15 July, 2016

View from a hill

A couple of months back, I was contacted by a PhD student from Federation University who was undertaking some interesting research. He was on the trail of the famous European landscape painter, Eugene von Guerard.
Eugene von Guerard 1870-1874, by John Botterill,
Image held by the State Library of Victoria
Born in Vienna in 1811, Johann Joseph Eugene von Guerard arrived in Australia in 1852 to try his hand on the goldfields of Ballarat, however after failing to strike it rich he returned to doing what he knew best - drawing and painting, spending thirty years in Australia recording his surroundings. As he travelled across the country, von Guerard carried a sketchbook in which he made rough drawings of what he saw - the bustle of the goldfields, snippets of life in the Australian bush, expansive landscapes. A number of these sketches formed the basis of some of von Guerard and Australia's most important 19th century landscape paintings. Many of these paintings and the original sketchbooks have survived to the present day and their contents include a number of depictions of the Barwon, Moorabool and Leigh/Yarrowee Rivers.
Perhaps the best-known von Guerard painting of the Barwon River is View of Geelong which was purchased in 2006 by the City of Greater Geelong for $3.8 million and now hangs in the Geelong Art Gallery. Another well-known von Guerard painting, which hangs at the National Gallery of Victoria is titled Warrenheip Hills Near Ballarat and purports to show Mt Warrenheip in the background of a scene through which a small river is flowing - the Yarrowee.
Until recently, the exact location from which the original sketch upon which the painting was based, was unknown. Enter postgraduate student George Hook whose "thesis focuses on fidelity to nature issues in the paintings of leading nineteenth century Australian landscape painter Eugene von Guerard". By consulting a number of people with expertise in geology, art and the local region and undertaking some good old fashioned leg work, Hook was able to pinpoint the location of the rocky pool where von Guerard stood to make his initial sketch.
Warrenheip HIlls Near Ballarat, Eugene von Guerard, 1854, showing a little-
seen part of the Yarrowee River. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
As it happens, I had come across his research earlier this year whilst researching some of my "Making Tracks" posts when I discovered this article in the Ballarat Courier describing the find and a more detailed account in a blog post by Historic Urban Landscape Ballarat.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, I had also been following in von Guerard's footsteps. As I was later informed, a number of the photos I had previously used in my blog were taken from similar vantage points to some of the sketches made by von Guerard over a century and a half ago.
And so an extended discussion began between myself and George. Could I identify the location of any of the several sketches made by von Guerard of the Barwon River and one intriguing sketch of a part of the Moorabool Valley? Well, in several cases, yes I could, in general terms.
The first sketch to catch my attention was a broad panorama with the annotation (in German) "above Geelong looking towards Lake Connewarre". From which point is it possible to see both Geelong and Lake Connewarre? Well, on a clear day, from what is now Montpellier Park; one of those places I had stood to take photos of Geelong and the Barwon River. I hadn't really noticed previously, but yes, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the lake and even the faint outline of the Bluff at Barwon Heads. After some more discussion on the issue however, I had to rethink my original idea.
Could the view toward Lake Connewarre actually have been sketched from somewhere closer to Newtown? In retrospect, the angles of the river work better from there and some more discussion leads us to suspect that the sketch may actually have been made from somewhere near 'The Heights', the homestead erected for local businessman Charles Ibbotson in 1854, overlooking the Barwon River. Whilst this is speculation, it is quite possible that von Guerard may have met Ibbotson - perhaps through a mutual acquaintance. In April, 1854 when the sketch of Lake Connewarre was made, von Guerard also made sketches from the newly-built home of Frederick Bauer, a German ironmonger who also owned a property overlooking the Barwon River and who is attributed with having erected 'The Heights' for Ibbotson - more of whom later.
Above Geelong looking towards Lake Connewarre, Eugene von Guerard, 24th April 1854
The Lake Connewarre sketch was one of a number made from various elevated positions along this stretch of the Barwon by von Guerard who also spent time at the home of noted local businessman and land owner John Highett. It was here - across the valley from Ibbotson, that Highett built his home, 'Highton House' - later known as the Montpellier Hotel - the footings of which remain today. (In another odd coincidence, I find myself for the second time writing a post on this location on the same day that the peloton of the Tour de France pedals into Montpellier, France.)
Footings of 'Highton House'
Naturally, whilst staying with Highett, von Guerard drew his surroundings. Today, looking north east, it is still possible to see the same view recorded by the artist in an 1855 sketch which was worked into a pen and ink sketch in 1859 and which also bears more than a passing resemblance to the iconic 1856 painting View of Geelong.
Undated sketch from 'Highton House'
1855 sketch of Corio Bay, the You Yangs, the Barwon River and Geelong
The same view worked in pen and ink and dated 1859
View of Geelong, 1856
And the same view 155 years later in July, 2011 complete with von Guerard clouds!
In addition to these sketches, von Guerard made others which take in this same view but from other locations as he spent time at the homes and properties of various prominent Geelong citizens. Not all the locations however, were as easy to identify as this famous vista, requiring a little more detective work and even more leg work, uncovering some interesting local history in the process. Perfect fodder for my next post...

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