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