Robert Dowling
England 1827–86, worked in Australia 1834–57, 1884–86

The Tasmanian-born artist Robert Dowling (1827–1886) produced the most significant nineteenth-century paintings that depicted Aboriginal people as the subject of major compositions. His pictures painted from 1855 to 1857, when the artist lived and worked in Victoria before returning briefly to Launceston en route for an international career, form a complex but heartfelt rendering of Aboriginality.

The most renowned of these works is Tasmanian Aborigines, 1856–57 (fig. 1). It was the first in a series of three compositions where Dowling appropriated the heads of Indigenous figures from Thomas Bock’s 1830s watercolour portraits of Tasmanian Aborigines. Discussion of this work of Dowling’s has been included in recent studies and in the first monograph dedicated to Robert Dowling, to which the reader is directed for a broader dialogue.1See John Jones, Robert Dowling: Tasmanian Son of Empire, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010; see also Humphrey Clegg & Stephen Gilchrist, ‘Depictions of Aboriginal people in colonial Australian art: settler and unsettling narratives in the works of Robert Dowling’, ABV, no. 48, 2008, pp. 35–45; David Hansen ‘Seeing Truganini’, Australian Book Review, no. 321,
May 2010, pp. 45–53.

 

Fresh insights

Given this continued commentary, it is timely to detail here changes and technical observations eventuating from a recent conservation treatment at the National Gallery of Victoria. These new insights shed light on the otherwise indeterminate location and date of the painting’s manufacture and contribute to an understanding of Robert Dowling’s own artistic vision.

At the time of its acquisition by the NGV in 1949, the painting’s condition was noted as precarious and was immediately brought to the attention of the artist-cum-restorer, Harley Griffiths (Jnr). Several decades later a more involved restoration was untaken by Griffiths’ successor, David Lawrance, who lined the original canvas to ensure the painting’s ongoing preservation. Lining refers to a process whereby a second canvas is adhered to the reverse of the original for reinforcement, but this intervention into the physical originality of the object may have implications that offset its desired benefits. One example is the loss of visual access to the back of the artist’s canvas and any information that it holds.

In preparing for the recent conservation treatment, an examination by transmitted infrared radiation revealed an all-but-forgotten feature of this work: when Dowling painted Tasmanian Aborigines, diligently drafting Bock’s head studies onto the bodies of his own composition, he also transcribed the identity and place of origin for each individual onto the back of his canvas. These vital inscriptions in black paint have been covered by the lining and are no longer accessible. The historical interest in deciphering the identity of individual Tasmanian Aboriginal people within the context of Dowling’s appropriation is perhaps more poignant to us now. So much so, that the need to retain a lining that conceals the artist’s inscriptions was reconsidered.

An X-ray taken in the painting conservation studio at the NGV was digitised so the hidden original canvas could be inspected, thread-by-thread, to access its structural integrity. It was found to be predominately intact, with only the peripheral edges requiring specific attention. As a result, the decision was made to remove the lining and substitute a less-imposing system to recover the artist’s handwritten captions.

The process of reversing a lining can be as complicated as its instatement. Tests were performed to determine a safe method for releasing the bonded adhesive so small increments of the redundant canvas could be raised and cut away. Additional adhesive was then extracted from the surface in a series of delicate applications to eventually recover the inscriptions and a previously undetected Winsor & Newton colourman’s stamp (fig. 2).

The fragile tacking margins were then supported with prepared lengths of linen canvas dyed to match the original. On the picture’s surface, an aged natural resin varnish was removed, followed by a more resistant layer of organic salts bound to the artist’s pigments.

It was not the intention of this conservation treatment to simulate the appearance of the work as it might have been when first completed. Rather, the emphasis was to allow the original material, free from intervention, to communicate an expression as delivered by the artist at its conception. It is for this reason that conservators preoccupy themselves with technical data and primary documents in the hope of understanding a moment long passed. To better comprehend Tasmanian Aborigines and fairly critique Dowling’s intention, it is worth recounting the compositional development.

 

 

Observing Dowling’s technique and composition

Dowling purchased a readily prepared commercial canvas with a tinted ground layer. The centred placement of the newly discovered colourman’s stamp shows this was an early example of the pre-stretched canvases shipped to the colony and made available in a selection of common sizes.2It is likely that Dowling transported his entire studio contents from Hobart and was probably concerned with the availability of materials in Victoria. A shipment of ‘4 cases of artist materials’ was shipped for Melbourne the same day of his own departure (Colonial Times (Hobart), Saturday, 23 September 1854, p. 2). The availability of materials and sourcing of equipment by artists helps to document individual choice and assists with the dating and authorship of unknown works. The artist’s choice of an elongated proportion, almost twice the length of its height, was a format more commonly associated with marine painting, but well adapted for the task at hand. He began by applying loose charcoal outlines before progressing to applications of oil colour that better model human form; applying the vegetation and landscape last. This deliberate sequential technique and the conservative palette adopted reflected the private tuition Dowling received from an older generation of portrait painters while he was growing up in Tasmania.3An elemental survey of Robert Dowling’s paintings show that his use of pigments changed from the initial Australian studio practice to a later use following formal training in London. The pigments include ultramarine blue, shades of green mixed from Naples yellow and Prussian blue, the warm tints derived from vermilion, and a variety of iron oxides (ochres, sienna) for the mixtures of brown to black. In England his palette quickly expanded to include pigments based on chrome, cadmium and cobalt.

It is likely that figure studies were also used to complement Thomas Bock’s shoulder-length portraits which Dowling had previously copied in oil and adorned with landscape backdrops. The seemingly causal arrangement of his figures was in fact diligently choreographed with a strict compliance to the conventions of geometry that he must have derived largely from written texts.4The copies of Thomas Bock’s portraits by Dowling are in the collection of the British Museum, while surviving examples of his preliminary figure studies are in the collection of the National Library of Australia. The date of these studies in uncertain.

Despite this fastidious preparation, the artist was forced to revisit the initial renderings and make considerable adjustments. As with the underdrawing, these oil changes are detectable by infrared radiation and manifest themselves in nuances of human form and subtleties in apparel. He needed to revise the scale of figures in an attempt to homogenise the previously independent portraits to his single composition and made similar adjustments to vegetation and fallen logs. This editorial process is a frequent pattern in Dowling’s technique but several revisions are of specific relevance.

 

 

Adjustments and omissions

A major omission was the painting-out of a ‘firestick’ initially depicted in a lowered arm of ‘Jimmy, of Hampshire Hills, Van Diemen’s Land’, seen standing at the far right. Although omitted here, the motif returns in two reconfigured paintings later completed by Dowling in London. By contrast the bulbous-headed club held by ‘Wooreddy, of Bruny Island’, shown horizontally in the centre of the composition, is characteristic of those used in south-eastern mainland Australia but not associated with Tasmania.5I would like to thank Dr David Hansen, Senior Researcher and Specialist, Art Department of Sotheby’s Australia, for first questioning this item and to acknowledge the assistance of Carol Cooper, Research Fellow at the National Museum of Australia’s Centre for Historical Research, for generously sharing her knowledge. This introduces the question of whether the painting was commenced in Victoria during 1856 or (as previously presumed) painted in Tasmania in the first months of 1857 during a short period before Dowling departed to pursue an international career.

Another adjustment was more dramatic. A cursory reading of Tasmanian Aborigines could misinterpret the ten prominent figures as being alone in an otherwise unpopulated landscape: the sole survivors of an otherwise diminished race. However, closer observation reveals a smaller gathering similarly congregating around a campfire in a distant hillside clearing. This suggestion of a freely inhabited landscape was at one point enhanced by up to twenty additional figures set back immediately right of those in foreground. These were painted with the same pigments and handling as their counterparts but similarly distinct from their surrounding vegetation, which enables their partial forms to be detected (fig. 3).

When first painted the figures were shown seated among rocks along a narrow rivulet (still visible) and standing cautiously back amongst torso-high vegetation designed to avoid an arduous commitment to specific detail probably beyond Dowling’s means. Not seen in the infrared image (but still discernable in the painting) is the dark foliage of a low-hung branch whose parent tree casts a long, elongated shadow across the foreground of the picture.

Currently it is not known whether the figures were painted out by Dowling or lost through deterioration and subsequent restorations that attended to the obtrusive cracking present in the picture. If we imagine the figures reinstated we would observe a succession of people arching back into the retreating landscape. Such a portrayal alludes to an earlier history further removed from the immediate reality of the Aboriginal situation in Tasmania as it was in the mid 1850s.

 

 

Conclusion

Perhaps not incidental in understanding these changes was the release in August 1856 of the previous year’s population statistics for Tasmania, reported at the Royal Society and in The Hobarton Mercury: ‘The philosophic philanthropist will learn, not with surprise but with regret at the inhumanity which has hastened so discreditable a result, that the aboriginal populations dwindled to fifteen’.6The Hobarton Mercury, 1 August 1856, p. 2. Although the published figure was probably erroneous, it is worth highlighting that the remaining number of visible people in Dowling’s composition is fifteen.

After a two-year residence in Victoria, Robert Dowling returned to Launceston four days before Christmas in 1856. Tasmanian Aborigines was then exhibited in March 1857 at the corner shop of Mr Tozer, a watchmaker in Launceston. Given the degree of revision and the complexity of its initial configuration, it seems certain that the picture was conceived and begun, if not completed, in Victoria. It is probably only there that Dowling first encountered Indigenous people, having the opportunity to meet and paint members of the Mopor people of Western Victoria who were employed on grazing properties owned by relations of the artist and other similarly benevolent associates.

His observed experience coincided with a period of unprecedented public concern for Indigenous issues in Victoria. The closure of the Moravian Mission at Lake Boga and legislative debate over funding to support Indigenous people was published in newspapers and by private circulation throughout 1856. It is within this context that this work’s story of revision should be considered to best understand the motivations of this ambitious picture.

Michael Varcoe-Cocks, Conservator of Paintings 1850–1950, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).

Notes

1      See John Jones, Robert Dowling: Tasmanian Son of Empire, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010; see also Humphrey Clegg & Stephen Gilchrist, ‘Depictions of Aboriginal people in colonial Australian art: settler and unsettling narratives in the works of Robert Dowling’, ABV, no. 48, 2008, pp. 35–45; David Hansen ‘Seeing Truganini’, Australian Book Review, no. 321,
May 2010, pp. 45–53.

2      It is likely that Dowling transported his entire studio contents from Hobart and was probably concerned with the availability of materials in Victoria. A shipment of ‘4 cases of artist materials’ was shipped for Melbourne the same day of his own departure (Colonial Times (Hobart), Saturday, 23 September 1854, p. 2). The availability of materials and sourcing of equipment by artists helps to document individual choice and assists with the dating and authorship of unknown works.

3      An elemental survey of Robert Dowling’s paintings show that his use of pigments changed from the initial Australian studio practice to a later use following formal training in London. The pigments include ultramarine blue, shades of green mixed from Naples yellow and Prussian blue, the warm tints derived from vermilion, and a variety of iron oxides (ochres, sienna) for the mixtures of brown to black. In England his palette quickly expanded to include pigments based on chrome, cadmium and cobalt.

4      The copies of Thomas Bock’s portraits by Dowling are in the collection of the British Museum, while surviving examples of his preliminary figure studies are in the collection of the National Library of Australia. The date of these studies in uncertain.

5      I would like to thank Dr David Hansen, Senior Researcher and Specialist, Art Department of Sotheby’s Australia, for first questioning this item and to acknowledge the assistance of Carol Cooper, Research Fellow at the National Museum of Australia’s Centre for Historical Research, for generously sharing her knowledge.

6      The Hobarton Mercury, 1 August 1856, p. 2.