beleura?( 1870) (Wikipedia Commons)

But Dr Pullin showed us sketches of some magnificent gums in Melbourne in 1852 and 1855 which give the lie to that.  (These were on display too, so we could look at them properly after the talk).  I shall never malign VG again!

Quite apart from the impact of seeing urban Melbourne as a rural landscape, these drawing and paintings are a valuable record of how things were.  Dr Pullin said she had been to many of the sites that von Guerard painted and while there are some that still look the same, others show the impact of settlement on the landscape.  There was one painting that she mentioned (I didn’t catch its name) that is heavily forested now but was sparsely vegetated then due to Aboriginal land management practices.  There’s also a famous painting of Tower Hill in Victoria from 1855 that was used as a reafforestation guide during conservation works at the site.  (That painting is usually at the Warrnambool Art Gallery, but I suspect it’s part of the Ballarat Exhibition at the moment.)

It was nice to hear about von Guerard’s personal connection with the SLV.  He spent his last ten years in Australia as curator of what was then the art museum, housed in the same building as the library and the museum, but since there was no director at that time, he was the SLV’s first director by default.  He loved the building, as we lucky Melburnians all do today.  He perhaps might not love the architecture of our NGVs (National Gallery of Victoria at Federation Square and at St Kilda Rd) but I’m sure he would love the purpose-built spaces which show off the paintings to their greatest advantage.

If you are quick, you can see Von Guerard’s sketch of Yarra Rivulet, 26 Sept 1858 at the SLV website where this event was advertised.

The book is gorgeous.  Very covetable indeed, and you can buy it from Readings for a paltry $75 when other books of its ilk cost $100+.  Chez moi, alas, we are reeling from having had to buy a new fridge-freezer combo and the services of a plumber to deal with a lake that had formed under our house, so The Artist as Traveller is on my wishlist for the time being.


  1. Those images are just lovely! :)


    • Yes, beautiful. And the one of Sydney, well, it certainly shows how things have changed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this vivid and detailed account of the Von Guerard event at State Library Victoria. The person who helped Ruth Pullin with the Old German inscriptions on Von Guerard’s drawings was Dr. Tom Darragh. As well as being an Emeritus Curator of Palaeontology at Melbourne Museum, Tom is a leading historian of German scientific activity in Australia.

    You mention the book assembled by Von Guerard’s son-in-law and ask where it is. The original bound typescript (“A pioneer of the fifties”) is in the Mitchell Library in Sydney and can be viewed online via their catalogue:

    It was published in an edition by Marjorie Tipping as ‘An artist on the goldfields’ and was last in print in 1992, but still findable in libraries.

    And your readers do not need to ‘be quick’ to see Von Guerard’s drawing of the ‘Yarra rivulet’ on our website, or any of his other drawings which we hold, as these can all be viewed in high resolution and downloaded for free at any time via the Library’s online catalogue, with the exception of a few which include indigenous content. Here for example is the Yarra rivulet:

    Gerard Hayes, Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria


    • Hello Gerard, and thank you so much for filling in the gaps in my notes:) I had forgotten to take my notebook so I was reduced to scribbling on my ticket printout… and at the end I had to do what Von Guerard did and write hatchways across my notes!
      It’s so wonderful that these things can be viewed online, and I thank you sincerely for the links which I’m sure my readers appreciate too. Best wishes, Lisa


  3. A good review. I think we are too dismissive of early (white) Australian painting, as we have been of early Oz lit. In both cases artists were clearly beginning the process of Australianising European conventions.


    • Yes, I think I’ve been guilty of that. I only discovered ST Gill a little while ago when I read Adrian Mitchell’s book about him and then went to the exhibition at the SLV… he’s another one who’s been neglected and I love his goldfields paintings.


  4. Thank you for sharing the details of this exhibition as I have admired various paintings by Eugene von Guevard over the years, and recently marvelled at a couple at the National Gallery of Australia during a recent visit to Canberra, including one of Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains. The detail in his paintings are amazing, and I enjoyed the examples in your post and links. It was interesting to learn more about him and his long association with the colonies.


    • It was an excellent event. I should try to get to these events more often…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] to Ballarat today.  We went up to see the Von Guerard Exhibition at the Ballarat Art Gallery (see my post about The Artist as Traveller, by Dr Ruth Pullin who curated the exhibition).  It was a marvellous exhibition – great to see the paintings alongside the sketches they […]


  6. Somehow I missed this post, but yes, I was one like you who saw his paintings as a bit Eurocentric.

    I had no idea what a “traveller” he was, and love the idea (from the excerpt Flannery shared in his book) that VG was sketching on Mt Kosciuszko, while calling out, “there’s a storm coming”! Anyhow, this sounds like it was a wonderful event, Lisa.


    • Yes, I’m looking forward to the resumption of ones like this, genuinely educational, not just promotion for a book.

      Liked by 1 person

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