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Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria

Eugene von Guerard1865

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria

In the 1860s and early 1870s, von Guérard painted a series of views on the Mornington Peninsula, south-west of Melbourne. In April 1863, he visited Cape Schanck, a dramatic outcrop of volcanic rock protruding into the Bass Strait. He made a series of sketches at that time which he later used to produce this work and also Castle Rock, Cape Schanck, both dated 1865; he had previously sketched there with his friend the Swiss artist Nicholas Chevalier in the late 1850s.

This painting is justly renowned as one of von Guérard’s best colonial landscapes. It is a fairly rare example of a coastal scene, and, rather than evoking the eerie sublimity of endless mountains in the still largely unexplored region of the Australian Alps or the volcanic curiosities of the Western District, it reverts to a picturesque formula that has more in common with his earlier Italian works of the 1830s and 1840s, representing Capri, or scenes of the peninsula from Sorrento to Amalfi.

The scene, however, is overlaid with a primordial quality, with the sinuous trunks of the tea trees (so unfamiliar to European eyes) creeping forwards towards the cliff top, like snakes on the move. Animal life is represented in the upper left expanse of blue sky by the soaring bird with its wide wing span (readily identified as a wedge-tailed eagle, common enough on the Mornington Peninsula), while – surprisingly – an imported European fox prowls among the tea trees. The latter is a fascinating reference to the emerging environmental problem of European predators being introduced into an indigenous setting, with the consequent disruption of natural biodiversity.

In this work, von Guérard fuses his early Italianate style with his experience of the Australian landscape, dividing the picture into positive and negative triangles through a diagonal line. In an interesting way, he was anticipating an idea expounded by Australian art critics of the 1880s and 1890s in their discussion of the new plein air naturalism, namely, that the coast of south-east Australia had a Mediterranean and especially Italian feel, expressed above all through the quality of light.

It is interesting to observe von Guérard’s different approaches to representing the inner and outer coasts of the Mornington Peninsula. Here, the rugged depiction of the cliffs around Cape Schanck, facing out to the open sea, to Bass Strait and the roaring Southern Ocean, can be contrasted to his approach to representing the coast on the inner side of the peninsula, facing the calmer waters of Port Phillip Bay. In his Dandenong Ranges from Beleura, 1870, von Guérard offers an entirely different concept of view-making. The Beleura property, though less than thirty kilometres from Cape Schanck, was represented as a cultivated estate by the sea, replete with horse riders and dogs, which von Guérard’s Anglocolonial audience might have equated to the south-west coast of England, to Dorset or Devon.

Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

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  • Title: Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria
  • Creator: Eugène von Guérard
  • Date Created: 1865
  • Location Created: Melbourne, Australia
  • Physical Dimensions: w918 x h611 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with funds donated by Ian Hicks AM and Dorothy Hicks, John Higgins, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, 2006, National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Provenance: Remained with the artist until c. 1869; unknown private collection, before 1970; exhibited Clune Galleries, Sydney, 1970; with Elder Smith Goldsborough Mort Ltd, 1972; transferred to Elders IXL Collection, 1985; with Foster's Group Ltd, until 2006; from where purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria, 2006
  • Place Part Of: Australia
  • Additional information: The years 1865 and 1866 were busy ones for von Guérard, particularly as he wished to exhibit several major new pictures at the much-anticipated Intercolonial Exhibition that opened in Melbourne in October 1866, a celebration of the produce, activities and achievements of all the Australian colonies. This painting was one of two pictures by von Guérard now in the National Gallery of Victoria collection exhibited at the Intercolonial Exhibition to considerable acclaim. The Mornington Peninsula provided a rich source of picturesque views combined with sites of special geological interest, with the added advantage of being relatively close to Melbourne. The volcanic rocks forming the cliffs of Cape Schanck are basalt flows from extinct volcanoes around forty-five or fifty million years ago (Eocene). The vertical rock stack known as Pulpit Rock consists essentially of columnar basalt, the same geological feature and rock type seen at Fingal’s Cave in Scotland and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, both of which fascinated the early nineteenth century Romantics, especially German. It is likely that von Guérard was also drawn to Cape Schanck because of its proximity to Barragunda, a property belonging to his friends the Howitts. Dr Godfrey Howitt, the brother of the famous author and traveller William (who lived in the colony from 1852 to 1854), was also a well-known botanist and entomologist, and was – in common with von Guérard – a close friend of Ferdinand von Mueller. His nephew Alfred W. Howitt was an explorer with scientific interests, with whom von Guérard travelled into the remote mountain country of the Great Divide beyond Gippsland in December 1860.

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