For German-born artist Eugene von Guérard the Australian landscape represented a real, lived experience and a vehicle for evoking personal and contemplative ideas. His remarkable image of a fern-tree gully in the Dandenong Ranges, some 40 kilometres east of Melbourne, conveys a sense of the landscape as a spiritual sanctuary. In this painting von Guérard showed the landscape as a rejuvenating life force, untainted by human interference. When he first visited the Dandenong Ranges the area was a dense bushland of temperate rainforests and cool fern gullies. We know from sketchbooks held in the collection of the Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, that von Guérard visited the region twice between 1855 and 1857 and again in 1858.1 The pages of these books contain a number of drawings which document the lush and largely unexplored forests. This natural resource of high-quality timber was rapidly logged for the growing industries and settlement in Victoria.
Painted on return to the artist’s Melbourne studio, Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges is a work that combines von Guérard’s meticulous observation of local plant species with his artistic interest in compositional arrangement and the creation of a ‘mood’ particular to this environment. In this case we are privy to the magical world of a bower – an enclosed gully of natural foliage created by towering tree ferns. A pool of light on the forest floor leads us to two male lyrebirds cast in shadow, one with its characteristic tail feathers raised – a natural mimic of the arch of the fern fronds. The theatrical activities of the lyrebird were one of the early drawcards for tourists to the area, who hoped to witness the singing and dancing of the male bird.
Von Guérard’s painting received much positive acclaim in the Melbourne newspapers and a few years after the work was completed, ‘fern tree gully’, located close to the Fern Tree Gully Hotel, became a popular tourist destination, especially during the summer months. The residents of Melbourne sought the sanctuary of the cool green gullies and active birdlife for their leisure. The work was exhibited at the 1862 International exhibition in London where it was noted as an example of the natural beauty and scenery of the colony.
1 Tim Bonyhady, Australian colonial paintings in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1986, p. 171.