On 16 November 1893 Arthur Streeton wrote to his friend, artist Tom Roberts, of his desire ‘to go straight inland (away from all polite society) ... [to] create some things entirely new, & try & translate some of the great hidden poetry that I know is here, but have not seen or felt it.’ A few years later he visited the valley of the Hawkesbury River at Richmond, some sixty kilometres from Sydney. That valley had long been a haunt of artists, but never more so than in the late 1880s when parties came up from Sydney to paint its picturesque old towns, farms and orchards. No one before Streeton had realised the artistic potential of the panoramic view of the valley from the escarpment, known as ‘The Terrace’, looking towards the Blue Mountains.
Here, from a ledge above the she-oaks and eucalypts, Streeton painted this work in two days and during a shade temperature of 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Later he recalled he had worked on the canvas in ‘a kind of artistic intoxication with thoughts of Shelley [the source of his title] in my mind. My work may perish’, he wrote dramatically, ‘but I must work so as to go on, ... a man wants all the bother of drawing & drying and blending & so on, all just in his hand ... & then put forth his mind and out with all he has till he’s exhausted, then rest and sleep and on again and on’. (Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, Tom Roberts Correspondence, MS A 2480, vol. 1, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.)
‘The painting was immediately recognised as a masterpiece and retains that status today. Of the many tributes it has elicited over the years, none is more remarkable than that written by fellow artist Lionel Lindsay:
No one can paint distance like him ... Every touch here is sure and relevant of character. There is no painting into wet colour, no fumbling with the indefinite, yet in that precision of touch there dwells a mystery of value and light more profound than any romantic formula for the evasion of drawing. Here it is that truth is beautiful, because directed to such fine purpose. This is the sole use of reality, bent to a pictorial purpose and controlled by a rare and original taste. Who but Streeton, gazing up the Hawkesbury River from the terrace across those far-stretched plains, could have imagined what he saw? To divine the possibilities of a picture, its shapes and lighting, its character and composition in that wide field, required the intuition of genius. It was virgin landscape, untouched of any brush. He possessed no formula, no precedent to rest upon – only his vision; but that, developed by continuous painting in the open, was ready to resolve its difficulties. When he had finished it, I doubt whether Streeton was aware of the importance of his accomplishment. (L. Lindsay, ‘Streeton’s Australian work’, in S. Smith, B. Stevens & C. Jones [eds], The Art of Arthur Streeton, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1919, p. 14-15)
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia