Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2022

The National Picture, by Stephen Scheding

Cultural warning: this review contains references to 19th century colonisation in Tasmania
and representation of First Nations people in artworks.


Stephen Scheding’s The National Picture has been wrongly shelved with my fiction books for ages.  I thought it was a novel, an Australian version of Michael Frayn’s hugely enjoyable Headlong (1999) which was about an obsessive art scholar’s quest to gain fame and fortune by finding a missing painting.  But The National Picture turned out to be much more interesting than that.

Written in the form of a first person memoir of the quest, the book begins with the narrator’s ambition to locate the missing ‘National Picture’, a history painting of great signifiance in Australian art history.  If he finds it, he can not only pay off his mortgage and more, he will also have enhanced his professional reputation as an artworks sleuth, which began with his publication of A Small Unsigned Painting (Vintage, 1998).

According to Wikipedia, a ‘history painting’ is

a genre in painting defined by its subject matter rather than any artistic style or specific period. History paintings depict a moment in a narrative story, rather than a specific and static subject, as in a portrait. The term is derived from the wider senses of the word historia in Latin and histoire in French, meaning “story” or “narrative”, and essentially means “story painting”.

It goes on to say that in the 19th century there was a shift in the type of ‘moments’ depicted:

In modern English, “historical painting” is sometimes used to describe the painting of scenes from history in its narrower sense, especially for 19th-century art, excluding religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects, which are included in the broader term “history painting”, and before the 19th century were the most common subjects for history paintings.

The Raft of the Medusa By Gericault (1919-1919)

If you’ve been to the art museums and galleries of Europe you’ve seen plenty of these 19th century history paintings, depicting wars, revolutions, coronations etc. Google French history paintings, for instance, and there they are on screen, including The Raft of Medusa, which represents a shocking moment in French naval history. That particular history painting makes an appearance in Scheding’s story because when it toured London it fired the imagination of a somewhat obscure watchmaker, artist and engraver called Benjamin Duterrau.  When he later made his way to Van Dieman’s Land along with his daughter, to take up posts that never eventuated, he determined that he was going to paint Australia’s first history painting.

There is plenty of evidence that Duterrau said he was going to paint it.  The mystery traced in Scheding’s book is whether Duterrau ever did actually paint it, and if so, where is it?  In its absence, another painting by Duterrau takes the honour of being Australia’s first history painting. The Conciliation (1840) is not as big as the more ambitious painting envisaged by its maker, but it has a significance that goes well beyond any artistic significance it might have.

Although I can’t find a copyright free image of ‘The Conciliation’, Australians will know this picture, it’s in all our art history books...

#Digression: Well, no it’s not.  Duterrau gets a two page spread (at left, above) in Creating Australia, 200 Years of Art, 1788-1988, a publication by the Art Gallery of South Australia, to accompany a touring exhibition for the bicentennial. The text about the ‘The Conciliation’ and Duterrau’s admiration for George Augustus Robinson is somewhat different to the way it’s portrayed in Scheding’s book, but it’s reasonably even-handed.  The Art of Australia by John McDonald (2008) includes the painting too (at left, below). McDonald writes that Duterrau was a clumsy but high-minded artist who gave Australia’s first public lecture to a disappointingly small audience in Hobart Town Mechanics Institute on July 16, 1833 — and he notes that in his lectures Duterrau specifically talked about history painting.

The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-11)

He discussed the role played by the arts and sciences in the growth of a ‘truly civilised’ society, and paid particular homage to the achievements of his hosts.  In 1849 he delivered another lecture showing what the Mechanics Institute could learn  from Raphael’s famous painting The School of Athens, and from the Greek philosophers themselves. (p.80)

McDonald says that the single work for which Duterrau will always be remembered is ‘The Conciliation’ (c.1840), Australia’s first genuine history painting and most grandly conceived allegory. Alas, other art historians don’t quite agree.  Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art, A History disposes of Duterrau in one line as one of those ‘attempting’ history paintings, and Masterpieces of Australian Painting by James Gleeson doesn’t mention him at all, because, well, ‘The Conciliation’ is not exactly a masterpiece.

But then, there’s this other problem with ‘The Conciliation’….

Any discussion about it involves a discussion about the activities and motives of George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines, (1791-1866). You only need to look at the contrasting titles of two recent exhibitions that feature the painting to see what this is about:

Neither of these articles mention Scheding’s research, which is not surprising because Scheding is not an art historian, or any other kind of historian.  He is a psychologist, an artist, and an author of adult and children’s books.  As he discovers when his hunt prompts him to find out more about Robinson — who’s the central figure in ‘The Conciliation’ and in Duterrau’s plans for ‘The National Picture’ — this scene is tangled up in the awful history of settlement in Tasmania, its dire impact on the Aborigines and Robinson’s misguided efforts to protect them.  And this is what makes this book so interesting. It’s Scheding’s profession as a psychologist that makes his book different to other books that discuss this painting and its place in our history.

Scheding’s (expensive and time-consuming) obsession with locating a painting that probably doesn’t exist, leads him on a detailed investigation into Robinson’s activities and motives and how that impacted on the Tasmanian Aborigines.  He reads (and quotes a lot of) Robinson’s journal, as transcribed by N J B Plomley, and he also reads Tasmanian Aborigines, A History since 1803 by Lyndall Ryan. (Which I’ve read too.)  So he knows that Robinson’s legacy is contested, and he comes to realise that changing perceptions of Robinson’s ‘friendly mission’ may have impacted on support (i.e. funding for) for Duterrau’s National Picture.

Because Scheding is a psychologist with an artist’s eye, he analyses the iconography of ‘The Conciliation’ to see how it meshes with Duterrau’s conception of what a history painting should be and how that’s been used to complement his beliefs about Robinson.  But — most importantly, it also reveals how to ‘read’ the body language and expressions of the Aborigines in the painting. because it turns out that they are not just actual historic personages whose names are known, significant though that is.  There is a whole series of preparatory portraits of Aborigines by Duterrau that represent human emotion such as surprise, incredulity or anger, which Scheding  recognises as Duterrau’s humanist viewpoint presenting the Aborigines as normal and human — in contrast to the prevailing attitudes of the time.

So it seems that Duterrau was ahead of his time.  After all, his was a time when comparative studies of skulls were carried out by nineteenth-century scientists and (to quote Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and Collectors, from a chapter with the inspired title ‘Victorian Skulduggery’) ‘no matter what method they used, the scientists found what they were looking for: a physical index of their own racial superiority. (p.122)

Scheding thinks it’s possible that Robinson may have held similar egalitarian and humanist views to Duterrau’s and he thinks that Robinson probably influenced, or at least reinforced, Duterrau’s thinking about the Aborigines. 

I look again at a reproduction of The Conciliation and in particular at Robinson’s Christlike finger, which I have always taken to indicate that is on a mission from God. But perhaps it doesn’t mean that at all. Perhaps Robinson is simply adopting an orator’s stance.  Perhaps Duterrau has simply painted Robinson as he knew him: a man trying to get his point across. (p.123)

Robinson’s bossy personality immortalised in oils, perhaps?

All along Scheding reflects on his own motives and responses to what he finds.  His emerging understanding of what this painting could have represented sparks his hope that Duterrau intended that his National Picture was going to represent a treaty.  A genuine one, negotiated between equals.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful scene to record in a history painting!

Image credits:

Author: Stephen Scheding
Title: The National Picture
Cover photo by Chris Chen, cover design by Justine O’Donnell, jmedia design
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2002)
ISBN: 9781740510660, pbk., 278 pages
Source: personal library, $22.95, purchased from Mary Ryan’s Books (somewhere in SE Qld, presumably when I was visiting my parents on the Gold Coast.

Availability: The National Picture is still available and can be purchased for $25.00 direct from the author at his website. (Scroll down to the paragraph beneath the cover image.)

 

 


Responses

  1. Interestingly my historian (and photographer) brother has been following in the steps of George Augustus Robinson in recent years and will have a photographic exhibition on it all next year. He is writing some text but I don’t know exactly what yet.

    I’ve heard of Duterreau but nothing much more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most of what I know about him, I know from Lyndall Ryan’s book, but Scheding quotes his actual words i.e. from Plomley’s transcription. (Apparently his handwriting, mostly written under camping conditions, was very hard to read.)
      Scheding may of course be quoting selectively, but from the words on the page it does seem as if GAR’s intentions were humane rather than genocidal, and he also respected their way of life and thought of them as his brothers and equals. From my reading of Scheding’s book, it suggests that he was a flawed man who was at his best when out in the bush with the Aborigines, was more optimistic than was warranted with a duplicitous government, and was disastrously promoted beyond his competence when it came to running Wybalenna.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My sense of him is similar … ie a mixed character … he’s been featured in some historical fiction too hasn’t he, though of course in those the writers tend to take a slant. I’ll be interested to see what my brother comes up with, but mostly he’s been tracing his steps and photographing where he went. That’s more documentary but my brother does have his historian perspective of the man.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting review about a painter & a painting that are both totally new to me. I think contemporary art historians, and simply those writing about art, have so much to say about what these old paintings reveal about the culture that produced them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right. But until I looked up this painting, in the four art history tomes I’ve got, I hadn’t realised how much personal opinion influences what they write.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fascinating review, Lisa! Although the history of both artist and the various figures mentioned is new to me, the whole concept of that kind of historical detecting is one which appeals. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a TV show, the name of which escapes me, where a couple of art experts try to identify paintings to see if they are fake or genuine, but hunting for a missing painting is new to me too.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. You two are down to one character wide on my phone again.
    I think Robinson was in Savage Crows. I wouldn’t have thought he had a treaty in mind. My impression is that by the time he was protector, the War was underway and his job was to ‘save’ those Indigenous people remaining, and to leave the land free for settlers.
    Enjoyed your discussion of history painting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robinson gets a bad press today, used by both sides in the History Wars. Maybe Scheding is quoting selectively, to suit his thesis, or maybe, as a psychologist, he recognises intentions not noticed by historians. Either way, it’s good to see Scheding’s desire for a treaty expressed so clearly in this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If I can get this book, I will, a subject right up my alley. I had the pleasure of seeing the Conciliation on a recent trip to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, plus a few more that were in those links you posted. (And Gould, so I went off and read Flanagan’s fantasy, what a read!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it amazing?! It’s one of those breathtaking books that you just can’t fathom how anyone could have pulled it off!

      Liked by 2 people


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: