A Panoramic view of the Ballarat Diggings
Austrian-born artist Eugene von Guérard (1811–1901) was one of Australia’s foremost landscape painters. His meticulous interpretations of the Australian landscape are important in the development of Australian as images which document the country’s growth and transformation during the colonial era.
Von Guérard was trained in a tradition that recorded and celebrated the wonders and diversity of nature. Initially trained by his father, a miniature portraitist, he worked in Italy before studying at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. Driven by his formal education and the teachings of the German explorer and philosopher Alexander von Humboldt, he aimed to capture landscapes with scientific accuracy.
In 1852 von Guérard left Europe for Australia, lured by the gold rush and the excitement of exploring the new world. He made his way to the Ballarat goldfields where he spent over a year working as a digger. During this time, he kept extensive field sketches, notes and diary entries detailing the sights, sounds and experiences of the goldfields. These sketches are now valuable documents showing the harsh working life of the gold diggers as well as the natural environment of the region.
After moving to Melbourne, von Guerard travelled extensively throughout south-eastern Australia, sketching and documenting the landscape. The field studies he made on these expeditions have become invaluable records of the continent in the early years of white settlement. His work captures idyllic vistas of the Australian bush as well as the erosion of land and vegetation caused by both man-made and natural forces.
In 1870, von Guérard was appointed the first Master of the School of Painting and the first curator at the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1882 he left Melbourne and returned to Germany.
In early 1854, von Guérard sat on a ridge and sketched the central part of the Ballarat diggings below him. Thirty years after von Guérard made that initial sketch, Ballarat businessman and art patron James Oddie commissioned him to transform the sketch into a finished painting.
At the time of painting Old Ballarat, as it was the summer of 1853–54 von Guérard was living in Germany. To complete the painting, he relied on the accurate and precise documentation of his original sketch and notes from his time on the Ballarat goldfields.
von Guérard meticulously documented the beginnings of a township, translating his original sketch onto canvas making only minor changes. In a letter about the painting to art critic James Smith, von Guérard listed elements of the township which still exist today, including St Alipius, Ballarat’s first Catholic Church, and the Main Road leading from the diggings to Geelong.
The work documents aspects of daily life in the tent city. A large circus tent sits to the left of the centre of the painting and a bullock cart moves across the flat. In the foreground we can see Dr Wills, father of the explorer WJ Wills of the Burke and Wills expeditions, hanging out his washing. The artist has also added details that reference Ballarat’s history – in the middle ground a flock of sheep refers to William Yuille‘s sheep station which occupied the land where the diggings sits. von Guérard has also depicted the tension between diggers and police on the goldfield. As he explained ‘I have introduced on the right hand a string of Diggers, escorted by Police, being led to the Lockup at the Commissioners Camp, arrested for neglecting to take Diggers licenses. These arrests were one of the chief causes of the riot of 1854.’
The landscape with Mount Warrenheip in the background shows the impact of gold mining on the landscape. The forest that would have once filled the scene is now receding into the background. Where the rich gold leads run underground, the earth has turned into barren mounds. The growing tent township was built on the banks of the Yarrowee creek, polluting its clean water. von Guérard wanted to show the reality of what he saw in the landscape, including the impact of white settlers on the environment.
Other works by Eugene von Guérard in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ballarat
That’s the Styl Mary 1854
oil on canvas
Purchased with funds from Cecil and Kathleen Toy and the Ferry Foundation, 1989
Golden Point Ballarat, and flat, with part of Black Hill as in July 1853 1874
oil on canvas
Gift of James Oddie, 1891
oil on canvas
Gift of Lady Currie in memory of her husband, the late Sir Alan Currie, 1948
Frame conserved with funds from Michael Stubbs, 2013
The Basin Banks, near Camperdown 1857
oil on canvas
Gift of Lady Currie in memory of her husband, the late Sir Alan Currie, 1949
Vom publick haus zu Ballarat, 18 Feb 1854 1854
pencil on paper
Gift of Mrs Martell, 1938
Engravings and lithographs including Australian Landscapes: A Series of 24 Tinted Lithographs Illustrative of the Most Striking and Picturesque Features of the Landscape Scenery of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia & Tasmania 1867
Victorian Curriculum, History, Historical Knowledge, Level 5–6
Look closely at Old Ballarat as it was the summer of 1853–54 by Eugene von Guérard. Imagine stepping into the painting and back in time. What do you think life would be like living on the Ballarat goldfields? Discuss what sounds and smells you might experience and what weather conditions and challenges you might face.
Think about the role of Artists on the goldfields. Do you think artists were as important as shop keepers, miners and blacksmiths? Explain your response.
Victorian Curriculum, Visual Arts, Respond and Interpret, Level 9–10
VCE Studio Art: Aesthetic Qualities
VCE Art: Structural Framework
View Old Ballarat as it was the summer of 1853–54 by Eugene von Guérard then read through Eugene von Guérard’s letter to James Smith on the painting of Old Ballarat (resources tab).
Choose one of your own artworks or another artwork from the Art Gallery of Ballarat collection and write a letter or email to your teacher explaining the artwork in detail. Explain the scale of the artwork, the composition of the artwork, the details within the artwork, how the art elements and principles have been used to create mood or feeling, the materials and processes used to create the artwork, the style of the artwork, who the intended audience is and how it is to be displayed.
Victorian Curriculum, Visual Arts, Respond and Interpret, Level 9–10
Compare Old Ballarat as it was the summer of 1853–54 by Eugene von Guérard with Aunty Marlene Gilson’s painting Mount Warrenheip and Eureka Stockade 2014. Make sketches of each artwork. Make notes of the similarities and differences between the two depictions of Ballarat during the gold rush. Which perspective tells you the most about the stories of the Ballarat goldfields? Why?
Field sketches were an important aspect of von Guérard’s practice – as he travelled, he made field sketches documenting the landscape. He later chose sketches to turn into more resolved paintings, prints and drawings.
Create a tour itinerary of interesting sites around your school, neighbourhood or town and then follow your tour itinerary, completing field sketches along the way.
Select one image to develop further into a painting, print or digital drawing, documenting the making process as you go.
Exhibit your work as part of an exhibition that explores your drawing expedition.
Paying an artist to create an artwork
The way the artwork is constructed, which may include applying commonly accepted techniques and rules, such as dividing the scene into foreground, middle ground and background and the Golden Ratio, a system for dividing up a scene and placing the main subjects along intersecting lines.
Drawings and sketches completed on location. You could take field studies in the bush or city, whist on holidays or even around the house. Artist use field studies to help decide on the subject matter, composition and design of artworks.
Eugene von Guérard wrote regularly to James Smith, a very influential Melbourne art critic, who acted on James Oddie’s behalf when he commissioned the painting from the artist in Germany. In October 1884, von Guérard wrote this letter to Smith to let him know the painting was finished and to describe the key features of it and with instructions for the framing.
Düsseldorf Capell Strasse 30
29 October 1884
Dear Mr. Smith,
At last I am able to send you news of the completion of the painting of old Ballarat, as it was the summer of 1853 to 54, after having worked almost uninterruptedly for three months. The sketch which I possess of Ballarat at that time, is a small, highly finished drawing, only one foot in length, and I was very glad I had a long clear summer’s day before me when I began the picture. You may imagine I did my best to paint this subject as faithfully and correct as possible, regarding historical record of my dear old Ballarat. In order to keep the colour of the picture in accordance with the season when I made the sketch (in the height of summer) I had to give the grass a yellow tone; and to make it less monotonous in the centre, I have introduced partial shadow of the clouds. The great number of tents and the many figures, was a long and tedious piece of work, for which I was obliged to use much stronger spectacles than usual. I hope the gentleman who kindly gave me the order and you, will be satisfied with the painting and that a number of old Ballarat men, still living, may recognise their stores and tents from the forms and positions of them in the picture. I have done all I could to give a true representation of how Ballarat looked at that time. Like all artists, I am the least able to judge whether I have been successful. In a few lines I wish to explain the chief objects of interest in the painting. Beginning on the left hand side of the painting: next to the first isolated tree, is the tent with a small cross on the top, this was the first Catholic church ‘St Alipius’; next to it passes the road to Eureka and Brownhill Diggings, and beyond on the hill the edge of the forest, which extends over the distant Warrenheip hill and to the right of the picture in the direction of Buninyong, etc. The large tent in the flat represent Rows circus, the many various larger and smaller ones, stores and tents for amusement etc, etc, on the main road to Buninyong. Showing above and between them the Gravelpit lead, sloping down the hill to the flat, being still actively worked in its lower parts; beyond the line on the hillside is a large tent, which I believe, was the protestant church. To the right of the flat, with old surface diggings, at the foot of Goldenpoint, in the Valley leading to Prince Regent’s gully, runs the road to Buninyong. I am very sorry that I possess no drawing prolonging the view over Goldenpoint itself, with the Old Post office, but I could not attempt to paint anything from memory in order to get this point into the picture which so far is a faithful portrait of old Ballarat, taken from the Commissioners Hill, near Bathes Public house (afterwards Craig’s Hotel). In the foreground, one sees some characteristic tents; one partly dug into the sloping ground and another with an awning over it, as was used in summer. With regards to the figures, enlivening the scene, I have introduced on the right hand a string of Diggers, escorted by Police, being led to the Lockup at the Commissioners Camp, arrested for neglecting to take Diggers licenses. These arrests were one of the chief causes of the riot of 1854. Not having yet heard how long the pictures which I sent to Mr. Fletcher took on their voyage out by the Hamburg line of steamers, I think it preferable to send this one via London by one of the Oriental or P&O boats, and I hope the difference in freight will be very small. I shall not prepay the amount charged, as I think it better only to pay after the safe arrival of the case in Melbourne. The packing in a well made treelined case, I will superintend personally, so as to be certain that everything is done in perfect order. I did not exhibit the picture here, because a painting of that kind, without a frame, is not likely to produce the desired effect, besides our public does not take an interest in landscapes, which are not Italian, Norwegian or German. Foreign and especially Australian pictures of such specially local interest as the view of Ballarat would not be understood neither as regard to subject nor the color. A few friends who saw it considered it a very interesting painting, descriptive of the early time of the Australian Diggings. If possible I should be very glad if a frame of a good width and depth could be made before the arrival of the picture, being desirous its owner should only see it when properly framed as the subject especially requires a surrounding which relieves monotony. The exact size of the canvas is 541/4 length X 291/8 inches in height. The ornamentation of the frame should be small to be in keeping with the small objects on the picture. I am sure you will do your best for the presentation of my work…