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