It's 1850s Australia.
A double murder.
A locked room.
The murderer is dying from a gunshot.
But the reporter says the scene is near impossible.
Bushrangers on St. Kilda Road, 1852
I had read the news reports; I had seen the painting. It was clearly the same story. But it was only with the exhibition Heroes and Villains: Strutt’s Australia, that I realised the painted story was so dependent on the word picture of Edmund Finn – ace reporter at the Melbourne Morning Herald.
The exhibition is currently in Melbourne at the State Library of Victoria in 14 July – 23 October 2016.
And my interest in this painting? My e-book Three Rabbits Alibi begins with this bushranging “outrage” on Melbourne’s citizenry. It is crucial backdrop for the double murder three months later. (The bushrangers’ capture gets a brief mention too.)
Viewing Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852, you’d think Strutt was there on the spot! But was not painted until 1887 – three and a half decades after the event! Strutt painted it back in England, relying on contemporary newspaper reports as well as authentic colonial clothing he had had sent to him from Australia for the purposes of modelling.
I was discussing this brilliant grand painting with the exhibition curator; I commented on Strutt’s artistic licence in substituting open dry grass land for what was then wattle scrub and great cover for bushrangers. He concurred with the bushrangers’ exposed position and commented on the oddity of the coach in the distance. Back home, I re-read my newspaper report from the Herald. The distant coach was there. (Read why!) The stories told by Edmund Finn and by William Strutt were one and the same – it’s just that one was in newspaper print and the other in oils.
The Argus had the news first, albeit then not much of a story. It was the first to report, a day before the Herald, on Monday 18 October 1852:
BUSHRANGERS ON THE ST. KILDA ROAD. – On Saturday night information was given at the Police Station, that four mounted and armed bushrangers were committing the most daring depredations on the St. Kilda and Brighton road. About five o'clock in the evening, Mr. and Mrs. Bawtree were stopped, bailed up, and robbed, and upwards of fifteen other persons were also stopped that evening by the same gang.
(To be fair to the Argus, it did carry a detailed report in its next edition and Strutt’s own journal quotes both Argus articles – but still no coach. The pages carrying the detailed Argus report are missing from the national collection, but at least the article is, and perhaps the pages are, held in the Strutt papers. Fortunately, the detailed Argus article was reproduced in other colonial newspapers.)
But if you read Edmund Finn’s report in the Herald, you see William Strutt’s painting!
It is interesting that there are different elements in the Herald and Argus reports and that Strutt chose those that suited his artistic purpose.
For about the price of a beer or wine, “read” Strutt’s Bushrangers in my e-book Three Rabbits Alibi – you can even take it to the exhibition with you. (No Strutt cats appear in this book.)
Strutt actually lived near the location of the bushranger outrage – and the Three Rabbits Alibi double murders – at Prahran. A year after the holdup he purchased a couple of acres in the Brighton district. J.M. Holloway, a land developer at the time, promoted another large land sale saying: “The road from Melbourne to Brighton is too well known to require any comment.”
Although Strutt loved the country life, he had to give up some of his art students; “the distance from Melbourne was rather trying – about ten miles, which, when the north (or hot) wind blew, and one had to walk, became somewhat wearisome. However, an enterprising store-keeper living close by, started a sort of omnibus (on which, by the by, I was commissioned to paint the Melbourne Coat of Arms, thus we had the means of getting to and from.” It is possible that this omnibus was the Eclipse, now on the Brighton run, the same bus portrayed by Strutt three years earlier in his work, En route to the diggings.
The exhibition is currently in Melbourne at the State Library of Victoria in 14 July – 23 October 2016 and was originally in Canberra at the National Library of Australia in 2015. In between, “Bushrangers” was on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
David Coombe. 12,13,16 August 2015.
14 July 2016.