Spirit of Place: My Tasmanian Riviera

Daniel Thomas

Daniel Thomas AM, Emeritus Director Art Gallery of South Australia, was in 1958 the first-ever curatorial appointment at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, where he eventually became chief curator and head of Australian art. In 1978 he became founding head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and from 1984 to 1990 was director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Retired and living in northern Tasmania, he continues to write occasionally on Australian art.

In barbershops, intimacies grow. One day in North Adelaide I surprised myself with a response, not quite serious, to a delicate enquiry about religion: “I’m a pagan”. The Italian–Australian didn’t miss a beat: “Oh, they’re the ones who worship rocks and trees”.

Only an Italian, I thought, would be immediately familiar with what came first. Especially a man from Sicily, a Mediterranean (Centre of Earth) island colonised by Greece long before the ancient Roman empire had conquered the Western world, and spread the Christian religion.

I am now retired and living with rocks and trees near my birthplace in Tasmania. Colonised by Britain two centuries ago and more than twice the size of Sicily, it’s a very island-minded place, and pre-settler-minded. My particular site gazes out from sheoak groves of Allocasuarina littoralis on rocky dolerite headlands that frame a view of beach and ocean. Here I have become more confidently ‘pagan’.

 

Of course one doesn’t abandon the Christian philosophy of human kindness and forgiving. However, on my secluded shore I can’t help observe that the other parts of nature — plants, animals, earth, water, air and fire — are all behaving differently, and at times dangerously, under unkind management by thoughtless humans. Over the years since childhood, the sandhill coast of the family farm has been eroded to expose pre-colonial Indigenous peoples’ middens. Storms no longer heap seaweed kelp onto the sands and instead I clean away a tideline fringe of waste plastics. Fire, never previously known to race along the dune-grasses, in 2002 threatened to climb a gully and attack my newly built house.

 

Micro-regional management of the earth is best, informed by knowledge of very small places: “Think global, act local”. Geography rules; it determines cultures. And coastlines are our most important geographical feature.

 

At Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay, Western Australia, I once visited ‘living-fossil’ stromatolites that had evolved 3.5 billion years ago. They constitute the world’s largest remaining group of survivors from our first ancestral life-forms. Stromatolites are cyanobacteria that look like water’s-edge rocks.

 

There I remembered that eighty years ago, a small child at my ancestral place, I had embarked with adults on a Field Naturalists Society excursion upstream on Port Sorell to fossil cliffs where we pondered deep time and the total extinction of trilobites. They were crab-like creatures that for a quarter of a million years were among the world’s most successful animals.

 

The encounter with living rocks at Hamelin Pool also reminded me that thirty years earlier in New York’s East Village I had entered a participatory sculpture, or ‘happening’, by Yoko Ono, in which I sensed how it might feel to be a rock. She issued body-sized ‘Eye Bags’ of cloth fine enough to see out from but not into from outside, and then instructed us to spend time inside the big bags. On a raised polished floor, doing whatever we wished, humans thereby became rocks looking out at fellow rock-creatures, mostly meditating, but sometimes standing, dancing or rolling.

 

Art history teaches that Surrealism, notably Salvador Dalí’s, emphasised the creativity of evolution on littoral edges. The particular history of Tasmania includes Australia’s greatest early-colonial artist, John Glover; a century earlier than Dalí he recognised that not only nature’s elemental edges but also cultural pressures create our spirit of place.

 

A native of the English Midlands, Glover emigrated late in life to join farmer sons who had preceded him to Hobart. In a southern-hemisphere summer, his first sight of his new home was from a ship sailing along my northern Tasmanian Riviera and on 17 February 1831, a day before his 64th birthday, he inscribed a sketch as “Eastward of Round Hill point”. Round Hill encloses Emu Bay at present-day Burnie; in the inland background he clearly depicts Mount Roland, which is visible from my sheoak groves near Port Sorell, and in Glover’s foreground, protecting a grassy coastal plain, are my own sandhills.

 

A century later, Tom Roberts, another great Australian artist, in his final years took to Tasmanian coastal sheoaks and also painted a portrait of Mount Roland, a too-picturesque conglomerate rock rising above the small town of Sheffield. Glover in the 1830s had promptly gone for more iconically Tasmanian rocks, the stately dolerite mountains above the cities of Hobart, where he lived first, and Launceston, near where he finally settled. It’s an uncommon rock in most of the world, but for geologists Tasmania is “dolerite heaven”.

 

We will return to Glover, and to a modern artist, Bea Maddock, whose work has further reinforced my sense of place. Now let’s consider the childhood place itself. The North Down Beach that Glover sailed past in 1831 was where my great-great-great-uncle Bartholomew Thomas had started a sheepwalk in 1828, and after three years was killed, along with his overseer, by Aborigines — the last deaths in Tasmania’s so-called Black War.

 

In my 1930s childhood I knew of Uncle Bartholomew’s death but thought of it as a natural part of life in the past. Aged seven, to escape the great ‘infantile paralysis’ epidemic, I and a twin brother spent a winter in Central Australia where we met the famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira at Hermannsburg and duly admired his skill. Of Tasmania’s Black War, we knew chiefly that the Aborigines were clever: the Black Line that swept across the settled areas to net Indigenous populations caught only two small boys. We were also aware of the painted boards hung on trees with a picture-story asking black and white Tasmanians to live peaceably together. (Eighty years later, attending Handel’s opera Orlando in a season of Hobart Baroque in the 1830s Theatre Royal, I wondered if the Black War idea of peace-messages hung on trees had come from the stage, where love messages frequently appear on trees. Orlando brought to mind the best-known example: Shakespeare’s As You Like It.) Farmers inevitably gain intimate knowledge of their land, and I remember my father solemnly showing us Aboriginal rock engravings on the Mersey Bluff at Devonport, the far end of the North Down plain.

However, more than associated stories and people and excursions, it was the childhood place, its micro-characteristics, that created wonder. All visitors arriving at North Down exclaimed about the sudden revelation of a beautiful view. It comprised sea and distant rocky headlands and islets, dunes and wetlands, foreground farmland, black and red soils, mature trees — mostly English elms — and an unusual hill, the Sugarloaf, that sheltered an unusual open crater, the Punchbowl. Later I realised there were many ‘Sugarloaf’ hills and ‘Punchbowl’ craters throughout the world, and realised the words signified human conviviality and light-headedness, but the geology and botany were enough to lift a child’s mind out of self-centredness.

 

The calm warmth inside the northeast-facing Punchbowl was a pleasant mystery when prevailing north-westerlies raged. That explained why sheep had created the strange rib-like horizontal paths for grazing on the steep Sugarloaf slope. It explained Uncle Bartholomew’s choice of a house site, close above a capacious spring, and with a view as beautiful though less sweeping than that from his nephew Sam Thomas’s more elevated site where I was born. Bartholomew’s first North Down House was abandoned after fifty years but its soft-brick ruins, and a bravely surviving mulberry tree, were still there for a child to explore. Years later I learned that the immigrant Thomas family had brought with them Uvedale Price’s 1790s handbooks for landed gentry, his Essays On the Picturesque, as compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful and, On The Use of Studying Pictures, for the purpose of improving Real Landscape. Bartholomew wrote of the beauty of the place as reason enough for living in what was then extreme solitude.

 

Most of my childhood trees, the mature elms, were gathered in hedgerows and clumps. There were huge pre-settler eucalypts looking down into the Punchbowl. Close to the homestead I was taught to recognise sycamore and ash trees, and a pair of Norfolk Island pines planted for our father’s birth. Most wondrous was “The oak tree”, at the edge of the garden, already a hundred years old and with strange long, low, horizontal branches that welcomed the presence of small children.

 

Towards the end of his life in Tasmania, Glover returned to a mid-1790s sketch captioned Swilker Oak, Needwood Forest; it was a particular tree then celebrated as over 600 years old, and in 1840 he produced a large canvas. (The painting now hangs in Tasmania’s most beautiful historic house, Clarendon Homestead, close to Glover’s final home.) Google tells that “swilker” occurs only in the Black Country dialect of Staffordshire near Needwood Forest and Lichfield, where Glover first worked as an artist, and the word means to spill or splash. So the name emphasised the outgoing generosity and ease of oaks.

 

Glover found spiritual sustenance in his micro-regional memories, just as I remember reclining airborne on the low-slung arms of a great oak, which in 2018 still grows in the garden at North Down.

John Glover, Swilker Oak, 1840, oil on canvas 76 x 114.5 cm, painted at Patterdale, Mills Plains, Deddington, Tasmania. Collection Clarendon House, National Trust of Australia, Tasmania, near Evandale Tasmania. After pen & ink and ink wash drawing, Needwood Forest, Staffordshire, mid-1790s.

John Glover, The Bath of Diana, Van Diemen’s Land, 1837, oil on canvas 76 x 114 cm. Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Lichfield was a hotbed of eighteenth-century scientific and literary life, centred around scientist-activist Erasmus Darwin and farmer poet Sir Brooke Boothby. Boothby befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau during the French philosopher’s fifteen months in Staffordshire, he published Rousseau’s Confessions in Lichfield in 1780, and in 1781 commissioned from Joseph Wright of Derby the bizarre two-metre-wide portrait of himself reclining full-length in fashionable but loosened London dress in a woodland glade, holding a book by Rousseau. The picture, of a sophisticated gentleman absorbed into earth and trees, illustrates Rousseau’s idea that humankind’s troubles and unhappiness are caused by self-removal from the world of nature.

 

Glover’s only Australian canvas to display Classical learning focuses upon rocks. The Bath of Diana, Van Diemen’s Land, 1837 (the colony was not yet named Tasmania) depicts Aboriginal women in their designated bathing pool, where they are surprised by a huntsman; he will be punished for the impropriety by metamorphosis into a stag, as in the ancient Roman myth of Diana and Actæon. The pool and its interesting rocks were encountered and sketched by Glover when riding out from Hobart to a farm he had bought near one of his sons’ properties; it was permanent water on an intermittent stream across a plain, a good place. It was also on an Aboriginal trackway and Glover doubtless knew that the chaste goddess Diana was in charge not only of hunting and woodlands but also of travellers and crossways.

 

A farmer’s son, Glover did not need to make a Rousseauesque return to nature; he never left it. His art and life demonstrate a tactile love of animals, minerals and plants as well as humans. As for Australian trees, although he did not neglect eucalypts, which feature in his small oil A Corrobery of natives near Mills Plains, 1832, in his sketchbooks he was equally in love with sheoaks. And the most philosophically ambitious of his largest colonial canvases, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point, 1834, is centred upon an extremely graceful sheoak — the most spiritual of trees, I once learned, for the Kaurna people of Adelaide and maybe, too, for the Palawa of Tasmania. In both these paintings, Glover accompanied the trees with Aborigines dancing joyously.

Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point was preceded by a companion same-size reciprocal view, titled Hobart Town, taken from the Garden where I lived. The pair constitutes an optimistic proposition of future bi-cultural happiness for the island colony. The highly populated Aboriginal Kangaroo Point gazes across the harbour to a seaport city where worldwide voyagers meet. The unpleasantly unsettled Black War had concluded at the time of Glover’s arrival to settle on their land, but in this pair of metre-and-a-half canvases he declares his deep respect for the First Tasmanians, and his hope for a continuing accommodation between the nations.

He took an interest in the specificity of Aboriginal names of places and people. In 1831 on his first reconnaissance of northern pastoral country, Glover noted “Tudema Tura, the Native name for Ben Lomond”, the mountain above the farm at Mills Plains where he finally settled. It would please him that in 2013, under a new dual-naming policy, Hobart’s great dolerite rock officially became “kunanyi Mount Wellington”.

John Glover, Hobart Town, taken from the Garden where I lived, 1832, oil on canvas 74 x 150 cm. Collection Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW, Sydney.

John Glover, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point, 1834, oil on canvas 76 x 152 cm. Collection Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, Hobart, and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Tasmania’s artists and historians all know about my ancestral connection to the Black War. Indigenous artist Julie Gough teases me that her people once killed one of mine. In 2003, art historian David Hansen was preparing his splendid exhibition and book John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque and startled me with the information that Glover had happened to be in Launceston in September 1831, had observed the coronial enquiry into the death of Captain Thomas and his overseer James Parker, and there sketched eight Aboriginal portraits including the three men held for the murder — and provided their names: Colammanea, Maccame, Warwee.

 

Art historian Mary Eagle further proposed that the two women unnamed by Glover are Nonganeepitta, the chief witness at the inquest, and Timbruna, who had helped find the bodies near Port Sorell on the way to North Down Beach. The other three, a child and two men, are probably the remaining members of the tribe brought in from Port Sorell but not accused. The coroner’s finding was murder “assisted by the residue of the tribe of Aborigines to which they belong, known by the name of the Big River tribe”. The Attorney General declined to prosecute, the three men were shipped to the Bass Strait islands. Along with many others, it was an exile equivalent to a death sentence.

Sketchbook no.43, page 40. Top left Aborigines Colammanea, Maccame, and Warwee and others at coronial hearing, Launceston, September 1831, pen & ink, ink wash, pencil. sheet 18.5 x 23 cm. Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW, Sydney.

My great-great-grandfather Jocelyn Thomas arranged the burial of his brother and the overseer in the Cypress Street cemetery in Launceston, and composed a political inscription for their gravestone: “BART. B. THOMAS / ARMIGERI soldier] / Late a Cap[tn] in HIS MAJESTY'S SERVICE / Who lost his life in an / Attempt to Conciliate / The black Natives of this / ISLAND / together with a faithfull / FRIEND ….”. In the 1950s, when the cemetery was closed down and converted into a sports ground, my father transported the gravestone from Launceston and re-erected it in a cemetery where the first North Down church once stood, close to the original North Down House; his grandchildren care for the stone today.

 

The colonial idea of ‘Conciliation’ is part of my spirit-of-place. Knowing the faces and melodious names of the three black natives who killed two white settlers, with blows from a waddy, a snatched rifle, and tea-tree spears, enriches the fact of inter-racial stress. It enables a thought of somehow making a personal apology for taking land away.

 

Bea Maddock, Tasmania’s great twentieth-century Australian artist, became in later life a maker of strange panoramic landscapes, as if seen from small ships circling an unknown land. Her multiple-panel paintings conceal secret stone objects, small tools that remain scattered on the onetime Aboriginal trackway along my coast and elsewhere around the island. Her portfolio of stencil prints, titled TERRA SPIRITUS — with a darker shade of pale, 1995–97, emphasises the materiality of red earth, mined from the artist’s personal ochre pit in Launceston, and depicts, in 52 sheets, profiles of the entire coastline of Tasmania. All Maddock’s late landscapes are filled with Aboriginal words, mostly place names, a retrieval of Aboriginal presence.

 

Sheet no.30 from TERRA SPIRITUS includes, in inconspicuous typeset lettering, the settler names Northdown Beach, Handsome Sugarloaf, and The Water Rat, which is a rodent-shaped rocky islet below Eagles Lookout. The last is a headland rock that I gaze at from the house I named Loeyunnila, the Port Sorell tribe’s word for “high wind”; wedgetail eagles still soar. In the TERRA SPIRITUS sky, floating high above the obscure settler-bestowed place names at the edge of the sea, are great clouds of Aboriginal names, in curling script, of significant interior places.

 

Place names are powerful. On the opposite shore of Port Sorell, the Asbestos Range National Park in 2000 became Narawntapu. We already have “kunanyi Mount Wellington”. The whole island could become “lutruwita Tasmania”.

 

Thirty years ago, for Creating Australia: 200 years of art 1788–­1988, the catalogue of an Australian Bicentennial Authority exhibition, I wrote, with the approval of specialist curators from the South Australian Museum, that “The Aboriginal people are re-conquering the minds of their invaders, just as the Greeks re-conquered the ancient Romans”. The statement was provocative, and generated some mirth. Today I think it is a truth universally accepted.

The Partnershipping Project is a Burnie Regional Art Gallery exhibition toured by Contemporary Art Tasmania. 

Burnie Regional Art Gallery is supported by the Burnie City Council and is assisted by Arts Tasmania through the Minister for the Arts.

Contemporary Art Tasmania is supported by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its principal arts funding body, by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy and is assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government's Visions of Australia program, the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body and by the Contemporary Art Tasmania Exhibition Development Fund.