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image icon 'Equestrian portrait of Sergeant John Darby and another member of the Victorian Police Force'

'Equestrian portrait of Sergeant John Darby and another member of the Victorian Police Force'
Art Gallery of South Australia

Description

This is an image of two uniformed men galloping down a road. The horses are at full extension with all hoofs clear of the road, necks arched, nostrils flaring and dust flying. The artist, William Strutt (1825-1915), has used his considerable skills as an illustrator to capture this moment for posterity. The two riders are sitting rather stiffly in the saddle, as if on wooden merry-go-round nags. The nearest one holds some oddly loose reins across his body with one hand while his other arm hangs at his side. He is looking towards but beyond the viewer as if lost in thought. The other rider looks steadfastly ahead. They both wear the same headgear, which looks like a flattened top hat, and the same dark navy-blue coat. A sword, sergeant's stripes and knee-high black leather boots belonging to the nearest rider identify this pair as mounted troopers (police). This small painting, measuring only 38.5 cm x 36.0 cm, makes a big 'proud to serve' statement.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an equestrian portrait - equestrian portraits and sculptures of men (usually war heroes, explorers and the like) are a significant and strong tradition in European art and the art of the classical world of Greece and Rome
  • is a painting by William Strutt, who was a well-known artist in Australia, creating some of Australia's most nationalistic and famous pictorial images and also Australia's best-trained and finest 19th-century painter of portraits, figures, animals and historical events
  • belongs to a rare set of group portraits by the artist - Strutt intended this painting, another equestrian double portrait (with horses stationary), and a painting of a group of uniformed men (representing a sergeant in summer uniform, a foot constable in patrol dress, an officer in full dress, and a foot constable in full dress) to be displayed as a group of three (a triptych), which he identified as 'The Police Force of the Colony of Victoria. Australia. Mounted and Foot. 1861. Bush and escort service; Officers and privates; Full dress'
  • is a very fine example of the pictorial skills of William Strutt - Strutt inherited his considerable talent and great eye for detail from his father, who was a noted miniature painter; his academic training in Paris (as well as work as a magazine illustrator and engraver) also helped him to acquire skills in illustrating and composing large groups of figures; these skills are particularly evident in two of his best-known works made after his arrival in Melbourne in 1850, a bushfire subject 'Black Thursday, February 6th 1851', 1864, and a bushranging subject 'Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852', 1857
  • shows considerable skill in the handling of the oil paint medium - the small size of the work required the artist to use fine point brushes; the skill is evident, not only in the detailing of the men's faces and items such as the harnessing and sword, but also in the subtle highlighting on the horses' bodies which references muscle and bone structure
  • shows how in traditional, commissioned portraits like this work, formal design and composition rules were followed - the artist needed to combine a high degree of realism with a sense of style, which can be seen in the full extension of both horses (all hoofs off the ground), the pronounced arching of the horses' necks, and the formal way each rider is posed to give the viewer a choice of profile or almost full frontal upper body views
  • provides an insight into the business side of colonial art - this painting and two other similar group portrait paintings now in the Art Gallery of South Australia's collection were probably part of a large body of commissioned work which Strutt did for the Commissioner of Police in Victoria during the late 1850s; Strutt also received numerous commissions for portraits and historic events
  • references the work of the police force in mid-colonial Victoria - the police shown in this double portrait were members of a relatively new body (established in 1853) known as the Victoria Police - the State's first single unified police organisation; prior to this there had been seven independent policing groups within Victoria: the Gold Escort, the Water Police, the Mounted Police, the City Police (Melbourne), the Geelong Police, the Gold Fields Police and the Rural Bench Constabulary.