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image icon 'Memorandum of the start of the exploring expedition'

'Memorandum of the start of the exploring expedition'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large oil painting, measuring 97.4 cm x 153.2 cm, by Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902). It records the ceremonial departure from Melbourne in 1860 of what is known today as the Burke and Wills expedition, and was painted the same year. The leader, Robert O'Hara Burke, is shown in the centre, flanked by other members of his party. The Mayor of Melbourne and other dignitaries on the right wave farewell, while the large crowds of citizens, who had gathered at Melbourne's Royal Park to see the spectacle, seem more interested in the camels that had been imported from India to ensure the expedition's success.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a major work of historical commemoration and one of the most significant to be produced in the later colonial period in Australia - other significant works were produced by Eugene von GuĂ©rard (1811-1901) and William Strutt (1825-1915)
  • occupies a prominent place in the history of Australian art, as an indication of the great importance placed on inland exploration at a time when parts of Australia were still unknown to its European settlers
  • is a historical set piece, a style of work that was popular during the second half of the 19th century - the arrangement and posing of the figures, particularly the creation of a 'centre stage' for the leader Burke, indicate that the artist intended to present Burke and his men as conquering heroes
  • is a major work by a talented illustrator - Nicholas Chevalier was a German-trained Swiss artist who arrived in Melbourne at the end of 1854; there he painted panoramic landscapes and worked as an illustrator for news publications and journals
  • documents a significant event in the exploration history of Australia - the Burke and Wills expedition proposed to travel north, to explore and perhaps claim unknown regions of inland Australia en route to the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland, and so become the first to cross Australia from south to north; Chevalier was present at the ceremonial departure and made sketches which he later used as a basis for this painting
  • is a detailed historical record of individuals associated with this expedition - apart from Burke, the Mayor of Melbourne, Richard Eades, can be seen on the right, waving his top hat; behind Burke is George Landells who supplied and was in charge of the camels, and on the far left, wearing a sturdy bushman's coat, is the German artist Ludwig Becker (1808-61), who died on the journey
  • shows how, even in colonial times, events were staged for the media - the 'departure' Chevalier captured, along with all its sense of excitement and anticipation, was an event staged for the public, officials and the press; the real departure took place several days later
  • introduces the idea of an artist playing the role of a reporter within society - as a cartoonist for the publication 'Melbourne Punch', Chevalier produced a wood-engraving showing Burke (representing Victoria) and John McDouall Stuart (representing South Australia) racing to be the first to cross the Australian continent; Chevalier also worked as an illustrator for the 'Australian Journal' and for 'Victoria Illustrated'
  • provides an insight into the values of colonial society of this period and raises questions about the need for heroes in historical and contemporary Australian society - colonial Australian society looked on its explorers as heroes; although this expedition was badly led and resulted in the deaths of Burke, Wills and others, it was commemorated a few years after the tragedy by a colossal bronze memorial sculpture, which today stands in Melbourne's City Square.