If you put your skates on, you’ll catch the Robert Dowling, Tasmanian Son of Empire exhibition at the Geelong Art Gallery. But be quick- it finishes on 11 July. There’s a beautiful NGA site about the exhibition here– go have a look, it’s a stunning site and almost as good as being there.
Robert Dowling was born in 1827 in Colchester in England, the son of a Baptist preacher. In 1834 he arrived in Tasmania with his parents, who followed their older sons who had emigrated to the colonies some time earlier. This Evangelical background is important because it influenced the subjects he painted for the rest of his life. He was apprenticed as a saddle-maker but did not follow his trade. Instead he set himself up as a painter of commissioned portraits. He travelled between Hobart and Launceston painting portraits of many prominent figures and personal friends, including John West the Congregationalist minister and other leading Evangelicals. In 1854 he shifted across to Port Phillip in the hope of capitalizing on the post-Gold Rush prosperity. However he found it difficult to gain patronage in Melbourne, so he shifted down to Geelong closer to his extended family, and where he was commissioned to paint portraits by the wealthy Western District pastoralists.
In every exhibition, there’s usually one painting that you linger in front of, and often return to in order to scrutinize it more closely. For me, it was this painting: Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merrang Station
The catalogue described this as a ‘mourning painting’. The exhibition catalogue (a beautifully presented book by John Jones) tells me that Adlophus Sceales died in 1855, leaving a young widow Jane and two young daughters. Mrs Sceales commissioned the work, and how I wish that I could eavesdrop on the conversation between subject and artist when the painting was being planned! The riderless horses remind me of the military funeral tradition, but I assume that they were portrayed because he must have loved riding, perhaps with the two dogs shown. I wonder whose decision it was to include Jimmie, and what his clothes and stance indicate about his role on the station- it looks very formal attire, befitting a manservant for an Englishman. The emptiness of the picture is striking: the house is not shown, only the stables and it looks rather bleak, empty and cold. The daughters are completely absent.
This was one of several paintings that show Aboriginal people in the Western Districts, sometimes in family groupings, and at other times in close proximity to the settler families with whom they lived.
These are the children of his brother-in-law’s family and I’m struck by the easy pose of the little girl draped innocently ( but not entirely appropriately to our eyes today) over the young aboriginal man. What does it say about his role in the family? He’s obviously much older than the children- does he have a carer role?
In 1857 Dowling travelled to London to study art, sponsored by the good citizens of Tasmania. He stayed there for nearly thirty years, improving his technique to be sure, and acting almost as a conduit of empire. He made copies of British paintings for an antipodean audience- a portrait of Queen Victoria, for example was sent back to the colonies as an important official painting. He sent images of empire home, and he brought images of the colony to the metropole. On the other side of the world, he worked up the paintings of Van Diemen’s Land aborigines painted by the ex-convict artist Thomas Bock, who had possibly instructed Dowling in painting many years earlier. Bock had died by this time, and Dowling copied Bock’s paintings and inserted them into a range of landscape settings in grand History Paintings. He made multiple copies, with the same central figures in different groupings and with different backgrounds.
Click on the NGV website about the Dowling exhibition for a zoomable close-up and explanation of the painting.
And, true to form, I can find six degrees of separation (even fewer!) from Judge Willis and this painting. The smiling figure on the right hand side is Tunnerminnerwait, also known as Cape Grim Jack, who was one of the Van Diemen’s Land blacks who accompanied Protector Robinson across Bass Strait. He was sentenced to death by Judge Willis and executed in January 1842. If you have access to academic journals at all, there’s an excellent essay by Leonie Stevens in the June 2010 Victorian Historical Journal called “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait” ( a rather phenomenally cool title for the article, too!)
In a world where a few snatched bars of “Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree” can lead to a lawsuit, we might raise our eyebrows at Dowling’s appropriation of Bock’s images in this way. Here’s Bock’s version of Tunnerminnerwait on the left, and Woureddy on the right. You’ll be able to easily locate them in Dowling’s picture above.
Dowling’s re-presentations of Bock’s images found their way to the Ethnological Society of Britain and the Royal Academy where they fed the interest in anthropology and primitive societies. Although these paintings were created in London, using sketches from Bock’s originals, they eventually found their way back to Australia as part of the swirl of cultural artefacts throughout the Empire.
Dowling returned to Australia in 1884 and set up a studio in Melbourne. He returned to England two years later with the intention of packing up and moving permanently back to the colonies, but died suddenly. As Jones points out, it’s interesting to speculate how he would have responded artistically to the Australian Impressionists and their take on Australian landscapes.
Jones, John. Robert Dowling, Tasmanian son of Empire, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia c 2010
Stevens, Leonie “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait” Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 8, No 1 June 2010 pp.18-40.