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image icon 'Melbourne from across the Yarra'

'Melbourne from across the Yarra'
Art Gallery of South Australia

Description

This is a watercolour painted in 1854 by Ludwig Becker (1808-61), that takes in a view of the city of Melbourne from across the Yarra River at sunset. All the action is compressed into the bottom half of this small, but highly detailed painting (the work measures 13.7 cm x 21.8 cm). The city, a bustling jumble of civic buildings, shops, warehouses, factories, hotels and residences, rises as a backdrop to the newly built Princes Bridge. Figures and horse-drawn vehicles are crawling like ants across the bridge. Below them (on the right), a steam boat is making its way up the Yarra. Cows and figures are grouped near the marshlands that border the river. To the left and in the immediate foreground are onlookers, some clearly Chinese, standing near a tent. Some are hard at work carrying baskets slung on poles across their shoulders, but others are looking across towards the city.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a good example of a form of topographical art that was common during the early- to mid-19th century in Australia - this involved artists making illustrations of penal settlements, farms and private houses, and recording the growth of towns and cities as tangible symbols of civic pride and progress
  • is an excellent example of the illustrative skills of one of the most talented and versatile artists working in Victoria during this period - Ludwig Becker was one of a number of significant, European-trained artists who came to Victoria because of gold; he tried his luck initially on the gold fields, but settled in Melbourne in 1854 to practise his art and follow scientific interests; in 1860, he joined the Burke and Wills exploring party as the expedition's artist and died on the journey
  • demonstrates Becker's particular skills in combining topographical and illustrative realism with picturesque styles of expression - the foreground figures, cows, bridge and even the barely sketched buildings are described with economical detail; the dramatic placement of the bridge, massing of dark tones, use of silhouettes in the foreground to frame the view, and soft, pearly colours to capture a sense of fading light, indicate the artist's intention to create visual poetry
  • includes several details of topical social interest - in the foreground are well-dressed men and women, fishermen, and industrious Chinese, as well as grazing cows
  • depicts specific sites of historical significance - the view is taken from the Government Domain, near the present-day Botanic Gardens; on the highest point of the city can be seen the tower of the pre-gold-rush Anglican Cathedral of St James (now relocated to King Street); the bridge that dominates the view is the then-new Princes Bridge, the pride of metropolitan public works, a favourite subject for artists and photographers, and the focus for many public events, including Easter Monday celebrations, river carnivals and rowing regattas
  • shows new technology of the period - the gas lamps visible on the Bridge had recently been installed
  • captures the optimistic spirit of Melbourne on the move - the discovery of gold in Victoria in the early 1850s had a remarkable effect on the growth of Melbourne; by 1854, the year this watercolour was painted, the city's population was nearly 80,000; by 1861 it was around 140,000
  • references the history of Chinese people in Australia - the figures shown on the left of the painting would have been some of an estimated 40,000 Chinese who came to Australia to work on the gold fields at Ballarat and Bendigo, among others; some of them are shown looking towards the city, as if newly arrived and marvelling at the spectacle before them; Chinese miners referred to Australia as the 'new gold mountain'.