Virginia Dahlenburg on 'Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851'
Speaker(s): Virginia Dahlenburg and Hamish Curry
Date recorded: 11 Feb 2011
Hamish Curry: Well, good evening everyone. Welcome to the State Library Victoria and to the Callan Gallery and to tonight's Collection Reflection.
Collection Reflection is a series here at the library that looks to uncover stories and research that have been done around our collections and then provide an opportunity, not only for people to learn more about the stories and that research, but also view items and actually have an opportunity to see things up close and personal and actually meet very interesting people like Virginia here.
Virginia Dahlenburg: Hi.
Hamish: Tonight's Collection Reflection is about Black Thursday. Obviously, the painting sitting behind us. And our guest this evening is Virginia Dahlenburg, who is the Senior Conservator of paintings here at the Library and was a very fortunate recipient of a Gordon Darling Fellowship. And when was that Virginia. Was that 2008?
Hamish: Oh, what 2004. Right?
Virginia: I think. Or five. I don't know I didn't research that bit.
Hamish: It's quite a while ago
Virginia: I don't remember.
Hamish: So, we're going to have a conversation about the painting and I suppose find out more about what Strutt did with this.
I guess one of the other things to mention at this point too is that this event this evening is also a part of the Emergence Out on the Move 2011 festival, which is happening down at Federation Square at present. Which is a series of artworks commemorating the Black Saturday bush fires. If you haven't been down to have a look yet the, the artwork there is actually quite incredible. It's really amazing what the artists have put together for that exhibition.
So I suppose the most logical place to start is the painting and the Black Thursday and Black Saturday actually are quite significant in the dates themselves and also the fact that their ferociousness and the fires were also quite similar. What can you tell us about that, Virginia?
Virginia: Well, it's not just them. There's also there was Black Friday, the 1939 fires, and then Ash Wednesday. Although that one was in January. I've got the dates of all of them.
Black Thursday's the first one that we know of. Which was the 6th of February 1851. Black Friday was January the 13th 1939. Ash Wednesday was the 16th of February 1983, and I remember that one. And Black Saturday, February the 7th.
So we have a period of a few weeks where our history shows that we're inundated with, you know, fires across Victoria. It's not just that now. We've also noticed you can have floods across Victoria in this time.
Hamish: Yeah, yeah.
Virginia: But Black Thursday. We're here to talk about Black Thursday and Black Saturday and they are a day apart. They're 150 years apart.
Virginia: But it's very significant the kind of strength of these…and ferocity of these…fires and the time that they happened. You know, February is danger time here in Victoria.
Hamish: It certainly is, yeah. One, one thing I noticed in your research. I noticed this word that kept coming up, or a pair of words called the Apocalyptic Sublime.
Virginia: Yes, hm.
Hamish: What, what is this about and how does this work?
Virginia: Yeah, the Apocalyptic Sublime is a term that's used to describe artworks that, a period in art, where artists painted predominantly painted works that reflected apocalyptic events. Fires, floods.
It all started with the first French Revolution in 1789 and it went through to about the second French Revolution of 1848 and the Communist Manifesto. There was a whole period serious unrest across Europe and which stemmed from political unrest, economic downturn, the haves and have nots. It was just, it was ugly over there. And so people started to…artists started to paint these artworks that showed nature dominating us. And it was a reminder that these, that terrible events will always happen and they had a religious bent. So it was more that there is a kind of vengeful god if we don't behave ourselves.
Virginia: And that was an attempt to explain the kind of unrest that was fermenting over there. But here it manifests itself in a very Australian way, bushfire. But it, most of the events over there tend to be hellfire, brimstone and an awful lot of floods. But now we understand them as well. But that's what apocalyptic sublime means. That it's this period of huge, very, very large, very traumatic events in paintings.
Hamish: Was, was the purpose to, to commission these in order to remember them, or to use them as, as influence for something else?
Virginia: Influence. It was a kind of a religious influence.
Virginia: To remind us to behave. We haven't had the kind of apocalyptic flood that is described in the bible but that's the kind of floods that they painted. You know?
Virginia: ‘Only the good will be saved.’
Virginia: And these are what the hell fire and brimstone paintings are implying too, ‘only the good will be saved’.
We look at this in a much more secular way. I can't look at a painting of a bushfire. I can't look at this and think only the good are being saved here, because it's not only the bad that die. So to, to view in a religious context only, I think is unhelpful but that's the way these paintings were originally…that's what they're originally done for.
Virginia: That, you know, the good will survive, or you know, the good might die but they will go to heaven because they've been good so,
Virginia: That's apocalyptic sublime. It's, it's a terrifying, it's supposed to be beautiful and terrifying, whereas I just look at it and think it's terrifying.
Hamish: Yeah, which is probably why then paintings like this are then difficult to house somewhere because you kind of putting them on public display or public show that…
Virginia: Yes, yes.
Hamish: You're sort of celebrating it in a sense, aren't you?
Virginia: Yeah, the, the religious imagery was meant to frighten you into behaving.
Hamish: Hmm, yeah. So, I suppose no, no discussion of Black Thursday is going to be complete without talking about the man behind the painting which is William Strutt.
Hamish: So, tell us a little a bit about him and his background.
Virginia: William Strutt was born in 1825, and in about, well not in about, in specifically, well I could look, but I'll just, I think it's 1833. His family moved them all to France. His father moved them all to France. His father was a religious pastor of, some kind of, not a, not your main religion, I think he was a little bit off beat, but he was also a very well-known miniature artist. Oh, I should say miniaturist because every time I say miniature artist, I keep thinking he's this tall. And you can see his influence in Stutt's work, but we'll get back, we'll get to that later. So, at the age of eight he moved to France and by 15 or 13 he was enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts, the best French art school, where he was a classically trained artist. And the family stayed there in France until 1848, which was the second French Revolution.
Virginia: And France was up in arms then.
Virginia: And his classical training was also juxtaposed with the romanticism of the artists like De La Croix, who were painting paintings that related to the French Revolution, the first one of ‘89. So he grew up in France in this period of turbulence. But by 1848, I think his father realised that it was getting a bit dangerous over there, and they moved back to England. But in 1850 his father got ill and then died only a few days before Strutt got on the boat to Australia. And so, he left there leaving everything behind him thinking, but it was also a typical thing for artists to do then too, go travel the world,
Virginia: See what happens. There was the influence of Orientalism where they all went off to the Middle East and painted these amazing things.
Well, he went one step further. Rather than be like De La Croix and go to the Middle East, he came to Australia. So, he arrived here in July in 1850. And as he said, full of grief and melancholy because his father had died, and he was, you know, miserable, and he'd left everything behind. And he got here in July, and I, we've all been in Melbourne in July and it can be melancholic. But by February of the following year, he was here to witness this event. So he was still only 25 and it must have been a huge shock.
Hamish: Yeah, it was.
Virginia: He got here at 25. Got a job as an illustrator and I know somewhere, it's written here, where is. The Illustrated Australian Magazine was his job as an illustrator. And then, as I said, just in February, when he'd only been here for six months, he witnessed this extraordinary event.
Virginia: Although he didn't witness it per se, because Black Thursday was a brush fire that spread across Gippsland and he was here in the city.
Virginia: But it affected everyone in the city because the effects of the fire were so profound that everybody knew here what was going on, or knew something was going on and. Oh that's right you were going to ask me about…I seem to be rambling already.
Hamish: No, no, no, that's all right. I was going to actually ask you more about his style, because very often artists their style evolves, it changes, or they, they remain consistent. So, what was, what was Strutt's style and how did it evolve through his paintings?
Virginia: Well, this painting, although it depicts a scene from 1851, wasn't actually painted till 1864. But, you can see in looking at most of all of, almost all of his works, the classical influence. They're very fine detailed. Of course, we have in this room with us, an example that is completely different. Down at the end we have the Burial of Burke and that's painted when he was almost a thousand years old. If I do my maths I can work out, but I think he's about 90. But, it's, it's typical of a painting that isn't like this.
Virginia: Because he was so old by then, it's different. But we have other portraits in the red rotunda. You can see this cool, classical influence. It's very classical. The, it's all beautifully set out. The canvas is very fine, they're just so. This painting particularly. The ones done in Australia are on a broader weave canvas and they're more robust. This painting was painted in England and it has a lot of the French influence that he would have got from his early training. But, I assume that's because this was done back in England where he had access to, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, finer materials than he would have been able to get here.
Virginia: So the, the canvas that he uses here is more robust. But, it was probably what was available here. Although they had very good canvasses available here-
Virginia: That one is much finer and is a much finer oil paint layer than the other paintings that we have here that were done here in Melbourne. There were more robust paint layer. Thicker paint.
Virginia: Bigger. More detailed.
Virginia: But you can see the, the hand of a man that is a beautiful illustrator.
Virginia: That has great drawing and design skills and everything is beautifully laid out. He made beautiful pre-drawings. He made hundreds of drawings for this painting.
Hamish: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Virginia: But as I said, it was 15 years from the, oh 14 years, from the event to the time he actually began the painting.
Virginia: So, he made hundreds and hundreds of sketches for this.
Hamish: And that's quite common with a lot of paintings that we have in the Cowen Gallery-
Hamish: That very often they're not as if a photograph, they're very often painted decades after such an event.
Hamish: So perhaps then coming back to it, what were some of Strutt's impression of Melbourne and particularly the experience of Black Thursday?
Virginia: Well, one of the first things he says was that at noon on the sixth of February it was 117 Fahrenheit, which when I translated it is 47.2 degrees Celsius, which is bloody hot.
Hamish: That's really hot, yeah.
Virginia: And I've actually got some quotes from him where he says, ‘I can never forget the morning of that scorching Thursday. Ever-after memorable in the annals of the colony as Black Thursday. The sun looked red all day, almost as blood, and the sky the colour of mahogany. We felt in town that something terrible, with the immense volumes of smoke, must be going on up country. And sure enough, messenger after messenger came flocking in with their tales of distress and horror. The terrified squatters and settlers hastily made their escape, leaving everything. It was a stampede for life. Animals, flocks of birds, amidst the flying sparks, and in the stifling smoke dropped dead from terror and exhaustion.’ He went on to say, ‘I'm told ships in the bay sat terrified as sparks and embers landed on their decks, or in their sails, setting them to blaze. Religious or not, you could hardly fail to think that this might be the end of days.
Virginia: And in the painting, you can see here, where he says ‘birds and animals drop dead from terror and exhaustion’, we have birds here that I must say don't look like they've been flying through smoke, because being Strutt he has depicted them as beautifully as he can, but they have just dropped dead from sheer exhaustion.
We have, what I call the flying kangaroo here, which…there is a bird behind it…which is what makes it look like its got wings. So if you get up closely, you can clearly see it's not a flying kangaroo. But that, you know, the exhaustion, animals just giving up, because it's terrifying and I think they just dropped dead from stress.
Hamish: Well, and even that, even that quote you read of-
Virginia: Which in 47 degrees I would too.
Hamish: Yeah, that's right. I mean even that quote you read of Strutt’s. It's almost as if he's, he's used that clearly as a mission to capture in this painting-
Hamish: You know, years later. So, you really get a sense of, of the event through, through the painting.
Virginia: Well, next quote.
Virginia: I’ll just. No I’ll just, when he said, ‘when I returned home here to London, I still couldn't get that day out of my mind. I felt of painting it from memory and from reports I had clipped from newspapers. Many of the unfortunates that made the papers are here in the painting, in what must be the worst day of their life.’
Virginia: So yeah.
Virginia: It's, it stayed with him and it terrified him, as it would.
Hamish: And it rings true for, I mean, it probably-
Virginia: All of us.
Hamish: All the other bushfires that you mentioned.
Hamish: Now obviously, when painting, you've started to talk about some of the birds and our dear flying kangaroo, but there are a number of symbolic and religious references that probably many people wouldn't, wouldn't be familiar with.
Hamish: What did you discover in your research that kind of brought some of these stories to light around what he's trying to insert into this painting?
Virginia: Well, I should first of all say that I had no religious instruction growing up, so most of the religious information I got came from our dear Director, Shane Carmody, who knows more about religion. I'll just stop there. Ha, but anyway, gave me a lot of help.
The, the, one of the first bits I'll talk about, I hope when I turn around everyone can hear me, is up here. What we have is a Heron. But it clearly looks, even to an untrained religious eye, like the dove, which represents in religious imagery the holy spirit of Paraclete.
Virginia: And that's really obvious. And we also, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in…here we have lots of, obviously lots of horsemen, but Jesus is supposed to be on a, uh, I'll just check my notes because I don't want to get this wrong. Okay. In chapter six of the book of Revelation it predicts that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will ride and that Jesus, with or without a halo, will be on a white horse.
In this painting our hero is clearly on a white horse.
Virginia: And he is wearing a straw boater, which can look like a halo depending how you look at it, but, and also he's rescuing a women. So he couldn't be in a more heroic, it couldn't be more heroic symbolism. So, that may or may not be religious imagery, but I read it that way and I umm, I think it is.
Virginia: Now, we've also got. Oh, I've mentioned the, the dove. Tongues of Fire is another one. Over in the corner here we have what I like to think of as tongues of fire. And the tongues of fire are a representation also of the Holy Spirit. And it comes from tongues of flames, which is when the Apostles were speaking to crowds and winds came down and there was a great wind and there were tongues of flames descended on them and, thereafter, the apostles had the miraculous power to speak in tongues, which meant that everyone in the audience, no matter what their language was, understood what the apostles were saying to them. And that's where we get the speaking in tongues from. And these here I think very much look like tongues of fire. So that again I think is part of the religious symbolism in the painting.
And also down the bottom here. When I said before that Strutt prepared numerous, hundreds of drawings, he did one big preliminary sketch, which is in the National Library. And this painting is almost identical to that, except for a few little bits down on the end there where he changed things and this bit in the middle, which is a memento mori. Now that means that we, to remember our mortality. And so this bit he has put in later. And it's typical, the kind of dead animals and bones are to remind us that we are all going to die. And so that again is religious symbolism.
Virginia: You know, it couldn't be clearer.
Hamish: Yes, doesn't memento mori translate as ‘still life’. Doesn't it?
Virginia: Well no. It is. It's used to mean still life.
Hamish: You mean…
Virginia: But it actually translates as ‘remember your mortality’.
Hamish: Okay. Hm.
Virginia: Or it's a Latin phrase, yes. So, but it is also used as a term for still-life imagery.
Hamish: Yeah, within this, within this particular memento mori. We've got this strange sort of…
Virginia: My, my theory.
Hamish: Yes, this strange sort of skull and bones here.
Hamish: And I, I really like your take on this. It's, I think it's quite interesting.
Virginia: I like my theory too.
Hamish: I, I like it.
Virginia: But it is still only a theory, because I haven't done enough research on it. This skeleton doesn't actually represent any kind of skeleton that we know of.
This head is not a normal head. It's not a cow's head. It's not a skull's head. And Strutt was a brilliant artist and could paint. We've got brilliant skulls here. So, he knew how to paint a skull. So, the fact that this does not actually represent any known animal, I think it's meant to represent a camel. And I think this leads us into Burke and Wills.
Strutt was here, still here in 1860, when the Burke and Wills Expidition set off from Melbourne. And his great friend Ludwig Becker was with the exhibition and…
Virginia: Expedition. Sorry. Thank you.
Hamish: And there was a cavalcade of animals and people and 30 camels were imported into Victoria, this was the first time camels were brought into Victoria, for this expedition.
Virginia: As we know, Burke and Wills died, and I think that the camel has been put in. Oh and this, the other thing is that this event is 1851, so there can't have been camels here in Victoria at the time. So if he has put, if this is meant to be a camel skeleton, it is clearly a reference to Burke and Wills, because there were no camels in Victoria.
Virginia: of course it may not be a camel skeleton, this is just my hypothesis, but I think it is there to remind us that even camels, the ships of the desert, will and can perish in the, against the, you know, the kind of devastation of fires.
Virginia: And the ruggedness of our country and our, you know our nature here.
Virginia: We're all up against it.
Virginia: And I think that's the, the point of the skeleton. I have sent the images of this to, to palaeontologists, gee I hope that's the right word, and everyone's come back to me saying it isn't anything that we know of. So that's why I'm thinking it's his representation of what a camel skeleton would look like. Because he knew what a camel looked like, because he'd painted lots of them, but he didn't know what the skeleton is.
Virginia: So, this is my hypothesis that I haven't gone any further with, but I think it makes it more interesting for me if not for everyone else.
Hamish: Well, yeah and probably even coming back to them, the burial of Burke down the end there.
Hamish: It actually ties in that, that mortality and, and Burke and Wills actually rather nicely.
Virginia: Yes, yes.
Hamish: So, for us it works well.
Virginia: Yeah, it does, it does. That's how it came to me.
Hamish: Well and, and speaking of, well, how it, how it came to the library, actually. The provenance of the painting itself is quite interesting because Strutt had some difficulty in, in, well, finding anyone that wanted it, didn't he?
Virginia: By the time he painted it in England, the period of apocalyptic sublime was going out of fashion anyway. And also, not many people in England were particularly interested in a painting of the colonies. And this didn't, you know, it didn't suit them and it was exhibited in England for a couple of years and then it came back to Australia. And it was…it went back and forth between a couple of people, but really it, it languished. Nobody particularly wanted it, and in 1954 we bought it. And I can't remember what we paid for it. But I think people over there would know, but that's not really relevant either.
Hamish: Mm, no.
Virginia: But it was relatively cheap, all things considered.
Virginia: Because it was unfashionable and it wasn't considered particularly important. Only now are looking back and going…we have a very limited amount of history of white settlement, you know, a very limited amount of time here…and so only now we're starting to recognise the importance of these kind of things, because they tell our history.
Virginia: And only now, on the last, you know, short period of time, has this been recognised as the kind of masterpiece that it in fact is.
Virginia: And, but, you know, nobody wanted, and even Strat actually said there's one of his drawings of which is a sketch for the hero, the one on the white horse. He wrote on the back, ‘The fools do not value the original work in Melbourne’, and then he went on to say, ‘it is perhaps small wonder that the colonialists do not want this painting. It is a terrible memory made visible for eternity. Perhaps I would not want it either, were it not all that I can see when I try to sleep.’ And that, he wrote years later. So clearly he was still tormented by his own apocalyptic event.
Hamish: Yeah. Yeah.
Virginia: So umm. Mm.
Hamish: Yeah. It's. I mean again, it’s very powerful words that then tie back into both the painting and subsequent bush fires and-
Virginia: Yes, oh,
Hamish: The memory of them is-
Virginia: We know the terror. I was going to tell, I was thinking before of, I was here in Melbourne for the 1983 bush fires and I remember at the time going outside and looking at the sky and thinking, this is terrifying, it's bright orange and it's full of dust, and, but I also thought it's miles away from me, I'm safe. But, not long after, I was overseas. This is such a weird story, but you'll see the relevance when I get there.
I was in Norway and I woke up one morning and I looked out the window and I screamed and jumped and ran, and I started to run across the bedroom and then I went, you're in Norway. It's snowing. I had looked out the window and thought ash was falling from the sky and there was a bush fire, and in fact it was snowing. And I thought if I can respond like that, and I wasn't even in a bush fire, how terrifying must it feel? Because my first thought was to flee.
Virginia: I thought, what must it be like to actually be in one of these? I mean, I've only ever been on the periphery of this kind of torment, but these kind of things display to us, you know, show us it’s, it's a terrifying thing that stays with you forever.
Hamish: That's right.
Virginia: And you deal with it however you deal with it. And he dealt with, you know, what he saw, by painting this one. And he referred to this painting as his magnum opus. You know the greatest thing he could do. But it still is, you know, it's a memory of a terrifying event.
Hamish: Yeah, and probably well suited to his style as a miniature artist, because-
Hamish: Of the depth of the detail on the painting means that you can go, keep going closer, and keep discovering new elements to it.
Virginia: Oh, there's more and more in there, all the, the closer you look, the more you see.
Virginia: And you can stand back and get a view of the, you know, whole thing, but there's, there's terror in all the, all of his…there are little animals in here, when you get up to their eyes, you know, they're clearly terrified…it's every little image that he's painted in here is, is its own portrait of terror, in a great big painting of terror.
Hamish: Yeah, yeah.
Virginia: I, sorry, I have one more quote from him where he went on to say, ‘This is the country the empire has claimed as its own. This land of opportunity and gold. We have been settlers though and explorers in hell. That's all. And this black Thursday should remind all such that the devil will have his due.’
Virginia: And, you know, he clearly always came back to this painting and how it was God's wrath against us for whatever. But I would. I view it in a more secular light. This is just, you know, the nature, the power of it and what it can do and we must never forget that. And that's why memento mori is so powerful. We, you know, we must be reminded. It will always happen. It always has.
Virginia: It's, the tragedy of life will always exist and then, you know, but fortunately there is also rebirth after this kind of thing.
Hamish: That's right. Well I must say Virginia, it's been lovely chatting with you about the painting and it certainly very interesting to learn more about it. So, please thank Virginia for coming on this evening and sharing Black Thursday.
Hamish: And we'd now like to invite you to join us, not only to have a closer look at the painting and perhaps have a further chat with Virginia, but we've also got in our manuscripts room a whole range of items from the State Library of Victoria's collection related to various bush fires that we've mentioned this evening. Including the Condolence Book that was written for the bush fires in 2009.
So, thank you for coming. And please feel free to come and have a closer look at the painting and further items in the library. So thank you and good evening.
'It was a stampede for life; animals, flocks of birds amidst the flying sparks and in the stifling smoke, dropped dead from terror and exhaustion.'
- Virginia Dahlenburg
About this video
Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851 by William Strutt is a dramatic painting that depicts the terror and flight as people and animals tried to escape one of the worst bushfires in Victoria’s history.
Join senior conservator of paintings Virginia Dahlenburg to learn about a style of art known as the ‘Apocalyptic Sublime’.
Listen to dramatic excerpts from a letter by artist William Strutt that describes the terrifying day when temperatures soared to a scorching 47.2 degrees Celsius.
Discover how the painting resonates with recent accounts of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.
Virginia Dahlenburg is the Senior conservator, paintings at the State Library Victoria, and is a recipient of the Gordon Darling Fellowship.
Virginia is interviewed by Hamish Curry, Library and online learning Manager at the State Library of Victoria.