Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851
Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851 is considered to be one of Australia's most important colonial paintings. It depicts a devastating bushfire that struck Victoria in February 1851.
Many people died in the Black Thursday fire, which wiped out vast areas of the colony. The day resembled more-recent days of bushfire tragedy, with fierce northerly winds and a temperature anecdotally reported to be 47.2 degrees Celsius. The fire's glow could be seen by ships in Bass Strait, and the wind pushed smoke as far south as Tasmania.
Measuring 106.5 x 343cm, this large oil painting was painted by William Strutt (1825–1915), a Royal Academy-trained and widely travelled artist who lived in Victoria from 1850 to 1862, a crucial time in its history. He was a founding member of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts but, disheartened by his career prospects, he returned to Britain, where he continued to paint and exhibit.
Strutt painted Black Thursday in England 13 years after the fire from sketches based on observer accounts. Unlike his Melbourne paintings, which were robustly constructed with thick oil paints on chalk-based gesso, Black Thursday was painted in the manner of English artists of the time. The canvas is very fine and is primed with a thin layer of gesso. The paint layer is also very thin, the oil paint most probably diluted with organic solvents. In some places the pencil under-drawing can be seen.
A large and compositionally complex work, it shows groups of terrified people and animals fleeing the dense smoke of the advancing fire. In the foreground is a careful arrangement of dead animals, skulls and bones in a memento mori.
Strutt intended the work to end up in a public collection. The painting failed to sell, however, both initially in Britain and later when toured in the colonies. In the early 1900s the painting was bought by a private collector, and in 1954 it was sold at auction in Adelaide to the Public Library of Victoria (now the State Library of Victoria) for a modest sum (colonial art was unfashionable at the time). Ironically, it is now one of the Library’s most valuable paintings.