Art Down Under: From the Convict Years to the Modern World by Val Woodgate – Wednesday 20th March 2024

Val Woodgate gave us a most interesting and comprehensive overview of the development of Art in Australia from the European period extending over the last 230 years, though she did point out that that the Aborigines had been there for 13-15 Millenia and that their art, unlike Western Art, was always religious and spiritual – never just art for art’s sake. In 1770 Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay but never actually explored it.

Britain began transporting convicts to Australia from 1778 onwards until 1868, as they were no longer able to send them to America since they had gained their independence in 1776. “Criminals” were transported to Australia, usually for a minimum of 7 years for very minor thefts, such as stealing bread, a ribbon or other  minor crimes mostly due to poverty. Convicts were terrified of such places as Botany Bay (Millbank Prison), Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and particularly Norfolk Island were the prison guards and governor were particularly cruel and sadistic. The term “Poms” for British people is an abbreviation for “Prisoners of Millbank”.

The British born artist John Skinner Prout who lived in Sydney from 1844 to 1848 was one of the first migrant artists to capture a real sense of Australia with his “Bush Landscape with Waterfall and Aborigine Stalking” among other paintings. Other migrant artists came from Germany, like Alexander Schramm who painted “A Tribe of Natives on the Banks of the River Torrens” (1850) which was actually considered untypical of Aborigines as they did not congregate in large groups.

By 1880 Australian born artists were becoming established and were travelling to Europe to study. A wealthy businessman, Charles Stewart Paterson built the first Art School in Melbourne and named it the Grosvenor Chambers (after the Grosvenor Gallery in London) and artists E Philip Fox and Girolamo Nerli were the first artists to teach there.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931) was one of the founding fathers of the “Heidelberg School” also known as Australian Impressionism, along with Franck McCubbin, as they painted “en plein air”. “Artist’s Camp” (1886) by Tom Roberts and “Lost”(1886) by Frank McCubbin were painted in Heildelberg, a country area close to Melbourne. Tom Roberts also encouraged other artists to capture the national life of Australia, and he himself is best known for his “national narrative paintings” of which the most famous is “Shearing the Rams” (1890). They painted the “Australian Genre”, paintings which tell a story as in Tom Roberts’ “Jealousy” (1889) and Fred McCubbin’s “Breaking the News” (1887). Other artists of the Heidelberg School were Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, this latter was considered one of Victoria’s most gifted painters.

Women did not feature in Australian art but Marian Ellis Rowan was an exception in that she painted exquisite botanical flowers for which she became very well known and highly regarded in Europe and the USA – but not in Australia.

By the 1880’s Australia was moving towards Federation which arrived in 1901. The Great War of WWI was a watershed moment as it brought Australia and New Zealand closer together.  Both Arthur Streeton and another artist from Victoria, Will Longstaff, joined up and became official war artists for their country. Will Longstaff is best known for his haunting image of “The Menin Gate at Midnight” (1927). ANZAC Day on the 25th April each year commemorates the 11,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died at Gallipoli.

Modern Art came slowly to Australia, but  notable names were Grace Cossington Smith for her arch in “The Sydney Harbour Bridge”, Roy de Maistre “Reclining Figure” and most notably Sydney Nolan, who joined “The Angry Penguins” a group of avant-garde writers and painters and painted his iconic “Ned Kelly” series of pictures. Other notable artists were Clifton Pugh “Collecting Dead Wool” 1957, Arthur Boyd “Mining Country” (1966) and Brett Whitely who won the famous Australian Archibald Prize with his “Self Portrait in the Studio” in 1976.

Aboriginal art painted in the traditional method became popular in the 20th century as Australians began to appreciate Aboriginal traditions. Artists like Abie Jangala who painted “Water Dreaming” (1987), Donkeyman Lee Tjupurrulu and Raymond Zada with his incredibly powerful art work “Sorry” (2013) are now well known names in Australia and beyond.

With a relaxed conversational delivery, Val Woodgate gave us this excellent view of the development of Australian Art from the 1770s’ onwards with numerous illustrations of  the paintings and artists, interspersed with amusing anecdotes. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative day.


Liz Beecheno