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image icon 'In the Sassafras Valley Victoria', 1875

'In the Sassafras Valley Victoria', 1875
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large landscape painting in oils of the Sassafras Valley in the Dandenong Ranges, Victoria, made in 1875 by Isaac Whitehead (1819-81). Measuring 99.2 cm x 132.9 cm, it shows a heavily wooded forest valley with a stand of massive mountain ash trees and dense undergrowth, which consists mainly of large tree ferns. Most of the valley is cast in shadow, but there are patches of sunlight in the middle and foreground. Further back in the picture, the valley is lit by bright sunlight and more extremely tall trees can be seen rising into the sky. A small creek is trickling through the tangle of logs and bushes at the centre and right of the work. There are a number of fallen trees and the shattered (perhaps burnt-out) remnant of a once-mighty tree is on the edge of a rough clearing. Some figures are just visible within this clearing - several men are seated around a campfire and two others are on or near a large fallen tree trunk in the foreground. One of these figures is pointing upwards with a stick towards a large tree that dominates the composition.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a painting by Isaac Whitehead - Whitehead was born in Ireland, where he worked as a picture framer; he arrived in Victoria in the late 1850s and established himself as Melbourne's leading frame-maker; while he regularly exhibited paintings, he also created some of the most beautiful and intricate frames for Melbourne's most significant painters, including Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901), Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902), Louis Buvelot (1814-48) and Thomas Clark (1814-83)
  • depicts a forest landscape that matched European perceptions of Australia as belonging to a primeval and exotic world - Whitehead has been described as the last landscape artist in Victoria to work within the German romantic tradition; in this sense he was a close follower of von Guérard, whose landscapes were a blend of sombre and sometimes melancholic moods and intricate detailing of natural features, particularly rocks and vegetation
  • demonstrates Whitehead's skills in creating complex landscape images - this is evident in the artist's convincing illustration of botanical details, as well as his confident handling of light and dark, particularly in the way that he has set most of the scene in shadow, and compressed the bright sunlit areas into small sections of the overall image
  • uses symbolism to represent a sense of relationship with nature - the tiny figures of the men are set in deliberate contrast to the massive size of the trees to emphasise the insignificance of humanity to nature; the dead or fallen trees possibly symbolise humanity's attack on a primeval Eden (the dead tree that appears in the left of this composition is identical to one in von Guérard's painting 'Fern Tree Gully' (1862)); the pointing figure (in the foreground) is a visual device that was used in many mid- to later-19th-century landscape paintings to suggest some kind of pathway into the future
  • features the tree fern - the cool green paintings of tree ferns for which Whitehead is best known coincided with an international mania to include ferns in the decorative arts, notably in presentation silver works; such ferns also appear in Whitehead's ornamental picture frames
  • references continuing debate within Victoria about the conservation of 'old-growth' forest - the figures shown in the painting are loggers (the painting was initially titled 'Victorian forest with loggers'); the Victorian government of the day was attempting to regulate logging within this area and had appointed bailiffs to police it; areas like the Dandenongs (the source of 'fern mania' at the time) were becoming extremely popular as tourist destinations, and many people believed that the mountain ash, shown in this painting, were the tallest trees in the world; by the end of the 19th century, only one-fifth of the original forest area remained in public ownership; in 1987, the Dandenong Ranges National Park was established.