Bathurst celebrates its bicentenary this coming May. Although the grand colonial architecture adorning those wide streets dates from the Gold Rush (i.e. mid-19th century plus), Bathurst was founded in 1815 and is Australia’s oldest inland town. Where else can you stare down a T.Rex, explore an art colony in a nearby almost-ghost town and eat crocodile pizza in an 1850s church building in a street named for a gang of bushrangers? Check out my travel feature here.

All photography © David Levell
Abercrombie House

Bathurst’s magnificent Abercrombie House – a virtual colonial castle, privately owned and occupied but offering regular tours.

Australian Fossil & Mineral Museum, Bathurst

Nose to nose with a T.Rex – only in Bathurst! The Australian Fossil & Mineral Museum, Bathurst, has the only complete T.Rex skeleton on permanent display in this Wide Brown Land.

Hill End's main street, today and in Jeffrey Smart's 1950s painting

Hill End near Bathurst was a large gold-mining town in the 19th century. Morphing into an artist colony in the 20th, it has been the subject of several iconic Australian paintings. Signs in the streets mark the spots. Above, Hill End today and in Jeffrey Smart’s 1950s painting. Below is Russell Drysdale’s The Cricketers.

Where Drysdale's The Cricketers was painted

Below: Golden Gully: the landscape transformed by the Gold Rush.

Hill End's weird Golden Gully

Hill End’s weird Golden Gully

The recent BBC series Desperate Romantics has just premiered on Australian television, and as I’ve long been interested in the Pre-Raphaelites I was keen to see it, but how disappointing to find it no more than a superficial and absurd videoclip fantasy of what some people seem to wish Victorian England was ‘really’ like. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (self-portrait)

 It has already been widely reported that most of the events depicted simply didn’t happen or are heavily distorted, and that at least one major character never actually existed. The producers see no problem with this, claiming that as the PRB ‘took imaginative licence in their art’, then their costume soap may justifiably follow ‘in that inventive spirit’. Even so, watching a supposedly true story that is untrue in almost every respect requires more doublethink than should be expected of anyone. 

Of course, dramatic adaptions of real events always need to take some degree of liberty with fact. Narrative cohesion and limited budgets may require characters eliminated or merged, events telescoped, locations condensed, time-frames shuffled. Making these concessions without losing sight of who the real people were or what their times were like is a tricky balancing act. There are many successful examples, but Desperate Romantics lacks the courage to even attempt such balance. It merely brags upfront of its intention to misrepresent real people and then plunges deeply into its shallow fictions. So much for the PRB creed of ‘Truth to Nature’.

The best historical dramas tend to stick close to the known facts of history where possible. Plausible speculation on the motivations or actions behind known outcomes is where the true drama and most entertainment is often found. Whatever speculations Desperate Romantics makes, however, such as the groundless smear that John Ruskin pimped his wife to the painter Millais, seem to be motivated solely by sensationalism. 

I was very surprised that the Desperate Romantics team saw the need to invent so much, because the real Pre-Raphaelite story is much more compelling – and considerably less ridiculous – than anything presented here. Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity is the reduction of Dante Gabriel Rossetti into a leering, laddish loudmouth without an iota of the real man’s well-documented wit and charisma. 

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

The “desperate” in the title best refers to TV producers anxious to pepper their costume drama with all manner of obvious untruths and modern intrusions that they imagine will secure the ratings. If so, they greatly underestimated their audience – apparently UK viewership plummeted 20% after the first episode. If only they had confidence in the drama inherent in the actual source material – or their ability to bring it to life – then success may have been theirs.

If a script has things happen that didn’t happen just to spice up the story (such as Rossetti saving Elizabeth Siddal’s life when she modelled for Millais’ Ophelia) then at the very least it should have the excuse that it captures some essence of the times, emotions and personalities in question. Since Desperate Romantics comes nowhere near achieving this, its countless falsehoods tend to reduce it to much ado about not much.

This article was originally published in Fortean Times magazine in 2001.
THE WIZARD OF ROSS

Ross Bridge, Tasmania

 

Nowhere in Australia is the convict legacy more evident than in Tasmania, where the tiny midlands village of Ross has one of its strangest manifestations – a colonial bridge that kept a bizarre secret for 135 years.  

The unexpectedly intricate keystone carvings impress any riverside observer. The longer you look the more you see, until wild patterns come alive with goblin faces, silent sentinels above the Macquarie River’s restless current.  

Unique as such artistry is amongst convict-built public works, they received little or no scholarly attention until 1971, when an architectural study by Leslie Greener and Norman Laird boldly interpreted the bridge carvings as an array of pagan symbolism and political satire.  

Less controversially, Greener and Laird also identified the long-forgotten convict sculptor, Daniel Herbert – a cultured ex-highwayman who, if their theory is correct, exorcised the demons of his transportation with an outburst of religious and political subversion that was in equal measures both daring and subtle.  

Herbert’s education and family background are unknown. Born in Taunton Dean in 1797, he was clearly a talented mason but his only confirmed occupation in England was a signwriter in Leeds. On 24th March 1827 he was sentenced to death at the York Assizes for highway robbery. This was commuted to life transportation, and the following year saw him arrive in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), then the British Empire’s most remote penal colony.  

Herbert endured the usual punishments over the next few years for such infractions as ‘being absent from muster’ and ‘not working’. He was flogged once (25 lashes) and did several three-to-seven day stints on the dreaded treadwheel. His luck turned, however, when the authorities decided to finish the much-delayed new bridge at Ross, then an important military outpost between Hobart and Launceston. In May 1835 he had arrived in Ross with another convict stonemason, James Colbeck, and the promise of an official pardon upon the bridge’s successful completion.  

Working swiftly, the convicts carved 186 keystones by 14th July 1836, the day of completion. At least 87 carvings are by Herbert; the rest by others under his direction. The subject matter is astonishing.  

Lion & Lamb

 

The six centre keystones depict devouring imperial monsters, including a crowned rat-creature clawing a human head, and a distorted (British?) lion crushing a lamb under its paw. Elsewhere, a lion-headed plant-bodied monster has, according to Laird and Greener, a double-sexed motif – a Jungian symbol of sickness and cure. 

Queen & King

 

The face generally called The Queen has been identified as Norah Cobbett, the alcoholic wife of convict superintendent Jorgen Jorgenson. Herbert apparently surrounded her with androgynous healing symbols, as if to counteract the violence and misery of her short life. Jorgenson is also there, an imperious caricature resembling a playing-card king, befitting this former ‘King of Iceland’ – where in 1809 he led a coup and briefly held sole power.  

Sir George Arthur (Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land 1823-37) appears as a grim, hatted caricature atop a skull, redolent of the suffering he presided over. No less remarkable is a foreboding John Calvin, the Puritan inspiration for Arthur’s stern rule. A lone Aboriginal face is accompanied by a flower, a soul archetype – rare compassion for a people already threatened by genocide.  

Dense, seemingly abstract designs swirl about and sometimes engulf the figures. Laird and Greener see the symbolism as typically Celtic: circles (unity), double-roped spirals (rebirth), eight-petalled rose (regeneration) and horned deities (fertility and purification). Maternal wombs and vulvas reflect the creative aspect of the unconscious; snakes herald transformation. The theme, according to the 1971 study, is consistently oppression and death opposed by rebirth and renewal.  

Ross Bridge from river bank

 

A stag with a hominid mask between its antlers may show the Celtic god Cernunnos in regenerative aspect. Dogs, linked with death and resurrection, appear four times, one with a Celtic horn. Herbert even included himself and his wife – he married convict maidservant Mary Witherington during construction – surrounded by unity and healing motifs.  

If there is paganism and satire in Herbert’s work, it seems to have eluded his contemporaries. At least it passed without recorded comment. No-one else in the far-flung penal colony may have shared his grasp of mythic iconography or realised the implications of the stylised portraiture. The detail isn’t always clear from the river banks and the faces possibly went unrecognised as belonging to particular people amidst all that distracting pattern-work. An extant letter suggests the construction overseer, Major William Turner, admired Herbert’s craftsmanship without taking special interest in the nature of his creativity.    

After his pardon, Herbert settled at Ross where he was buried in 1868. He was remembered locally as a mason, painter, violinist and the ‘artist of the bridge’. The intensity of the artist’s vision remained unexplored for a century.  

The extent to which Herbert’s symbolism was conscious is debatable. Was he being merely decorative, seeking personal solace in beautifying the bridge with iconography that held no particular significance for him? Did the stresses of penal servitude release subconscious archetypes when his artistry was offered rare license? Obviously many of the symbols are unlikely to have been conscious articulations back in Herbert’s pre-Jung world.  

While it stretches credulity to suggest his work reveals a pagan belief system, Herbert could be said at the very least to have expressed displeasure with Calvinist Christianity. It is a curious fact that the two apparently Celtic deities on St Luke’s Church at Bothwell (91 km from Ross) are unmistakably Herbert’s.  

The darkness of Tasmania’s penal history touches Ross in many ways – there’s a ruined ‘female factory’ and several convict-built military structures nearby – but that shadow is cast most deeply by the mysterious legacy of Daniel Herbert.  

 

NOTE: Known locally for superb bakeries, Ross (pop. 250) is 79kms south from Launceston or 120kms north from Hobart along the Midland Highway, set amidst picturesque wool-growing valleys and wooded hills. Accommodation includes the Man O’ Ross, an 1835 coachhouse. The touristy Wool Centre has a small bridge display including some casts of figures. The bridge is best enjoyed through binoculars, as much detail is difficult to fully appreciate from the riverside.

NOTE: My sources for Herbert’s birth and background (principally Greener and Laird’s Ross Bridge & The Sculpture of Daniel Herbert (Hobart, 1971) in this article are at odds with his entry in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography

 

AFTERLIFE AS ART: This ghost of a tyre sign or ad floats on a wall in inner suburban Sydney, guarded by a fine ghost gum. The writer James Cockington pointed out its beguiling resemblance to a Magritte painting in his book Secret Sydney.

DRACULA, ROSSETTI & ARMADILLOS

In 1869, the Pre-Raphaelite painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously had his wife Elizabeth exhumed in order to recover poems he had buried with her. The tale was first publicised by Rossetti’s friend Hall Caine in Recollections Of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882), a book produced just six months after Rossetti’s death. As Caine told it…

Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, depicting his wife Elizabeth

  

…a fire was built by the side of the grave, and then the coffin was raised and opened. The body is described as perfect upon coming to light. 

The nocturnal exhumation of the allegedly ‘perfect’ Elizabeth, then seven years dead, is often said to have inspired (or at least influenced) a key scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the midnight staking of the undead Lucy in her coffin.

Now, Hall Caine was also a close friend of Bram Stoker, who dedicated Dracula (1897) to him under his family nickname ‘Hommy-Beg’ (Manx for Little Tommy, Caine’s actual first name). Some people even suspect Caine edited the final draft, although proof is lacking.

About a year or so after meeting Stoker, Caine moved in with Rossetti to become his factotum and confidante during the painter’s final years. Caine wrote in detail about Rossetti’s rambling bohemian mansion at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, struck by how it veered between shabby and splendid.

He found the exterior dusty, cobwebbed and overgrown with ivy, surrounded by a wild garden. The marble-floored interior was likewise equally magnificent and shambolic; Caine describes it as having crooks and corners as to bewilder the most ingenious observer to account for its peculiarities. In former days Rossetti had stocked it with exotic creatures such as wombats, peacocks, kangaroos, raccoons, a bull, and, among others, armadillos.

Dracula (1931)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Fast-forward fifty years to the first legitimate Dracula film, in 1931 – the very year Hall Caine died, by the way. Here the vampire’s domain is unmistakeably Rossetti-esque. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula lives (or is that un-lives?) in a rambling, cobwebbed castle stocked with various exotic animals including, by a curious coincidence, the armadillos so beloved of Rossetti.

To add another layer of coincidence, Stoker and Rossetti were near-neighbours when Caine knew them – Stoker at 27 Cheyne Walk and Rossetti at 16. Yet I have never seen any evidence they met, despite the mutual friendship with Caine. If anyone has, please let me know.

As another way-out Victorian wrote, curioser and curioser…

 

RUPERT BUNNY RETROSPECTIVE
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until February 21st

Rupert Bunny, Sea Idyll, 1890. National Gallery of Victoria.

Perhaps it was no wonder he went to Paris at 20 years of age – would a man named Rupert Bunny have lasted five minutes in the rough-and-tumble of 1880s colonial Australia?

Well, he never had to find out; France suited him perfectly. Bunny hopped across the globe in 1884 to make a happy landing in the midst of Belle Epoque bohemia. He soon became the most successful Australian painter of his time, feted in Europe as a visionary, a poet and a brilliant colourist.

Bunny’s art brims with myth, dream and idyll. In his world languid ladies, often accompanied by red roses and white swans, spend trancelike afternoons by the sea or in the woods. Vaguely ominous mer-people beach themselves on deserted shores; sometimes they appear to be watching us. Or did we somehow conjure them unwittingly? This sense of the Other pervades even his most mundane compositions.

His paintings inhabit their own special borderland, hovering like dragonflies between realism and fantasy, decoration and symbolism. One critic described him as the creator of ‘feminine Arcady’, which would have made a great title for this big Bunny retrospective, the first in many years.

Reviews for this show have been uniformly lukewarm, aside from grudging respect for his obvious technical mastery. No surprises there; he was unconcerned with pseudo-intellectual conceptual gimmickry and instead drew inspiration from several isms now critically unfashionable, such as aestheticism, symbolism and pre-Raphaelitism. He often stands accused of lacking innovation and failing to pursue the contemporary art movements of his day.

And yet his later myth series belies this complaint, combining Fauves-inspired colour saturation and flat perspective with his own figurative style. As the exhibition shows, Bunny never stopped experimenting and went through several distinct phases of style during his 46 expat years in France. His sheer enjoyment of painting is as obvious as it is charming.

His great achievement may be that while many of his paintings may seem limited in scope at first glance, bound to the boulevards, pavilions and parks of the Belle Epoque, they nevertheless radiate with an obscure yet intense atmosphere that is both universal and timeless.