In 1888, the Australian Centennial of European settlement created an increased public interest in Australian history and fostered a desire to develop a particularly Australian culture. It was generally a nationalist view of the bush created by city dwellers. Streeton did not portray subjects of life on the land with the figure playing a dominant role, as did Frederick McCubbin or Tom Roberts, but he did paint many images of masculine labour, such as the men blasting the tunnel in Fire’s on 1891 and the surveyor in A surveyor’s camp 1896. The selector’s hut (Whelan on the log) is another such picture. As Mary Eagle has pointed out, this painting can be read as telling the story of a man on ‘the road to wealth’, a hardy pioneer who has selected a lonely patch and has been busy clearing the land and making his home in the makeshift hut behind him.1 The summer wind blows up the dust on the ground and stirs the leaves, while magpies whirl in the translucent blue sky.
That is the story that Streeton tells us in this picture; but the facts behind the making of the image are diffferent. The man who posed for the picture was Jack Whelan, the tenant farmer of the Eaglemont estate, and the environs were not the native bush but the outer suburbs of Melbourne, where the artists had their camp. Moreover, when Streeton painted this picture the speculators, who owned the land and proposed to redevelop it as housing blocks, were far from the road to wealth as they were having difficulties selling the land because of the financial crash of 1889–90.
Many of Streeton’s viewers, however, would have accepted the fictional message of this image, as suggested by his title, and would have viewed Whelan as representing one of the many selectors who pegged out their own farms in order to ‘civilise’ the bush.
1Mary Eagle, The Oil Paintings of Arthur Streeton in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p.56.
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