Turner to Monet
The scene is idyllic; abundant cabbage-tree palms sway on the beach as sea fowls soar above Pellew’s Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In December 1802 the Investigator, under the command of Captain Matthew Flinders, sailed into the Gulf, continuing its arduous circumnavigation of Australia. Aboard the sloop was the young artist William Westall, who produced a wide range of sketches during his Australian voyage. Upon his return to England the Admiralty commissioned nine oil paintings of New Holland, including View of Sir Edward Pellew’s Group, Gulph of Carpentaria 1802.
Art historians such as Bernard Smith have recognised that this is an innovative and remarkable painting.1 It is notable both for its heightened sense of light and the well-defined horizontal lines, delicately intersected by palms. In standard Picturesque paintings the foreground is dark and brooding, receding to a light background, usually with one tall feature, such as a tree or a mountain, placed at the side to frame the composition. By placing the palms in the centre of a sun-drenched vista, Westall negates this customary sense of recession and avoids neatly enclosing the scene; instead it is left open, clear and light.
Painted nearly a decade after he was in the Gulf, Westall has made significant alterations to the original pencil sketch.2Most obvious is the addition of the mia-mia, a small shelter under which are housed rangga, sacred objects. In his account of the voyage, Flinders mentions ‘a small monument’ made up of ‘two cylindrical pieces of stone’, as well as nutmeg ‘growing upon a large spreading bush’ and ‘a pretty kind of duck’, all incorporated into Westall’s work.3
For the artist, the ‘monument’ and other additions are useful because they give the painting that variety and interest demanded of Picturesque landscapes. Westall was clearly aware of Picturesque formulas when he made the changes to his original rough sketches. While in Australia scientific accuracy was Westall’s priority, in London the paintings were intended to win him artistic acclaim. According to theorists such as William Gilpin, the Picturesque should stimulate the imagination to reverie or admiration, and must include a variety of elements. Westall believed the real Australia contained none of these fundamentals: he was scathing in his description of the ‘barren’ coastline, writing that his New Holland subjects could neither ‘afford pleasure from exhibiting the face of a beautiful country, nor curiosity from their singularity’.4 It was therefore incumbent upon him to use his artistic skills to compensate for the dull landscape by making improvements and adjustments.
View of Sir Edward Pellew’s Group, Gulph of Carpentaria 1802 is an intriguing work. Westall has conformed to the Picturesque, adding the obligatory variety and interest, while also demonstrating how a new aesthetic can evolve in a new land.
1 Bernard Smith, European vision and the South Pacific, 2nd edn, Sydney: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 196.
2 Collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra.
3 Matthew Flinders, A voyage to Terra Australis, London: G. & W. Nicol, Vol II, 1814, entry for 25 December 1802.
4 Letter from William Westall to Sir Joseph Banks, 31 January 1804, Banks Papers CY3008/171-6, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.