State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 21 April 1978


Becker's Portraits of Billy and Jemmy (Tilki)

Dr. Ludwig Becker (1808–1861), the artist and naturalist with the Great Exploring Expedition of 1860–61 led by Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills, produced a number of sketches of Australian Aborigines. Most of those known are in the La Trobe Library collection. Recently, two miniature paintings of Aborigines were mistaken for Tasmanians,1 for Becker during his eighteen months in Tasmania had sketched some of the last of their race. But these two fine portraits, Jemmy (not Jimmy as noted elsewhere) and Billy, were definitely not Tasmanians, according to literary and other evidence available.2
Both were mainlanders.3 Billy was a Victorian, a servant of Dr. Youl in Melbourne, and a native of Port Fairy.4 He would therefore have been a member of the Gunditjmara tribe.5
Jemmy,6 whose tribal name was Tilki, was a Murrayian native, probably a member of the Tati-Tati tribe which occupied the area around Kulkyne station, on the Victorian side of the border, and Mount Dispersion, near Euston, on the New South Wales side.7
Dr. Richard Youl had taken up the Kulkyne (or Gayfield) run on the Murray River at Chalka Island in partnership with Robert Roe Orr in July 1854.8 Tilki was, according to Becker, in 1854 at “Kalcyne” station on the Murray.9 This evidence suggests that these portraits might have been previously in the possession of, or at least known to the Youl family, who apparently employed both natives. Dr. Youl was, in 1854, also acting Coroner in Melbourne and a visiting justice to penal establishments. He should have presided at the inquest on Captain John Price but withdrew because of his friendship with Price.10 Becker as a dispassionate observer had shown some interest in the murder, attending the hanging of one of the prisoners,11 and acquiring his manacles,12 and one might suppose that he was in contact with Youl because of their mutual scientific interest in any deviations from the norm.
The La Trobe Library acquired the two portraits by gift from C. H. Simson, of San José, California, on 29 October 1934. It would appear likely that the donor was descended from either the well known overlanding Simson family,13 which had a number of German connections and extensive pastoral holdings in the Western District, Albury and Loddon Valley, or the Simson brothers, of Trawalla and Langi Kal-Kal.14 Either family might have been connected with the Youls by marriage or friendship and could have acquired the portraits through them, if not direct from Becker.
The portraits, beautifully painted in water colour and body colour, indicate a discipline that might have been influenced by the Biedermeier style of genre portraiture in vogue in Germany prior to 1848. Like his friend and compatriot, Eugene von Guérard, Becker showed compassion for the native people and as late products of the German Aufklarung they adopted an intellectual attitude to studies of Aboriginal life unlike many of their English and French counterparts who had sketched them in all styles ranging from the noble savage to the most grotesque caricature. The Germans portrayed them as flesh and blood human beings with a realism and dignity rarely, if ever, surpassed in colonial likenesses of Aborigines; sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, sometimes with a faraway look in their haunting eyes. Becker's are more natural persons than von Guérard's, although his two young men are neatly dressed and well-groomed, and presented with a line as sophisticated as only the Paris-trained William Strutt achieved when painting the native Australians who had accepted the western way of life.15
As these are to date the only known mainland Aboriginal portraits taken by Becker before those executed during the Great Exploring Expedition, they might have been those Becker exhibited at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1854 held in connection with
Portrait of Tilki, a native from near the mouth of the Darling River. When I took his likeness, in 1854, his age was twenty years. His general appearance is like the former's, with the exception that the skin is a little darker, the hair more curly, nose shorter, mouth smaller. His height is five feet seven and a half inches. One tooth in front of jaw is missing, in consequence of a ceremony performed on reaching manhood. His tribe does not know the boomerang; their chief weapon is the spear (rocki), thrown with the assistance of the yunka (the woomera of the blacks near Port Phillip), the kalke (waddi), and the shield (woomi). They have only one word for hair, beard, eye-brows, eye-lashes — viz., gras. While I was drawing this well-formed man's profile, I observed that the thumb of his left hand was in a crippled state, and asking him the cause of it, he answered, ‘I was a child and on my mother's back, when she, with other black women, searched for mussel-fish on the Murray near Mount Dispersion. There some men belonging to Mitchell's exploring expedition fired into us, and a musket ball carried off part of my thumb, which never grew afterwards so well as the one I have left here on my right hand’. The historical fact just related by him enabled me to put down his exact age, which seldom or never is known to themselves. Tilki (his native name) was in 1854 at Kalcyne, a station on the Murray.
(Ludwig Becker, artist and lithographer, see note 3)
Portrait of Billy, a native from Port Fairy. The likeness was taken by me from life in 1854. His age was eighteen years; height five feet two inches; complexion, light chocolate-brown; flat nose; jaws, very much projecting; mouth, large; lips, sharp, edged with a reddish hue; teeth, complete and pure white; chin, small and receding; well-shaped eyes, the iris nearly black, the white of the eye has a light yellowish tint; eye-lashes, long and black; head, well formed; forehead, rising nearly perpendicular from horizontal; black and busy eye-brows; hair, jet black and full. His voice is a fine manly baritone. Chest, broad; neck, short; powerful arms; legs, not very full or fat, but strong and a little outwards bent, so called O legs, in juxtaposition to the X legs. He was formerly in the native police force, and afterwards servant of Dr. Youl in Melbourne; left his native place when a boy.
(Ludwig Becker, artist and lithographer, sec note 3)
the Paris Exhibition of 1855.16 The newly formed Victorian Society of Fine Arts sponsored Frank Newton's exhibition of colonial art held at the Exhibition building in December 1856 and Becker again exhibited miniatures of natives which the critic of the Herald noted were “highly meritorious, and deserve to be shown where they could be better seen and appreciated”.17
Becker's attitude to the Aboriginal people was well ahead of his time. At a meeting of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in September 1858, he described certain aspects of ethnographic interest and exhibited native skulls, necklaces and weapons, stating that “our own Aborigines in Australia are of a much higher class than is usually and wrongly stated in works treating of the same subject”.18 He made some noteworthy remarks regarding their general appearance and that their “want of fat was not always a sign of want of strength … if natives receive sufficient food and shelter during the cold season they improve their physical appearance very soon … hair jet black and when combed and oiled falls in beautiful ringlets down cheeks and neck … a peculiar odour is perceptible, but not for want of cleanliness …”19
He appeared as a witness before the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Aborigines and agreed that, although they were inclined to intemperance, he largely blamed publicans for providing them with spirits, sometimes gratis. They were certainly “not below the average intelligence of all other uneducated masses of nations”.20
Becker extended his interest to a scientific analysis of native skulls, reiterating that these people had an intelligence and a way of life not then appreciated by his contemporaries.21
He also sketched a native corroboree in Victoria22 and natives appeared in small groups in his Bendigo sketches. He later produced a number of fine miniature portraits of Aborigines from various tribes in New South Wales met during his journey with the Burke and Wills Expedition.23
Marjorie Tipping


See The Tasmanian Aboriginal in Art exhibition catalogue, Tas. Mus. and Art Gall., Hbt. 1976, p. 9.


Mr. Alan West, curator of Anthropology in the National Museum of Victoria, confirmed these findings on scientific grounds before other evidence was discovered.


Becker's portraits of both Billy and Tilki, engraved by F. Grosse, and with Becker's descriptive comments, were included in Votes and Proceedings: Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Aborigines: together with the proceedings of committee, minutes of evidence, and appendices, 3 Feb., 1859, opp. p. 88. They were also reproduced in the engraved form in The Victorian Monthly Magazine, July, 1859, together with an article ‘The Condition of the Aborigines’, pp. 230–241. In a recent publication, ‘Lament for the Barkindji (Adel., 1976), Bobbie Hardy has used the engraving of Tilki (opp. p. 48). The original paintings do not appear to have been reproduced elsewhere at all.


V. and P., op. cit., p. 88. If Billy was only 18 in 1854 he could hardly have been one of the native police as Becker implies in his note, but might have been a junior attendant in the force which was disbanded in 1852.


Tindale, N. B., Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, Canberra, 1974, tribal map.


V. and P., loc. cit.


Tindale loc. cit. The reference in Becker's note is to Major Thomas Mitchell's third expedition on 24 May, 1836, when members of his exploring party tragically dispersed the natives who had gathered at Lake Bananee, killing seven as they fled to the river. His party had recognised some of the natives as having been at Laidly's Ponds, in the heart of the Barkindji country, on the expedition of the previous year. On that occasion several natives had been killed or wounded. See Mitchell, Thomas Livingston, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, etc., Lond., 1837, II, pp. 101–104. It would appear more likely that the Tati Tati, who had some cultural and linguistic affinity with the Barkindji, and often roved far afield, were then visiting the Bankindji with goods they hoped to trade than that the Barkindji were visiting the Tati Tati.


Billis, R. V., and Kenyon, A. S., Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip, Melb., 1974, p. 210.


Becker did not record actually meeting Tilki on the Murray, although he could have during one of his excursions with scientific colleagues. It is just as likely that Tilki, like Billy, was working for Dr. Youl in Melbourne.


A.D.B. VI Melb., 1976, Richard Youl entry by Ann M. Mitchell, p. 450.


Victorian Supreme Court Records of Criminal Sessions, 1854.


Mackaness, George (ed.), The Australian Journal of William Strutt, A.R.A., 1850–1862, II Syd., 1858, p. 24.


Aust. Enc., VIII, pp. 133–4, Simson entry; Billis and Kenyon, op. cit., pp. 139–40.


A.D.B. VI, Melb., 1976, Robert Simson entry by J. Ann Hone, pp. 127–8; Billis and Kenyon, op. cit., p. 140.


The Victorian Parliamentary Library holds most of Strutt's fine water colour portraits and sketches of Victorian native police. There are some also in the Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, and in the National Library, Canberra. Most of these were taken in 1850–51 and among them are several of a member of the Port Fairy tribe, Corunguium.


Catalogue of the Melbourne Exhibition, 1854, in connection with the Paris Exhibition, 1855, Melb., 1854, Item 294.


9 Dec., 1856.


Trans. Phil. Inst. Vic., III, Melb., 1859, p. xxi.


loc. cit.


V. and P., op. cit., p. 82.


V. and P., op. cit., p. 88. See also Bonwick, James, The Wild White Man and the Blacks of Victoria, Melb., 1863, pp. 30–31.


Reproduced with a descriptive note in News Letter of Australasia, XII, June, 1857, p. 1, and in other periodicals.


These, together with Becker's other artistic works and scientific observations made during the Expedition, are the subject of the present writer's book, which is to be published by the Library Council of Victoria in association with Melbourne University Press.