For migrants in colonial Australia, the process of colonisation frequently required and gave opportunities to re-order the landscape, investing it with new meanings and associations. The wool and sheep industries, in particular, provided the chance to imagine the Australian colonies according to a pastoral ideal.
The imposition of European notions of property enabled colonists to possess and inscribe on the Australian landscape their own Scottish culture and identities. The naming of places gave the Australian landscape social and cultural significance for Scottish migrants, and constructed reference points for identity in an alien environment. This has been a favourite topic of mine, and I have written quite a bit on the subject. Another way in which Scots could ‘reimagine’ the Australian landscape was via illustration and painting; art also helped Scots to maintain a connection with their homelands.
Colonial Scots purchased artworks by Scottish painters for their homes, and Australian public institutions acquired numerous pieces of Scottish art – particularly Highland landscapes – for their own collections. This is how Australian institutions have come to possess a number epic works of Scottish landscapes and subjects.
Art provided chances to reimagine the Australian environment, too. Many of Eugene von Guerard’s landscape paintings in the 1850s and 1860s were commissioned by Scottish pastoralists in Victoria and New South Wales. Argyllshire-born Highlander Walter Clark had von Guerard paint his property in the late-1860s.
In the east of Victoria, the infamous Angus McMillan commissioned von Guerard to paint the Gippsland landscape. Born in Skye, McMillan led some of the most notorious massacres of Indigenous Australians, murdering hundreds in a single day. Interestingly, von Guerard included Indigenous figures in the landscape of McMillan’s Gippsland property.
James Dawson, from Bonnytoun, had a particularly close relationship with the painter, and commissioned some of his most well-known pieces, while von Guerard counted many other Scots as patrons. His paintings of the Grampians and Victoria’s Western District were substantially informed by the writings and sketches of the Scottish explorer, Thomas Mitchell.
The Knockiemill-born amateur painter, Joseph Panton, also applied his talents to a depiction of the Grampians mountains in the 1850s. This mountain range in western Victoria — known as Gariwerd to Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali people — were re-named by Mitchell after the Grampians in Scotland. They now carry both Indigenous and European names.
And the work of another Scottish artist in Australia, James Carse, was said to be greatly influenced by ‘the sombre bracken-browns of the nineteenth-century Scottish landscape artists.’
One of my favourite pieces of ‘Scottish’ art is John Glover’s Ben Lomond. By the time Scots were migrating en masse to Australia, much of the Scottish landscape had been transformed by widescale deforestation and depopulation. This was especially the case in the Highlands, the landscape of which often shaped (in sometimes subtle ways) the views Scots had of Australia. Rugged Highland mountains and landscapes became shorthand for Scotland as a whole, and the stereotype was applied to other parts of the world. Glover’s Ben Lomond, from around 1840, is a good example of this, even though Glover was not himself Scottish. It treats Tasmania’s northern ranges as something of a Highland scene — indeed, a group of Highlanders are shown sitting around a campfire, in tartan, as a member of their community brings a kangaroo on which to feast.
What makes this image a truly Antipodean hybrid is that in almost all of Glover’s other works the place the Highlanders occupy in the foreground is taken by Indigenous Australians. Art historian Alison Inglis wonders, ‘Should the Highlanders be understood as mirrors of Indigenous people: both races perceived as ‘noble savages’ who have suffered oppression from invaders? Or are the Scots themselves the invaders here, agents of dispossession?’
Beyond landscapes, Scots also painted and drew everyday life in the Australian colonies. Some of the most well-known depictions of squatters, for example, are by Alexander Dennistoun Lang, who was born in Overton, Dunbartonshire, in 1814, and was one of the first settlers in the Portland Bay area of the Port Phillip District (later Victoria). These are some of the earliest depictions of life as a squatter in the area.
Scottish-born Charles Archer also painted watercolours of his own experience in Queensland, living alongside his many brothers who took up land near the Fitzroy River in 1841.
Apart from everyday life as a migrant in the Australian colonies, some of the earliest arrivals — such as the convict artist Thomas Watling and the Governor John Hunter — contributed significantly, through their botanical and natural illustrations, to scientific understandings of Australia and its flora and fauna. Indeed, there are hundreds of examples of Scottish art and artists in Australia, and many of them were featured in the 2014 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, For Auld Lang Syne (which I reviewed for History Australia; the accompanying catalogue and symposium publication are also worth a look).
More broadly, art provided a way for Scots to view Australia through their own eyes — was there a distinctly ‘Scottish’ way of seeing the Australian landscape? — but also, in paintings of Scotland hung in homesteads and galleries, allowed them to maintain connections with home.