Early in August 1855, Eugene von Guérard was travelling by steamer towards his Melbourne home, returning from an extended sketching tour through South Australia. On 3 August, he disembarked west of Warrnambool at Portland Bay, and within three days he had travelled approximately 100km to the north. From here – at the top of Mount Rouse – he made his first sketch of the Grampians mountain range. We can retrace these movements by studying one of the sketchbooks that he took with him to record views of his journey. In the collection of the State Library of New South Wales’ Mitchell Library—this entire book can be viewed here—Von Guérard then retraced his steps back to the coast, passing through a sheep station known as Kangatong. The owner of this property was James Dawson, who also had a residence and commercial interests near Port Fairy. Dawson commissioned von Guérard to paint a view of the nearby extinct volcano known as Tower Hill.
In order to undertake the painting in his Melbourne studio, von Guérard would have made a large detailed drawing and possibly colour studies of this scene over 9 and 10 August, before continuing his homeward voyage by steamer. Within two days of his return on 12 August, he had prepared a blank canvas and was ready to begin the painting, presumably acting with haste to ensure its completion and reimbursement with Dawson.
During an examination of the picture in the NGV’s conservation department, an interesting artefact was revealed hidden on the back of the painting’s timber stretcher. Typical of his fastidious mind, von Guérard recorded in pencil a calendar that counted the consecutive days required to fulfil the task.
Beginning with Sunday, the seven columns divide the days of the week for each row. An ‘X’ marks the first day of painting on Wednesday 15 August, 1855. At the end of each week, a circled number tallies the accumulative days on the project to date until its final completion 52 days later on Friday 5 October, 1855. Prior to applying paint to his blank canvas, von Guérard carefully drew out the composition of Tower Hill in pencil. Although the drawing is hidden below the paint layer, it can be successfully imaged with infrared radiation as shown in this comparative example:
In 1892, the volcano and crater lark became Victoria’s first National Park. In 1966, Tower Hill was gifted by James Dawson’s granddaughter to the Department of Sustainability and Environment, and was later used as a historical document to inform the revegetation of Tower Hill.