State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011

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Two Paintings Depicting the Tragic End to the Victorian Exploring Expedition, 1860-1861

The News of the Deaths of Burke and Wills reached Melbourne in November 1861 with the return of Alfred Howitt's rescue party. The paintings reproduced are two of the many that depict (and helped immortalize) the tragic ending to the expedition. These two are on permanent display in the Cowen Gallery in the State Library of Victoria and the descriptions given here are based on those on the accompanying panels prepared by Michael Galimany.

William Strutt (1825-1915), 'The Burial of Burke'

Oil on canvas, 1911. 122.0 × 204.0 cm.

The following quote from The Australian Journal of William Strutt (1850-62) indicates the interest the Victorian Exploring Expedition held for the artist, as well as his careful attention to accounts of its fateful conclusion.
Preparations were now made for the burial, a scene most pathetic and impressive. Close to a box tree the grave was dug. The Union Jack, most fitting emblem for a brave man and soldier, was spread upon the ground, the skeleton (for the dingoes had devoured all else) was laid upon it, then lifted at the four corners by Mr. Howitt, Dr. Wheeler, Welch and Aitken, and reverentially lowered to its resting place, the old flag's ample folds enshrouding all that remained of the gallant Explorer. Standing near the head of the grave was Brahe. Howitt then read that solemn and sublime chapter, the 15th of Corinthians. With a lowering sky, the drooping leaves of the mournful looking box tree (destined as a grave mark) whispering a tremulous dirge in the gentle breeze, the earth was filled in, the initials of the deceased engraved by Welch in its soft bark, and the little party then buried also the mutilated remains of poor Wills, which lay not far off, and fetching King, they left for the metropolis, where a perfect ovation awaited him, there to relate as sole survivor the sad story of this fateful Expedition.
Strutt completed this painting in England many years after he made the initial drawings and studies – a study for the horses is also held in the Library's collection.
Alfred Howitt (1830-1908) had been sent by the Royal Society of Victoria to discover the fate of the expedition and brought King, the sole survivor, back to Melbourne. On this journey he located the remains of Burke and Wills and buried them both. A later journey saw his recovery of their remains and their transport to Melbourne, where they were interred in the Melbourne General Cemetery. Strutt initially hoped that the National Gallery of Victoria would consider the painting for acquisition under the terms of the Gilbee Bequest. In his journal, Strutt alleges that a showing of his early sketches prompted a Dr Gilbee to make a bequest in 1886 of £1000 to the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery. This was for the commissioning of
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a painting depicting an episode from either the Burke and Wills expedition or Captain Cook's arrival. With the consent of residual legatees, the Trustees allowed the capital to accumulate and in 1901 they were able to commission works illustrating both events. E Phillips Fox's 'Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770', was completed in 1902 and John Longstaff's 'Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the Deserted Camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday Evening, 21st April 1861', was completed in 1907. One can only assume that this must have been galling to Strutt, who by this time was elderly, in poor health, and had been working on 'The Burial of Burke' for several years. The painting was eventually displayed in London before being sent to Australia for exhibition. A report from London was recorded in the Argus on 14 August 1911:
The Burial of Burke is the title of a large historical painting just completed by Mr. William Strutt, the octogenarian artist . . . Mr. Strutt was one of the last to converse with Burke and to take sketches of him and of his companions on the morning of their departure on their ill-fated expedition. His latest work, which is now hung in the Royal Geographical Society's rooms, portrays the final scene in the desert; the explorer's remains, with the Union Jack as their shroud, are being reverentially committed to earth by members of the Howitt expedition. Their features are lifelike and authentic . . . Perhaps the day may come when this tribute to the great explorer may find a fitting place in Melbourne or in the future Commonwealth Gallery
For many years the painting was in the possession of James Richardson, a well-known Melbourne hotelier. How he came to own it is not known. An article discussing Mr Richardson was published in the Herald on 31 May 1956:
His one extravagance . . . was the mass purchase of stodgy, ancient Victorian-era paintings in heavy ornate frames. He had a theory they would return to popular favour and he would clean up in the upsurge in values. The cellars of most of his hotels were crammed with them. Instead of going up in value, they deteriorated to junk.
Fortunately this was not the case with this work – Richardson lent the painting to the Library for an exhibition in 1930 marking the 69th anniversary of the departure of the Victorian Exploring Expedition. It was then lent to the Victorian Historical Exhibition, also held by the Library, to coincide with the Centenary of Victoria in 1934-35. The painting was returned to Richardson in 1941 and his intention was to display it in the lounge of his Hotel Alexander (now the Savoy Park Plaza) in Spencer Street. In 1944 a donor, who had purchased the work from Richardson, presented it to the Library. The decorated painted slip, possibly painted at a later date in Melbourne, is by an unknown artist
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Eugene Montagu Scott (1835-1909), 'Natives discovering the body of William John Wills, the explorer at Copper's Creek, June 1861'

Oll on canvas, 1862 or 1864, 85.0 × 110.1 cm.

Aboriginal people had helped to keep expedition members Robert O'Hara Burke, Wills and John King alive by providing them with food and showing them how to prepare it, despite open hostility from Burke. This may account for their apparent wariness and curiosity. Eugene Montagu Scott succeeded Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) as chief cartoonist for Melbourne Punch in 1861. He executed two large paintings based on Wills' demise. The other work, 'The Death of Wills', was shown at the Melbourne Public Library Exhibition of 1869.