A trip to Ferntree Gully just before Christmas gave me the extra push to complete this painting of ‘John’ who had sat for us at Enderby Studio last year. A great person to paint – with an intense gaze – I always felt John was sitting within a forest. With his waistcoat and bare arms, in a Victorian style armchair, I thought John exemplified one of the innumerable newcomers to Australia – someone who is observant of the Australian bush – maybe sympathetic to its beauty – but who is becoming increasingly marginalised from the green world.
Ferntree Gully within the Dandenongs is a beautiful place, but development ever bites into the mountains. There is little sensitivity on the mountain from Melbourne with urbanisation, highway expansion and a cacophony of used car yards and light industry skirting its foothills. The risk of bushfires getting into the temperate rainforest and its precarious fragility is ever-present as pockets are ‘cleared’ for yet more development. As a person in today’s world John can also personify the ‘green’ among us who sometimes feel like sole campaigners who watch this thoughtless development with despair.
Yet there are places in the mountain which are still village like and almost ‘Victorian’ so you can momentarily imagine you are back in a more gentle and undisturbed time, walking among the towering mountain ash and tree ferns.
The other paintings here show the remarkable artists of early colonisation who tried to emanate the rich forests of the Dandenongs – particularly Eugene von Guérard who lived in Australia for 30 years. His works were so extraordinarily detailed they were akin to scientific observation. (His detailed study of Tower Hill in Victorias Western District provided botanical information used for the revegetation of the hill after it had been degraded by grazing over many years.)
In the early years of his time in Australia he produced exquisite works of majestic proportions – yet intimately observed the encroachment of the colonisers and with a sympathetic eye to this impact on indigenous people. His meticulous style and keen observation fell out of fashion in the late 19th Century and he returned to Europe. Like many great artists before and since he died in poverty in London in 1901. Today his works remain as a testament to Australia’s changing landscapes and the collection held in the National Gallery of Victoria is truly remarkable.
The pattern on John’s trousers is a small tribute to von Guerard with the colours and folds of the mountains he painted (far better than my attempt) that must have made him part of the Australian landscape.
NGV Collection at https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/artist/1647/
Tower Hill image today by Ian Rolfe see his gorgeous photography of this part of Victoria at http://ianrolfephotography.net