Faking It: Sturt’s Overland Expedition leaving Adelaide, 10th August 1844
Painting attributed to Colonial Artist S.T. Gill is a Likely Forgery
Click on this link to a Trove list: Faking It: Sturt’s Overland Expedition leaving Adelaide, 10th August 1844 to see resources for this article, including paintings and newspaper reports – you can think of this list as footnotes. (Or take the easy option by clicking the article’s inline links if you just want to see the main pictures.)
The oft-described-as-gallant captain Charles Sturt faked his own departure on his great northern exploratory expedition on 10 August 1844. After leading the grand ceremonial procession out of Adelaide, joined by hundreds of colonists, Sturt and his deputy returned for a while to their homes in town. Only days later did they join the slow bullock drays and the other expeditioners.
Not having had time as yet to attend to my own private affairs, I was unable to leave Adelaide for a few days after the departure of Mr. Piesse. A similar cause prevented Mr. James Poole, who was to act as my assistant, from accompanying the drays.
Charles Sturt in his “Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia”, Volume 1: page 39.
Sturt’s staged departure was all for a good cause. It allowed the planned celebration – marked by a special public holiday – to go ahead. Adelaide was jubilant and turned out in great numbers: first to a ceremonial breakfast in Grenfell Street and then afterwards “a procession of upwards of 100 horsemen, with a number of vehicles.” (Southern Australian, 13 August 1844)
The purely ceremonial nature of Sturt’s personal departure was no secret and was casually reported in the newspaper.
Contrary to the original intention, the drays were detained to the last, and as their progress must be slow, Captain Sturt returned to Adelaide, and intends to spend a few days with his family, before taking his final departure.
Southern Australian, 13 August 1844
But another faking of “Sturt’s Departure” was intended to be a secret.
The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) holds two very similar watercolour paintings, each titled “Sturt’s overland expedition leaving Adelaide 10th August, 1844” and attributed to the colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818 – 1880). I think only one is genuine.
One of these paintings is probably the best known of Gill’s to a South Australian audience. It is also arguably his best work. When the then “National Gallery” of South Australia purchased this panorama in 1939, its director Louis McCubbin, son of the famous artist Frederick McCubbin, said: “This picture is unquestionably the best by Gill that I have seen.” (The Advertiser, 29 November 1939). It is catalogued in AGSA with accession number 0.1128.
The other of these two AGSA works has accession number 0.1522 and was donated to AGSA in 1953 by Mr E. S. Levinson. It is not well known. I think the Levinson painting is a fake.
The Well-known Panorama – AGSA 0.1128
LINK to IMAGE: Gill, S.T., Sturt’s Overland Expedition leaving Adelaide, 10th August, 1844 (Art Gallery of South Australia, 0.1128).
Trust me: you don’t want to miss this painting by ignoring the link!
Near Identical Scenes
The two paintings portray almost identical scenes: the ceremonial departure of Charles Sturt’s northern expedition. The cavalcade is proceeding from Grenfell Street at the right of picture and turning into and continuing north along King William Street and reaching the intersection with Rundle Street (to the right) and Hindley Street (unseen at left). Bullock drays with Sturt’s boat wait to join at the rear. The viewer is standing on a vacant patch of land fronting King William Street on the corner of Currie Street and is looking diagonally across the intersection and northeast to the Grenfell Street corner.
Both paintings were quite recently hung in 2015 and 2016 in the exhibition “Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of S.T. Gill” at the State Library of Victoria and the National Library of Australia respectively.
The Levinson Painting – AGSA 0.1522
IMAGE: “Sturt’s overland expedition leaving Adelaide 10th August, 1844” (AGSA 0.1522) when it was hanging in exhibition at NLA in 2016. (Author photo).
Currently there is no link to the Levinson painting from the collection section of AGSA’s web site. Below is a summary record for this work from AGSA’s Research Library.
IMAGE: Part of a “Library Summary” report for AGSA 0.1522. (Source: Personal correspondence from AGSA Library, 15/11/2016.)
Two More and Provenance
If two versions of this same scene were not enough to contend with, there are another two – one each in the National Library of Australia (NLA) and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).
Sepia Wash – NLA R113
IMAGE: Gill, S.T., Sturt’s Expedition, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-134375514
NLA’s work is a sepia wash drawing and was part of a large commission for James Allen who would have taken it with him in November 1845 when he left for England on a lecture tour promoting South Australia. It was in a group of works purchased by NLA in London in 1932.
Watercolour – NGA 2012.1307
LINK to IMAGE: Gill, S.T., Sturt’s overland expedition leaving Adelaide 1844 (National Gallery of Australia, 2012.1307)
NGA’s watercolour also has a long provenance – having been in the family of Gill’s fellow artist George French Angas. It was possibly bought from Gill by Angas just before the latter left for England in July 1845. Angas settled again in Australia in 1850, but returned permanently to England in 1863. This painting was purchased by the NGA from an Australian collection in 2012.
Both the NLA and the NGA works probably left Australia for England within two decades of their creation.
Problems with the Levinson Painting
I have been researching S.T. Gill’s life and work from his arrival in South Australia in 1839 to his leaving for the Victorian gold rush in 1852. Over time the Levinson picture struck me more and more as not being by Gill’s hand – having neither his artistic quality nor level of detail. But it is similar to Gill’s style and bears a signature “STG Adelaide 45”, so if it is not genuine then it was intended to deceive.
What is wrong with the picture itself?
The signature is itself an issue. Gill rarely includes “Adelaide” in his signature block. The panorama is signed “STG ADELADE” featuring Gill’s typically problematic spelling. So the Levinson picture is correct but it is inconsistently correct!
Being broader in format, the panorama includes more content, but the two paintings are unmistakably the same streetscape and scene with the differences being in the details of participants and spectators.
At the left of the scene and barely distinguishable, the head of the cavalcade – including Captain Sturt – is approaching the intersection of King William Street with Rundle Street (leading off to the right). The gleaming white building at left of picture – later known as the “Beehive” – sits on the street corner. It stands out in the panorama and Gill uses white highlights on this and another building to clearly distinguish the frontages on Rundle Street and King William Street. But the Levinson picture merges them into a mass of building. In other watercolours Gill always highlights the South Australian Company building in Rundle Street (middle background of the panorama picture) – but the Levinson work just has no highlights at all. Another problem is perspective. Gill was excellent when it came to building perspective, but the Levinson artist has erred in the pitches of building rooves.
There are other problems with the people in the Levinson painting. They lack Gill’s characteristic fineness of detail. And the Aborigines have either been removed or are too indistinct to be recognisable. Gill nearly always included Aborigines in this period and the other three versions of this scene certainly do.
Specific details also reveal the Levinson picture’s close relationship with the panorama. Just to the right of centre in the panorama is a gum tree with some soaring birds – perhaps cockatoos or magpies. The tree could not be accommodated in the more compact scene of NLA’s sepia wash, but appears in all three watercolours. The NGA painting omits the birds; the Levinson one follows the panorama and includes them. There are other specific similarities between the two AGSA paintings. Both include a horse and rider galloping against the traffic flow – this is absent from the NLA and NGA paintings. And again only in the AGSA paintings, the Grenfell Street residence has its window blind half (!) down –– the blind is absent from the others. The ship captain only appears in the AGSA paintings.
Clearly, the two AGSA paintings are closely related; one is dependent on the other. In fact the Gallery at first thought the Levinson painting was a preliminary sketch for the panorama.
Origins of the Levinson Painting
The Levinson work wasn’t gifted until 1953, but it seems to have been sighted much earlier by the Gallery – in fact the year after the panorama was acquired.
We had an enthusiastic half-hour the other morning when I showed Mr. McCubbin and Mr. Pitt a smaller Gill watercolor of the same scene, recently acquired by Mr. Mark Ridgway, one of Adelaide’s keenest art connoisseurs and collectors. Mr. McCubbin immediately pronounced it as the original sketch for the larger picture. On the back of the sketch was a reference to a farewell to Captain Sturt’s expedition in 1844. A boat on a waggon then satisfied Mr. Pitt.
The Advertiser, Friday 10 May 1940
McCubbin’s imprimatur would have helped bring this painting into acceptance and he would later recommend its purchase. From whence had it come? It seems it made an appearance four decades earlier!
We have been shown a most interesting watercolour drawing by the early colonial artist, Mr. S. T. Gill, of Captain Sturt’s departure from Adelaide upon his exploration expedition in 1844. It is in Gill’s characteristic style, and represents a scene of bustle and enthusiasm in King William-street as it then was … There are the inevitable horseman on the white steed which the artist almost invariably introduced into his street scenes ... It is said that the sketch, which is in capital preservation, was found behind a painting in the same frame, hence its good condition. It is the property of Miss Little, of Woodville, and ought to be added to our national collection of examples of early colonial art, which are becoming more and more valuable year by year.
South Australian Register, 6 February 1899
The prominent “horseman on the white steed” indicates this is the Levinson painting. (A curious twist is that the said horseman seems to be a parade marshall, who makes an appearance in all but the panorama, albeit on a dark horse.)
What about “Miss Little of Woodville” and her 1899 painting?
Miss Little of Woodville
There is no Miss Little in the Adelaide suburb of Woodville in the contemporary directory or electoral roll. Although there are very few Miss Little’s of note, there are several pointers to her identity.
So the 1899 painting of Sturt’s departure with the featured white steed – almost certainly the Levinson work – was likely owned by Miss Frances Harriet Little (1851 – 1951).
And then there is the manner of the painting’s discovery by Miss Little, explained in the 1899 report: “It is said that the sketch, which is in capital preservation, was found behind a painting in the same frame, hence its good condition.” The watercolour’s condition had a rationale and so did its sudden appearance!
I think the Levinson painting is a fake and the most likely forger is Miss Frances Harriet Little the art teacher. The picture was “uncovered” by her in February1899 and immediately came into favour with the Gallery. It was possibly sold at an auction (“water-colour drawing by… S.T. Gill”) a month later and then exhibited at the Gallery in August 1900. It is next noticed in 1940 after being bought by collector Mark Ridgeway; then in 1951 when purchased by collector and gallery owner Hickson Adams soon before the latter’s death that year. Adams’ collection was auctioned in 1951 and 1952, and in 1953 the painting was donated to the Gallery by Levinson. I will now call it the Levinson-Little painting.
So how could Little have reproduced this historic scene? Could she have had access to the panorama in order to copy it? The other versions were in England. Where was the panorama at that time?
Back to the Panorama
The panorama was offered to the Gallery in 1939 by Verdi Killicoat Burmeister (1891 – 1956)
as an “Early Adelaide Street Scene” for the sum of 45 guineas. Louis McCubbin, the Director of the National Gallery, wrote to the Fine Arts Committee (10 October 1939) that “without doubt, it is the finest painting by Gill I have ever seen and, in addition to its artistic qualities, possesses great historic value. I strongly recommend its purchase, the price asked is high for a painting by this artist but, I doubt if the owner will take very much less for it. Perhaps an offer of 35 Gns. might be worth while.” After some negotiation, the gallery bought it for 42 pounds. The title was changed to “Sturt’s Overland Expedition leaving Adelaide, 10th August, 1844”…
Personal correspondence from AGSA, 30 November 2018
Unfortunately nothing further is known of the panorama’s origins. But a possible pathway of ownership is via Burmeister’s uncle, Frederick Francis Burmeister (1858 – 1929). F. F. Burmeister was himself an artist and had a large personal collection. The Observer (11 June 1927) carried a report of a visit to his studio where 140 pictures hung, including Burmeister’s copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. “This copy by itself is worth a visit to his studio.” Burmeister was said to have been a student of the well-known artist Charles Hill (1824 – 1915).
Although it is speculative, Gill’s genuine panorama could have been in Fred Burmeister’s “large personal collection” and passed to his nephew after his death in 1929. Following this line of thinking, it is possible that Burmeister himself faked the Levinson-Little painting, however Little’s fingerprints are much more suggestive of her authorship and there is no evidence for a less plausible Burmeister-Little conspiracy.
The panorama’s provenance from 1845 to 1939 remains a mystery, but it is not known to have left Adelaide, and so could have been accessible for copying.
The Levinson-Little picture lacked provenance, but this was partly circumvented by the story of an art loving father who was said to have arrived in South Australia in 1844 (it was actually 1849). And the painting’s excellent condition was explained away by its discovery behind another painting in the same frame. The picture was more than just a student copying a master – it was signed and presented as genuine – and it has been accepted as such for more than a century.
Although the two alike watercolours were hung in the 2015-16 exhibition “Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of S.T. Gill”, they were not side by side. The Levinson-Little painting would have shrunk beside the magnificent panorama.
I used an historical approach and digital sources for this research. I have not physically examined the Levinson-Little painting (although I saw it in the exhibition). If I become aware of more research on this painting I intend to add an addendum to this article.
I thank the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia for generously responding to my enquiries. AGSA Research Library supplied me with an image of 0.1522 for study. (Although I did not need to enquire of the National Library of Australia on this occasion, the sepia wash image is courtesy of NLA and, as usual, I made extensive use of Trove Australia.)
CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2019, Faking It: Sturt’s Overland Expedition leaving Adelaide, 10th August 1844, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/research/Faking_It_-_Sturt's_Departure_1844.htm>
22 January 2019