GEORGE ROWE AT THE DIGGINGS NEAR ARARAT, c.1858

IMPORTANT AUSTRALIAN + INTERNATIONAL FINE ART
Sydney
20 September 2017
2

GEORGE ROWE

(1796 – 1864)
GEORGE ROWE AT THE DIGGINGS NEAR ARARAT, c.1858

watercolour and gouache on paper on cardboard

63.0 x 186.5 cm

signed lower right: GRowe

Estimate: 
$250,000 – 350,000
Provenance

The artist, Exeter, United Kingdom
Thence by descent
James Arthur Rowe, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA until his death in 21 October 1922
Thence by descent
George Fawcett Rowe, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA until his death in 9 February 1952
Thence by descent
Elizabeth Rowe Holmes, Florida, USA until her death in 17 August 2003
Thence by descent
Private collection, New Jersey, USA, great-great-granddaughter of the artist

Exhibited

International Exhibition [Department of the Colony of Victoria, Australia: Mining, Quarrying and Metallurgy Section], London, 1 May – 1 November 1862, cat. 476
George Rowe, Artist and Lithographer, 1796-1864, Art Gallery and Museum, Cheltenham, United Kingdom, 21 August – 2 October 1982; Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, United Kingdom, 30 October – 11 December 1982 (reproduction exhibited, as ‘George Rowe on the Bendigo (?) Diggings’)

Literature

Blake, S., George Rowe, Artist and Lithographer, 1796-1864, Art Gallery and Museum, Cheltenham, United Kingdom, 1982, cat. 165 (illus.)

Catalogue text

The Victorian goldfields of the early 1850s drew all kinds of characters and talents to them, including London lawyers and professional artists. George Rowe had been High Bailiff of Cheltenham, and, as a master lithographer, one of England’s most successful producers of picturesque and topographical views. Like many, he sought to regenerate his family’s fortunes through gold. And like most, he soon realised that there was more to be made by returning to an earlier vocation. From the Castlemaine diggings in December 1852 he moved on to Bendigo, setting up a refreshment tent with the aid of his son George Curtis (later Fawcett) Rowe. When the rush to the McIvor digging robbed them of customers, Rowe turned to art. His success was remarkable, having difficulty keeping up with the demand for ‘some token of recollection … to be sent to England or America’.1 There was also demand for signboards, painted inscriptions on wooden tombstones, and flags to distinguish the miners’ tents. Son George Fawcett turned to the theatre, painted scenery, and performed at Bendigo’s Crystal Palace. He eventually established himself in England and the U.S.A, ‘where he made his mark both as an actor and as a dramatic author’.2

George Rowe’s first watercolours of the Bendigo diggings were generally small in size, a typical one being Australian Settlers’ Tents, 1853 in the Nan Kivell Collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra.3 A group of Aboriginal figures stand to the right and a dog sits guard outside one of the tents, characteristic additions found in many a later picture. At this time Rowe averaged two pictures a day, charging between one and five guineas each.4 In May of 1857, in the long room adjoining the Criterion Theatre, Sandhurst (the old name for Bendigo), he exhibited fifty of his watercolour views of Bendigo, Castlemaine and Forest Creek for an Art Union, also shown in Castlemaine and Melbourne. The Bendigo Advertiser reported with enthusiasm and at length: ‘In every instance the artist has succeeded admirably in a correct delineation of the scenes he has undertaken’.5 Works included views of Kangaroo Flat, Eaglehawk, ‘New-chum Gully’ and Sandhurst from Quarry Hill, 1857 (Bendigo Art Gallery). ‘Of all the pictures enumerated, which, with others, are all of well known localities in the Bendigo district, we feel it is impossible to speak in too high terms of praise’.5

Given to travel through the Colony, the following summer of 1858 Rowe made a sketching tour of the Western District of Victoria, its spectacular mountain scenery having attracted other artists of the stature of Eugène von Guérard and Nicholas Chevalier. The chief attraction was Mount William, the highest peak in the Grampians Ranges. Rowe recorded the visit in his diary, an extract from which was published by the Melbourne Age newspaper: ‘…the view of the Grampians and the Victorian Ranges repaid us for all our labour. I took a sketch…’.6 And again: ‘I sketched the scene and treasured up in my memory the glorious effects which I was privileged to witness, and hope someday to find time to depict them in another fashion’. While this passionate response and parallel details may suggest a connection with our watercolour and brilliant fulfilment of hope, the entries certainly illuminate Rowe’s interests and provide a fascinating insight into George Rowe at the Diggings near Ararat, c.1858.

Rowe felt passionately about Australia, its climate, landscape, native life and opportunities. He had intended to emigrate, bringing his family out after he had established himself. This enthusiasm for his intended new home spilled over into his earlier letters to his wife, Philippa: ‘… I now like the warm glow of the clear and brilliant sky. I have lived now long enough in the Colony to estimate the qualities of the climate and all that has been written on the subject is true…’.7 And again: ‘It is a new and enterprising country, one that presents under its abundant riches opportunities of accumulation of wealth, and open to the aspiring of ambition and genius…’.

The climbing party, which included Rowe’s young son Sanford, had set out for Mount William on the morning of 24 February 1858. While bad weather delayed the ascent, Rowe described the view with enthusiasm:

The scene from the summit of Mount William is as grand and picturesque as those to be viewed from any of the Alps of Europe. The setting sun lit up the massive basaltic rocks that shot up from the summit of the various mountains like columns of ruby – a gorgeous temple based the dark robe of misty forest gradually deepening with the blackest shadow, giving the appearance of unfathomable depth to the gorges of the mountain. The naked limbs of the great stringy bark trees so white and skeleton like – the solitude, the consciousness of being so far removed from the haunts of man – all tended to create a sensation of undefinable awe.7

Rowe’s sketchbook includes several figure studies for our watercolour – the young man aiming his rifle, the Aboriginal woman in front of her mia-mia, the dog, and himself busily sketching. On the way to Mount William, they had ‘Shot some beautiful parrots, commonly called the Blue Mountain’.8 In the watercolour, Sanford shoots at parrots. And the very horizon of craggy mountains, evident on the large sheet of drawing paper in the sketchbook, is similarly seen within the picture within the watercolour, further testimony to Rowe’s incredible attention to detail. The carrying tube nearby indicates that Rowe took these large sheets with him – presumably completing the sketch on the spot and later working it into the finely finished watercolour we see today. Moreover, the image of the artist at work within his own picture is a familiar touch in nineteenth century art; even Charles Conder introduced himself working at his easel in All On a Summer’s Day, 1888 (Art Gallery of South Australia, M.J.M. Carter Collection). Importantly, the artist’s presence gives an increased sense of authenticity, certifying his record of the scene. And a further interesting connection between written and drawn detail is mention of the ‘flat rock’ where ‘We put up our canvas’.9

The prominence given to the foreground group incorporates an act of homage to the landscape and its owners. Tall, bearded and well built, Rowe was a striking figure, admired by his contemporaries. He frequently shared his landscapes with the Aboriginal peoples, the presence of their mia-mia, home or camp, again paralleled in Rowe’s Mount William diary entry: ‘At evening we put up our mi-mi in a scrub at about five miles from the base of the mountain, roasted our parrots, and found them the most delicately flavoured birds we had yet met with’. The mia-mia and campfire can be read as a metaphor for the Aboriginal homeland. This respect and a willingness to share with the indigenous people are seen elsewhere. Of the four Aboriginal figures, three are clad in possum cloaks, the seated male in the foreground wearing a government-issue blanket, identified by its blue line. 10 Harmony between peoples and the land continues in the two standing behind the artist. The man shares the breathtaking view with Rowe; the woman looks at his sketch. The indigenous people of central Victoria, the Djab wurrung, were once of large numbers and rich in culture, having lived on the volcanic plain for tens of thousands of years. Rowe was not alone in these sympathetic views. Ruth Pullin, the Von Guérard scholar writing recently of the Indigenous people in Von Guérard’s painting, Mr John King’s Station, 1861, said: ‘…they are depicted both on their land, yet dispossessed of it –’. ‘Their anomalous situation [she added] is expressed in their contradictory apparel …’.11

Like Von Guérard, Rowe’s breathtaking, large-scale panoramas capture the pristine wonder of the great southern land. Each arrived in the Colony in late 1852 – both in search of gold. They shared a love of the sublime in nature, the grand view topped by towering mountain ranges, and a land of plenty peopled with life in harmonious accord. While their figures provided a sense of scale, they also expressed the romantic concept of the smallness of humans compared with the might and majesty of nature. Moreover, their empathy with Aborigines was nigh identical. The gold rushes brought disruption and deforestation, disliked by both as depicted by despoiled earth and endless tree stumps. Von Guérard’s masterly paintings of Mounts William and Abrupt belong to the years 1855 and 1856, preceding Rowe’s visit to the area. It was also the beginning of the era of the ‘exhibition’ watercolour. As Andrew Sayers has pointed out: ‘In scale and presentation water-colours came to vie with oil paintings. The enormous water-colours of John Gully, Nicholas Chevalier, George Rowe and Oswald Brierly were conceived on a level of ambition previously reserved only for oil paintings’.12

After Mount William, Rowe wrote: ‘We then shaped for Ararat’.13 Our picture, George Rowe at the Diggings near Ararat, c.1858 shows the Grampians Ranges as a backdrop of mountain splendour, the town of Ararat a little closer. Although gold had been discovered nearby in 1854, it was not till 1857 that a group of Chinese miners found the gold at Ararat that created the boomtown. Rowe had worked in the area before. His panoramic The Gold Fields of Australia, Mount Ararat, c.1857 (National Library of Australia) shows the figure of a shepherd and his dog reclining on a rocky ledge overlooking a valley, with Ararat beyond.14 The first settler in the Mount William area was Horatio Wills, who established a sheep run in 1840. A comparison of the town in the two pictures shows development consistent with the time difference, schools and churches being opened from 1857 on. A courthouse was built in 1859. In our picture, a scene of desolation after the alluvial rush, mining activities occupy the near middle ground, the abundance of water for sluicing and smoke coming from the many chimneys referring to the recent change in weather encountered at Mount William – ‘…a thunder storm broke upon us, and the rain poured down in torrents’.15 Canvas tents rub shoulders with more established buildings, a horse puddler, an isolated windlass.

The eye-catching presence of the group on the rocky outcrop is characteristic of Rowe’s panoramas where foreground incidents provide narrative and added liveliness. Rowe’s gaze, however, is directed not towards the grand scene he provides for his viewer, but to new horizons, adding credence to the thought that his interests ranged beyond topographical accuracy, providing an amalgam of ideas, including interpretation through heightened awareness, carried to a level unique in his art.

It is believed that these large panoramic views were painted from sketches after his return to England in 1859. Another of similar scale, Mount Arapiles, c.1858 (private collection) with its prominent Aboriginal figures, was also possibly sketched during this visit and finished later. Other grand-sized views include the mining scenes Old Bendigo, 1857, and Ballarat, 1858, the latter peopled with Chinese diggers. Both are in the Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.16 In 1862 Rowe exhibited ‘Six water-colour paintings of scenery in Victoria’ in the International Exhibition, London. Von Guérard showed six oil paintings in the same exhibition, one being Mount William from Mount Dryden, 1857, (Art Gallery of Western Australia).17 Rowe was the only artist to be awarded a medal, in the jurors’ words: ‘For faithful and beautiful delineation of the country, workings, and other relations of the gold fields’.18

1. George Rowe, letter to the artist’s daughter, August 1853, quoted in Blake 1982, op. cit., p. 29
2. ‘Death of Mr George Fawcett Rowe’, Bendigo Advertiser, 3 September 1889, p. 2
3. Watercolour on paper, 18.5 x 27.2 cm, NLA, NK1988
4. Blake, op. cit., p. 27
5. ‘The Bendigo Art Union’, Bendigo Advertiser, 15 May 1857, p. 3
6. ‘A Leaf from the Diary of an Artist. The Ascent of Mount William’, Age, Melbourne, 23 April 1858, p.4
7. Rowe, G., letter to Philippa Rowe, 1 and 5 January 1854, quoted in Reynolds, P., ‘George Rowe on the Bendigo Diggins’, La Trobe Library Journal, vol. 3, no. 12, October 1973, pp. 92 and 95
8. Age, 1858, op. cit.
9. ibid.
10. Pullin, R., ‘Eugène von Guérard’s Mr John King’s Station’, 1861, Estate of the Late James Fairfax, AC’, Deutscher and Hackett, 30 August 2017, lot 10, p. 55
11. ibid.
12. Sayers, A., Drawing in Australia: Drawings, Water-Colours, Pastels and Collages from the 1770s to the 1980s, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989, p. 83
13. Age, 1858, op. cit.
14. The Gold Fields of Australia, Mount Ararat, c.1857, watercolour, 65.5 x 156.0 cm National Library of Australia, Canberra, cat. PIC R6195
15. Age, 1858, op. cit.
16. Old Bendigo, 1857, watercolour, 61.6 x 154.9 cm; Ballarat, 1858, watercolour, 62.5 x 153.7 cm. Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, cats. DG3, 853583 and DG2, 888273
17. International Exhibition, London, 1 May 1862, Von Guérard cat. 475-4, Mount William from Mount Dryden, 1857 as ‘Mount William’
18. ’Awards of the Jurors’, Department of the Colony of Victoria, Australia, International Exhibition of 1862, London, cat. 476

DAVID THOMAS