In 1860–61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills set off to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, leading an expedition of 19 men. The mission succeeded in reaching the north coast, but both Burke and Wills perished on the return journey. Only one man, John King, successfully crossed the continent and returned to Melbourne to tell his tale.
This famous painting by Strutt depicts the burial of Burke by Alfred Howitt, who led an expedition to discover the explorers’ fate. Strutt completed this painting in England many years after he made the initial drawings and studies. He completed a small version soon after the expedition's fateful conclusion was known. This smaller version belonged to Howitt, who appears in this painting as the bearded man in the white shirt and waistcoat. Howitt brought sole survivor King back to Melbourne, and made a later journey to recover the explorers’ remains, which were interred in the Melbourne General Cemetery.
Strutt initially hoped that the National Gallery of Victoria would consider the painting for acquisition under the terms of the Gilbee Bequest, which provided funds for the commissioning of a painting depicting an episode from either the Burke and Wills expedition or Captain Cook's arrival. E Phillips Fox's ‘Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770’ was completed in 1902 and John Longstaff's ‘Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the Deserted Camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday Evening, 21st April 1861’ was completed in 1907.
One can only assume that this must have been galling to Strutt, who by this time was elderly, in poor health, and had been working on ‘The burial of Burke’ for several years. The painting was eventually displayed in London before being sent to Australia for exhibition.