Eugene von Guérard: True Nature Revealed

Join conservator Michael Varcoe-Cocks as he takes us behind-the-scenes, revealing the background and conservation of key artworks in Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed.

Eugène von GUÉRARD
Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865
oil on canvas
61.1 x 91.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Ian Hicks AM and Dorothy Hicks, John Higgins, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, 2006
2006.346

Tea Trees near Cape Schanck

The Question of a Fox and Cloud

Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria, 1865 is a dramatic rendering of rugged coastline on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Von Guérard climbed down the precarious cliff to obtain a west-facing vantage point that included the weathered basalt outcrops cast in a golden glow of late afternoon sun.

Beyond the larger forms that progressively descend into Bass Strait is the vertical column known as the Pulpit Rock. Within months of von Guérard completing this picture, the Illustrated Sydney News printed a tourist’s account of Cape Schanck which noted:

‘An eagle's family have for years occupied its loftiest and most inaccessible points [of the Pulpit Rock], and enjoy the repose of undisturbed solitude; their shrill cry and lofty flight add greatly to the wild sublimity of the ocean, which rolls and dashes its billows against the base-of the rock.’

Although von Guérard had the chance to observe the wedge tail eagle he included in this picture, the accompanying European fox could not have been present. Australia’s fox population is known to have been founded for the purpose of recreational hunting in 1871, six years after the painting was completed.

However von Guérard’s inclusion of this foreign species was a topical one. A public debate involving the Acclimatisation Society and the Melbourne Hunt Club and the opposing voices of concerned citizens appeared in Melbourne newspapers directly before or even during the period von Guérard was painstakingly working on the picture in his Melbourne studio.

But if the fox is an invention to explore a narrative, the rendering of topography and its vegetation is typically faithful and based on direct observations recorded in detailed drawings and oil studies done on location.

A photo I have taken of this site makes for an interesting comparison. 

View towards Cape Schanck
View towards Cape Schanck

When Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria, 1865 was acquired by the NGV in 2006, I became fixated on a cloud that lifted vertically from the main form in an unusual manner. My suspicion was that this feature was probably added by a restorer. An initial technical examination failed to ease my mind and it was only in the lead up to the Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed exhibition that an opportunity to address the issue in more detail arose.

Examination of the painting’s surface with ultraviolet light revealed minor sections of recent restoration but did not differentiate the suspicious cloud from its original surroundings. Likewise, elemental analysis to determine the use of pigments could not conclusively date its application.

The image below shows a portion of this region as seen through a stereo-microscope regularly used for work on paintings in the NGV’s painting conservation department. It gives an indication of the complex but beautiful surfaces conservator’s endeavour to understand.

Photomicrograph of Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria, 1865
Photomicrograph of
Eugène von GUÉRARD
Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865
oil on canvas
61.1 x 91.8 cm
Purchased with funds donated by Ian Hicks AM and Dorothy Hicks, John Higgins, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, 2006
(detail)

As is regularly the case, an x-radiograph was the most informative method of analysis. A loss of original paint directly below the cloud (appearing as a dark passage in the x-ray) had seemingly motivated a nineteenth century restorer to conceal its presence by adding to von Guérard’s cloud.

This ‘repair’ had been applied with oil paint and was now sufficiently old as to make it chemically indistinguishable from von Guérard’s own oil colour. Because of this similarity, the employment of chemicals to remove the restorer’s addition would place the underlying paint at an unacceptable risk. Instead the over-paint was delicately removed using a small scalpel under the stereo microscope to eventually uncovering the rather modest loss. The area was then filled and retouched using pigments bound in a synthetic media and without the need of any change to the original composition.

The comparative images below show the cloud as seen before treatment, the x-ray and the painting following conservation treatment.

Three comparative of x-ray and missing cloud
Three comparatives of x-ray and missing cloud from
Eugène von GUÉRARD
Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865
oil on canvas
61.1 x 91.8 cm
Purchased with funds donated by Ian Hicks AM and Dorothy Hicks, John Higgins, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, 2006
(detail)


Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck 1873
Eugene von Guérard
Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck 1873
oil on paper on cardboard
11.4 × 30.2 cm (image), 13.2 × 32.3 cm (cardboard)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, The Thomas Rubie Purcell and Olive
Esma Purcell Trust Fund, 2010

Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck

The small intermit study Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck, 1873 is an example of the oil sketches von Guérard painted in the landscape before his motif. Although the act of painting outdoors is more popularly associated with the later Impressionist movement, landscape artists from the eighteenth century had increasingly incorporated plein air studies as part of their preparation for final studio works.

Von Guérard was introduced to this practice during the 1830 and 40s while a student in Italy, and later at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany – at that time, he would have been required to carry freshly prepared oil paint to the landscape using temporary containers made from skin bladders bound with string.

The subsequent invention of collapsible metal tubes by the English artist’s colour man Windsor and Newton provided a readily transportable commercial product suitable for distribution to remote colonies. After von Guérard’s arrival in Australia, the supply of the new ‘Artist colours, in tubes’ was still limited, but once procured they allowed him to paint on extended expeditions into the Australian landscape.

Rather than transporting bulky stretched canvases, he prepared his own painting supports by covering sheets of paper with a preparation layer formulated from lead white oil paint and chalk. The sheets were lightweight, flexible and easily transportable. Their surface was designed to be slightly absorbent to draw excess oil from the paint to accelerate its drying and allow a safe return to von Guérard’s Melbourne studio. Although the preparation layer was concealed by paint, the vertical striations created during its brushed application are visible in the x-radiograph of Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck, 1873 shown below.

X-radiograph of
Eugene von Guérard
Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck 1873
oil on paper on cardboard
11.4 × 30.2 cm (image), 13.2 × 32.3 cm (cardboard)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, The Thomas Rubie Purcell and Olive
Esma Purcell Trust Fund, 2010

In the landscape, von Guérard cut his paper supports to a desired format, pinning them onto a board or the lid of his paint box to act as an in situ easel. Note the irregular cut edges to this narrow elongated sheet and the pin holes visible in the top-left and lower right corners of the x-ray.

Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck, 1873 was painted on top of windswept seaside cliffs that bordered a property where von Guérard stayed with close friends. It is a careful study of the local colour and vegetation at a specific place and time.

Inscribed in the top right is the date telling us that he painted this work on Sunday 18 January, 1873. Newspaper reports from that day recorded unusually hazy conditions and a hot northerly air flow which hampered local shipping. The overriding influence of moist sea air accounts for the suppressed tonality and subdued colour in the delicate brushwork, having forced von Guérard to forego the deep blue sky typical of his pictures.

Unfortunately most of von Guérard’s Australian plein air studies have not survived. This rare example is an important insight to his working method and the fieldwork undertaken to produce his major compositions such as Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865 which will be discussed in the next post.

Map of Cape Schanck.

Eugene von Guerard
Tower Hill 1855
oil on canvas
68.6 × 122.0 cm
Warrnambool Art Gallery, Victoria
On loan from the Department of Sustainability and
Environment
Gift of Mrs E. Thornton, 1966

Tower Hill

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.

Infrared photo revealing inscribed Calender on the stretcher of Tower Hill, 1855.

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:

Infra red comparison of Tower Hill

The importance of imaging this underdrawing for the interpretation of von Guérard’s work will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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.

Further information on the on the environmental significance of Tower Hill can be in this Parks Victoria brochure pdf More information on visiting Tower Hill can be found at Parks Victoria


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