In its day, this was the most celebrated of all Australian paintings. In December 1857, the art critic of the Melbourne Argus greeted Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges as deserving ‘a place in one of the royal or national galleries of Europe’20 and launched a campaign to buy it for Queen Victoria. The Melbourne Herald instead hoped it ‘will be kept amongst us [and] become the centre of our own “National Gallery”’.1The schemes failed and a pastoral company tycoon, about to retire to England, added it to his large collection of work by Eugene von Guérard, the colony’s best artist.
When Ferntree Gully was lent to the Victorian Court at the London International Exhibition of 1862, the Melbourne press eagerly published a letter comparing it with works by the late great J.M.W. Turner, claiming that von Guérard’s work was a truthful ‘study from nature herself’ compared with ‘impossible’ inventions ‘in a cockney studio’. Yet von Guérard in Melbourne, like Turner in London, painted in a city studio from field sketches taken on spring and summer landscape tours. The reviewer said that Ferntree Gully offered ‘grateful relief’ after the ‘feverish’ Turners,2 a reminder that mid-19th-century gallery-going was hot, crowded and smelly; the pleasure of looking at this work lay chiefly in its cool sunniness.
Forty kilometres out of town, the tree fern gullies of the Dandenong Ranges were in 1857 not often visited by tourists. This picture put them on the Melbourne excursionists’ map.
Success engendered follow-up variants. A small canvas, lacking the lyrebirds, is framed with rounded corners to echo the graceful curves of the composition. Large drawings of the gully, in pen & ink and wash, occur in two commissioned series of Australian views, one of them for Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of Victoria, to take home to England. Best known is the version in Eugene von Guérard’s Australian Landscapes, A Series of 24 Tinted Lithographs. Published ten years after the painting was executed, the lithograph no longer represented reality; the place had been degraded by timber-getters, fern-smugglers for the city market and by innocent excursionists. There was now ‘a comfortable hotel in [the] immediate neighbourhood’.3
The text accompanying the lithograph reiterates appreciation characteristic of the age of international ‘Fernmania’ and, following the celebrity scientist Alexander Humboldt, of fascination with tropical ecosystems: ‘the vivid verdure, the cool freshness, and the shadowy softness of an English woodland stream, [combined] with the luxuriant richness and graceful forms of tropical vegetation.’ The unknown writer then introduces the idea of a religious sanctuary: ‘nature builds up a vista of rounded columns sometimes attaining a height of thirty feet … constituting one of the loveliest cloisters it is possible to imagine … aromatic shrubs and creepers …[a] delicate and fragrant tapestry … giants of the forest, the lofty eucalypti and blackwood trees … attain an altitude of 200 or 250 feet … The wind may be “chanting a thunder-psalm” overhead, but below all is calm and silent; save for the musical ripple of the mountain brook, or the peculiar note of the lyre-bird … whose graceful plumage seems to have been designed to harmonize with the exquisite forms of the surrounding foliage’.4 When the society artist Nicholas Chevalier designed a fancy dress costume ‘emblematic of Australia, or of this colony’25 for the Governor’s wife in 1860, the conspicuous elements were a lyrebird-tail fan and, appliquéd to the edges of Lady Barkly’s ball gown, tree fern fronds.
Close scrutiny of the colonists’ new world, identification of the spirit of a particular cool and fragrant place, and a general mood of nature-worship contribute to the aesthetic force of this masterpiece. More significant is the underlying geometry, an intricate counterpoint of ecstatically writhing ferns, backed by the solemn verticals of dead white eucalypts, and all framed by a clockwise oval leading from the centrepiece lyrebirds through fallen trunks, then up an arching tree that eventually echoes the Dandenongs’ skyline from above. This sinuous tree might be intended for the Austral mulberry, Hedycarya angustifolia, rarely so large but, as with the imaginary rocks that von Guérard introduced to the top left of his North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko, niceties of observation had to give way to the generation of visual flow. Partly a particular botany lesson, but more an image of the great cycle of nature, Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges is, above all, a field of energy. It holds the eye, continually inviting yet another brain-teasing circuit of the teeming earth, the water, the rising sap, the breathing leaves, the air, and back to the stillness of afterlife skeletons.
Daniel Thomas, 2002
1 Melbourne Herald, 4 February 1858, p.5.
2 Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 April 1863, p.9.
3 Eugène von Guérard’s Australian Landscapes / A Series of 24 Tinted Lithographs illustrative of the most striking and picturesque features of the / Landscape scenery of Victoria, new South Wales, South Australia & Tasmania, / Drawn from Nature and Lithographed by the Artist, with Letter Press Description of each View / printed and published by / Hamel & Ferguson / Melbourne Victoria, plate XIII [issued in six parts, 1866–68]. Also facsimile edition, Marjorie Tipping (introd.), Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1975, p.68.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002