writing niche history
Shepherd Turned Bushranger: An Australian Impression
Something felt very familiar about NGA’s recent acquisition, “The last of the flock”, by C. Douglas Richardson (Accession No: NGA 2016.480). It was the central character, a shepherd, and in particular his dress – the red overshirt, the moleskin trousers, the knee-high boots.
This oil painting is part of the NGA’s current exhibition, “Australian Impressionism” (24 June – 31 October 2017). It was painted by Richardson in 1882 while studying at the Royal Academy in London alongside his Melbourne art school friend Tom Roberts. At the time the pair also shared a London studio with fellow Australian, the sculptor Bertram Mackennal.
This painting reminded me of another in both its central character and the circumstances of its execution – “Bushrangers, Victoria, 1852” by William Strutt.
Viewing “Bushrangers”, one could imagine Strutt sketching the action on the spot, other than the obvious danger involved in doing so! In fact Strutt did live nearby when this “outrage” was inflicted on travellers on the St Kilda Road near Melbourne. But it was not painted until 1886-87 – 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. “Bushrangers” was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887. (I wrote earlier about this painting.)
Strutt’s main bushranger and Richardson’s shepherd are uncannily similar – not just clothing but also physique and pose, both even holding a shotgun by the muzzle end. Their dress seems identical except for the addition of the shepherd’s vest and the omission of the bushranger’s (more dated) straw hat. Did Richardson have access to Strutt’s studio wardrobe?
In 1889, Melbourne’s “Table Talk” newspaper welcomed Richardson’s return from his English studies and included this fascinating snippet of biography:
London is Mr. Richardson's birthplace—but as he came—or was brought—to Melbourne when only a few months' old—he may be called an Australian—a fact which the students of the London Royal Academy recognised by nicknaming him "The Bushranger."
Table Talk, 5 April 1889, p.6
I wondered if there may have been very much more to Richardson’s nickname than just his Australianness. Was it the prominence of Strutt’s work that contributed to the nickname?
The same newspaper article referred to Richardson’s earlier talent as a competitive swimmer, with “an enviable record … that emphatically shows it is not incompatible for an Australian to live the intellectual life, while he strengthens his sinews with athletic sports.” It is intriguing to think that Richardson himself may have been Strutt’s model for the bushranger.
David Coombe, Canberra, 1 August 2017
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Note: I originally presented this material on 30 July 2017 at a social group, "Stories behind the Art", that meets once a month on a Sunday morning at the National Gallery of Australia.
CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2017, Shepherd turned Bushranger: An Australian Impression, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/misc/shepherd_turned_bushranger.htm>