Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
John GLOVER | A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains

England 1767 – Australia 1849
Australia from 1831, with visits to England
A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains
[A corroboree of natives in Mills' Plains]
oil on canvas on board
56.5 (h) x 71.4 (w) cm
frame 71.7 (h) x 87.0 (w) x 5.0 (d) cm
Morgan Thomas Bequest Fund 1951. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

When Glover arrived in Hobart in 1831, the thirty-year conflict between the Tasmanian Aborigines and the European settlers was nearing an end. During this time George Augustus Robinson – the appointed Protector of Aborigines – had been relocating the majority of two hundred Indigenous people to Flinders Island. Only two months before he left Hobart for his new property of Patterdale in northern Tasmania, Glover made two group portraits showing twenty-six members of the Big River and Oyster Bay Aboriginal tribes before their transfer to Flinders Island. They became the subject of a number of significant paintings. Painted in 1832, the year of his move to Patterdale, A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains is Glover’s finest and probably earliest Aboriginal subject. Although the artist’s sketchbook contains a corroboree drawing for this landscape, he could not possibly have seen such an event on his property. As there were probably no Aborigines left in the area and certainly not enough to engage in a corroboree, the gathering is painted from his memory as well as his Hobart sketches.

Of the artist’s numerous Aboriginal landscapes this is his first and his most moving and haunting, with its revelations of Glover’s sympathy for the departed Tasmanian Aborigines. Here he depicts an imagined re-creation of a corroboree within a romantic setting. The giant native tree, silhouetted against the sky, is bent and dying as the sun sinks, and so becomes a metaphor for the fate of the ancient race. Eight dancing and standing men holding spears, five seated women, two children and what appears to be an infant are gathered beneath the towering eucalypt. Dwarfed beneath the gum they appear almost to be ghosts of a former civilisation. Although Glover has taken possession of the land, it is not without some sense of guilt. And certainly, the theme of dispossession haunted Glover for the rest of his life as he re-created at least twenty such landscapes with Aborigines.

Glover’s Patterdale paintings are ultimately based on the landscape devices of Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet and, particularly, Jacob van Ruisdael. But in A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains the mysterious and ominous mood of the painting emulates the wildly romantic landscapes of Salvator Rosa and his depictions of wind-blasted trees and banditti (Italian outlaws). Finally the dusky and lurid sky echoes the highly romantic evening landscapes of Glover’s fellow countryman Joseph Wright of Derby.

Though this is probably the first oil painting depicting Tasmanian Aborigines, Glover’s artistic forerunners in New South Wales had already painted night corroborees. Given the demise of the eighteenth-century concept of the ‘noble savage’ – which presented native people in light-filled arcadian paradises – it is not surprising that these images placed Indigenous peoples in a more ominous night light. Dances and ceremonies were presented as curious and heathenish while Indigenous people were represented as something to be feared and civilised by Christianity. Even so, the European settler’s envy is also expressed at their apparently happy and non-materialistic life. A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains can be seen as Glover’s valediction to a dying race. Traditions of European landscape art, romantic notions of the noble savage and his own Christian confidence in the face of paganism, enrich his melancholy testimony to the passing of a lively Aboriginal civilisation.

Ron Radford

Adapted from Ron Radford and Jane Hylton, Australian colonial art: 1800–1900, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 1995, pp. 68–70.