Exactly one month after leaving Melbourne in October 1862, explorer and scientist Georg von Neumayer’s expedition and accompanying guest, Eugene von Guérard, were within days of reaching their ultimate goal, the peak of Mount Kosciuszko. After leaving Albury, they travelled south-east through the picturesque Mitta Mitta Valley, where their progress became hampered by snakes, lightning storms and hail the size of ‘pigeons eggs’. On 16 November, the weather improved and after the party ascended Mount Hope it rested at Dinner Creek, while Neumayer took magnetic and temperature recordings and von Guérard sketched the trees (both living and dead) and the camp scene. Neumayer recorded the height of the tallest trees as reaching 300 feet (91 metres).
Von Guérard incorporated the sketches made at Dinner Creek for the foreground of this picture with the later drawing taken from a more elevated point for the middle distance and Kosciuszko’s range. By layering the views from the two locations, he was able to portray a schematic rendering of the altitudinal succession of vegetation and the various climatic zones.
Shown in the foreground, perilously dwarfed by nature, is the intrepid party resting at Dinner Creek, with Neumayer approaching on his white horse, Tommy. The scientist determined their height above sea level to be 4057 feet (1236 metres), now understood to lie within the biogeography zone known as montane, which is distinguished by the growth of the tall forested trees. The dark forest floor is populated by a rich assortment of flowering scrubs (the yellow species is likely to be Pomaderris aspera, whose flowers briefly appear during October and November), while the gully’s moist microclimate supports the growth of the exotic soft tree fern and the more prevalent tea-tree.
At the location of von Guérard’s second drawing, at 4490 feet (1368 metres), the party had emerged into the subalpine zone beyond the altitudinal limit of the tall alpine ash and mountain gum, which were replaced by the adapted snow gum woodlands.
The picture’s large format and lowered sight line enhance the impressive grandeur and remoteness of the scene, offering the Melbourne public a theatrical rendering of a specific site based on empirical observation. In his Cosmos (1848-65), Alexander von Humboldt advocated the display of landscape paintings from varying longitudes for the benefit of studying nature.
In 1870, this work became the first painting purchased from the artist to be included in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia