State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 62 Spring 1998

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Henry Short, Our Adopted Country, ‘In memory of the lamented heroes of the Victorian Expedition’ 1861. Purchased 1986. [H86.106 LT 1083], La Trobe Picture Collection.

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The Language of Flowers: Henry Short's Our Adopted Country

Henry Short's painting, perhaps more than any other in the Collection, is a puzzle for the viewer. At first glance, it appears as yet another still life painted by an immigrant English artist drawing on inspiration from Dutch seventeenth-century still life painting. Little is known of Short's career before he arrived in Victoria in 1852, at the age of 45. It is evident from the titles of the works exhibited in Melbourne prior to 1861 that the still life was his preferred subject matter, and there has been some private speculation that he may have been employed as a decorator of porcelain.
In Our Adopted Country Short uses still life to reinforce the myth which grew out of the failure of the Burke and Wills expedition — the death of heroes while undertaking a preordained course of action. The myth-making began as soon as the fate of Burke, Wills and Gray reached Melbourne on 2 November 1861 ‘No conqueror dying on a field of battle could earn a fame more pure or glorious,’ wrote the Argus. 1 A letter from the artist to the Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barkly, survives in the Public Record Office.2 In it, Short gives a detailed description of the work:
The picture has Fruit & Flowers on a marble slab, in the centre of which is a large silver vase with the three portraits of Burke, Wills and Gray — Burke being prominently in the centre — In a garden, in which the slab is supposed to be, I have brought closely up from the back, a monument on which are inscribed the words “To the memory of the Lamented Heroes of the Victorian Expedition”. At the base, on the side seen, I have placed the Goddess Mors with a moth, and at her feet is Old Time with his scythe — resting on this, is a vase, on a portion of which is an angel trumpeting forth the fame of the 2 Heroes Burke & Wills, who are lying dead, with mourners over them, enveloped in clouds — To complete the picture I have placed a miniature portrait of King hanging over a basket in a gold locket—3
The portraits of Burke and Wills are based on ambrotypes by Thomas Adams Hill, now in the Mitchell Library. These unique images were transmitted to the public through mezzotints by Henry Samuel Sadd after the photographer, published in Melbourne by Fergusson & Mitchell in 1861.4 Portraits of the heroes were in wide circulation by the end of 1861.5
The ‘monument’ in the garden is a cinerary urn or receptacle for human ashes, and it symbolizes death and mourning. Death is represented by the figure of Mors. In Greek mythology Thanatos, or death, was masculine, but in Roman mythology the figure became female. She holds a wreath in her hand, given to victors and heroes, and usually made of laurel or bay leaves. Death has certain attributes, a scythe and an hourglass, which are shared with Time. Short's ‘Old Time’ has a scythe, which cuts life short. This attribute is a result of confusion by the Greeks of their word for time,
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chronos, with their old god of agriculture Cronus, whose attribute was a sickle, which eventually became the scythe of Father Time.6 The central silver vase and cover has the three portrait miniatures surrounded by pearls, which have attributes of purity and virtue. The golden urn on the right has a warrior on a rearing horse. Death is often represented engaging a soldier in combat, or pursuing another who flees on horseback.
The profusion of fruit and flowers is not mere Victorian horror vacui.7 The bunches of grapes, both black and white, symbolize fertility as well as sacrifice — they give wine, which when red is the colour of blood.8 Grapes also symbolize the Eucharistic wine, and hence the blood of Christ. The apples, pomegranates, peaches and other fruit are traditional Christian symbols found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art, and were adopted with the same allegorical meanings by Dutch artists in the seventeenth century. Short uses them with the same effect. The apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge and hence symbolizes the Fall and the loss of earthly paradise. The pomegranates on the right of the painting are symbols of resurrection and immortality, while the peaches symbolize the coming of spring, eternal renewal and hence long [eternal] life.
Red carnations are symbols of the blood of Christian martyrs, and white of purity. The convolvulus trailing over the cloth in the foreground is a symbol of humility. Ivy, being evergreen, symbolizes eternal life and immortality, but can also symbolize death because it sucks life from any tree which it climbs. The red rose is another symbol of the martyr's blood. Insects too are significant. The moth of Mors and the butterfly both symbolize the soul, and when represented as chrysalis and caterpillar, represent the stages in man's life.
Our Adopted Country is more than history painting. It may be unique in Australian colonial art as an example in the European tradition of memento mori. Its elements remind us of the emptiness of life and its transitory nature. It commemorates the hero but warns: ‘Remember man, thou art but dust, and unto dust thou shalt return’.
Christine Downer

1

Argus, 5 November 1861, p. 4, col. 3.

2

VPRS 1096, unit 13, file S2862. On 16 April 1862, Short wrote to Barkly asking him to take shares in the Art Union to dispose of the painting. A note dated 4/4/62 records that the Governor agreed to take two shares.

3

Ian MacFarlane of the Public Record Office kindly drew this letter to my attention.

4

Copies acquired by the Library in 1904. Burke (H 5411) and Wills (H 5412).

5

Tim Bonyhady, Burke and Wills: from Melbourne to Myth, Balmain: David Ell, 1991, pp. 192–93.

6

James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, rev. ed. London: John Murray, 1979, p. 119.

7

Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Image: Australian Painting 1800–1880, Sydney: Ellsyd, 1987, pp. 90–91.

8

J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, London: Routledge & K. Paul. 1962, p. 116.