Important Australian + International Fine Art
26 August 2009

Thomas Clark

(c.1814 - 1883)

oil on canvas

58.5 x 107.0 cm

$200,000 - 300,000
Sold for $312,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 10 - 26 August 2009, Melbourne

Commissioned by Samuel Winter of Murndal, Western District, Victoria, 1860
Thence by descent
Private collection, Victoria


Mr Norton's, Collins Street East, Melbourne, 1860 The Colonial Art of the Western District, City of Hamilton Art Gallery, 5–14 October 1984, cat. 24 (illus.), as 'Part of Murndal in the Early Days'


Herald, Melbourne, 9 August 1860, p. 4
The Examiner, and Melbourne Weekly News, 18 August 1860, p. 11
Thomas, David, 'Thomas Clark', Bulletin of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, vol. 35, 1977, p. 6

Catalogue text

Thomas Clark is something of a legendary figure in late colonial art. While remembered as the highly respected teacher of Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin, he is largely forgotten as an artist. True, his paintings are in the best public collections; but knowledge is limited to an occasional landscape, the mysterious wreck of the mahogany ship, or portrait of some dignitary now passed into history. Clark has never been afforded the recognition of the major exhibition his achievements deserve. The painting Murndal in the Early Days, 1860 is a timely reminder of such neglect. Having hung for more than a century in the home for which it was originally commissioned, the painting has not been seen publicly in Melbourne since it was painted. It is one of a pair that Samuel Pratt Winter (1816-1878) of Murndal Estate at Tahara in the Western District commissioned Clark to paint. The first, Wannon Falls, shows a view out of the cavernous interior, the falls being a short distance from Murndal. They were immensely popular with the artists of the day, painted by S. T. Gill, Nicholas Chevalier, Eugene von Guerard, Louis Buvelot, and several times by Clark.

In early August 1860 the Melbourne Herald reported that 'Mr Clark, the artist, has just completed two very excellent pictures: one is a sketch of Mr. Winter's station, in the Portland district, and the other the falls at the Wannon. We understand that it is intended to hold an art exhibition in about two months time.'1 A few days later they were on show at Mr Norton's of Collins Street East and given a lengthy and enthusiastic review in The Examiner, and Melbourne Weekly News. Clark was referred to as 'an artist of uncommon merit' not a few of whose productions have worthy place in the homesteads of the squatters in this and the neighbouring colonies.'2 Our critic, while describing them as 'admirable examples of colonial scenery, and eminently praiseworthy as abstract specimens of landscape painting, [observed that] they are additionally interesting as exhibiting a commendable taste for works of a high style of art, and a disposition to encourage those who successfully cultivate it.' Samuel Winter was one such man, who, as a pioneer pastoralist had a strong interest in the arts as well as 'matters cultural and intellectual'.3 The younger son of an Anglo Irish landed family Winter was a descendent of a Dr Samuel Winter one-time Provost of Trinity College, Dublin.4 Margaret Kiddle, author of the noted Men of Yesterday: A Social History of the Western District of Victoria 1834-1890, described Winter as, 'in some ways, a man born out of his century, for he seems to have been the very type of eighteenth century aristocrat.'5 He was a man of the Enlightenment and its ideal of the noble savage. Others saw him in more colourful terms, Paul De Serville describing him as 'the most accomplished dandy' and 'the fastidious Irish gentleman'.6 About six foot 4, and a man of great physical attraction and distinction, 'Winter cut a striking figure among the pioneer colonists.' Charles Griffiths went so far as to say, 'when mounted on his heavy long-tailed horse, armed and accoutred in bush fashion [he] reminded me of one of the knights errant of the days of chivalry'.7 When visiting the Melbourne Club, it was Winter's custom to have a young Aboriginal boy in full 'livery mounted on his horse's croup'.8 Kiddle called him 'an incurable wanderer and never lived long in one place, but wherever he wandered his thoughts turned towards 'Murndal.' From Michelangelo's cypresses in Italy he sent seeds for the garden, and from Ireland and England he sent whatever treasures and family pictures he found. He never ceased to make improvement to the house - 'building was his hobby.'9 Winter began collecting books and paintings during his travels in Europe and the Americas in the early 1850s, building up 'a library of over one thousand volumes.'10 In Florence he engaged Professor Antonio Lasso to copy eight paintings in the Uffizi Gallery for display at Murndal. When commissioning his two paintings from Clark, Winter surely indicated where and what he wished included.

Influenced by the Henty brothers, Winter crossed from Van Diemens Land in the late 1830s, selecting a pastoral run at Spring Valley later renamed Murndal. The chosen site for the homestead was close to a mineral spring named 'Murndal' by the local Aborigines. The now historic homestead of Murndal and its surrounds were developed by Winter into'one of the most beautiful places in the Western District.'11

Murndal in the Early Days is believed to represent a view of Gypsy Valley, an early holding of the Winter family, with the Grampians in the background. Painted in the heart of the Western District, the writer for the Examiner located it 'on Mr Winter's run, some five miles from the locality represented in the first described work.'12 He praised the artist for depicting the scene 'with such consummate skill that the effect is inexpressively agreeable.' The insight the review gives into how our forefathers saw such early paintings of the Australian landscape makes it worth quoting the review at length.

The trees are arranged in pleasingly varied masses of contrasted colour and shade, and yet each one preserves its strict individuality. There is the inevitable gum-tree with its sparse foliage, the fresh green wattle gilded with its own bright yellow blossoms, and the silky-looking she-oak. The character of the scene is less suggestive of a faery haunt than that in the other picture [Wannon Falls], but the absence of this ideal quality is compensated for by a bright, fresh, enjoyable expression, communicating the feeling of a balmy atmosphere and a clear sky, far removed from the dust, toil, and the worry of city life. Mr. Clark is to be congratulated on these his latest contributions to the art-treasures of our colony.

Sheep graze on the pale yellow-green fields of late winter in 'Australia Felix', the whole scene being bathed in a gentle atmosphere that speaks of achievement and prosperity. The presence of the Aboriginal people with their Mia Mias in the foreground left are an important harmonious part of this pastoral arcadia, as likewise the kangaroos to the right, grazing in peaceful co-existence with the sheep in the far distance. Even the red shirt of one of the Aboriginal figures is echoed in that worn by the distant shepherd. Such imagery is in stark contrast with the numerous reported conflicts between blacks and whites in the area, and the hostility of the natives towards Winter's neighbours, the Henty brothers.

Winter's interest in his Aboriginal neighbours was such that he even took note of their dwellings, reporting in 1858 that, years before, the 'well constructed huts' of the Wannon Aborigines 'were destroyed by cattle and never rebuilt'. For years, during the mild winters, they'lived under windbreaks of bark and boughs', as in Clark's painting, suffering only when the 'cold damp winters of 1842-1843 brought on pulmonary disease.'13 His actions, however, did not always please his fellow settlers, Winter at one time being 'condemned in very round terms as a protector and harbourer of the Aborigines'.14 There was even talk of lynching.

The friendship between the Winters and the Tahara Aborigines was so strong that the tribes bestowed 'the names of their former chiefs, Wenberriman and Osterriman on Samuel and Trevor Winter.'15 Their relationship with the Aboriginal peoples and their peaceful presence in Clark's painting, however, is not unique. Another pioneer pastoralist of the Western District, Joseph Ware of Minjah thought so highly of the Aboriginal people that he gave one of them, Jamie, his name. He also included him in the group portrait of his three children commissioned from Robert Dowling, Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware, 1856, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Other paintings by Dowling, especially Minjah in the Old Time, 1856, in the Warrnambool Art Gallery and Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merrang Station in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, bear the similar testimony. The relationship between European settlers and Aboriginal peoples was an important subject in the work of colonial painters of the 1840s into the sixties. Von Guerard peopled his landscapes with natives as part of the divine plan; in South Australia Alexander Schramm and Charles Hill portrayed meetings of the different cultures; and Ludwig Becker produced some outstanding watercolours of natives met on the Burke and Wills Expedition.

The inclusion of the Aboriginal figures in Clark's painting and theme of peaceful co-existence was no doubt encouraged by Winter. Possessed of an extraordinary tolerance for his time, Winter's consideration including averting a retaliatory massacre. Their mutual regard was such that the local natives 'told settlers looking for runs that they had given [Winter] the Wannon country.'16 While Winter was able to say that 'the natives treated me with the greatest kindness', he reciprocated, caring personally for the dying chief of the Wandeet tribe, offering other hospitalities and protection, supplying food, and sharing the crops they all helped produce. Something of the extent of Winter's humanity and benevolence shines out in a letter written to him in 1877 by the Aboriginal, Jackey White.

Mr. Winters

Dear Sir,

I want to come back to Wannon, I knew you ever since I was a boy you used to keep us live I recollect about thirteen or fourteen years ago when you used to travel about five or six miles to bring us to your place, so will you be obliged to write to the government to get us off this place [Mission Station, Lake Condah], so if you will write to the government for us, and get us off here, I will do work for you and will never leave you so I wish you get us off this place, I always wish to be in my country, and to be in my country where I was born, I am in a mission Station and I dongnt [sic] like to be here, they always grumble and all my friends are all dead I lost my friend Doctor Russel [Dr. Francis Russell, local Anglican clergyman]. I recollect him living at Hillgay when Mr. and Mrs. Russel were young, and now we are old, and I am now miserable, all the Wannon blackfellows are all dead and I am left, my poor uncle Yellert Perne is dead he was quiet [sic] young where he came hire [sic] when I see his grave I always feel sorry, I can't get away without leaf [sic] from the government. This country don't suit me I'm a stranger in this country I like to be in my country. When I used to [go?] to places I ought not to be Mr. Russel used to get me out, wherever I used to be on a Station I used to work. Mr. Jackson wanted to give us ground and we did not take it so I am very sorry that we did not take it. This is all I have to say.

I remain,

Yours affectionate friend

Jackey White17

A man of particular singularity, on his deathbed Winter gave instructions that if buried at Murndal, 'I wd. [sic] like to be buried in the stones where the blacks are buried, no ornaments of any kind except plain black soil to be used.' The only memorial was to be 'a large stone cairn'.18

Clark's Murndal in the Early Days, 1860, is also part of another important tradition in mid-colonial art, of homestead portraits and their plenteous fields. Conrad Martens in New South Wales, Von Guérard and Chevalier in Victoria were notable practitioners of this genre. Clark's oeuvre includes several such portraits of Muntham, Edward Henty's station near Murndal. A view of similar pastoral goodness, View of Muntham Station, c.1858, is in the collection of the Hamilton Art Gallery.

A student of the Royal Academy, London, and teacher of importance in London, Birmingham, and Nottingham, Thomas Clark arrived in Melbourne in about 1852. His early paintings included The Coast Near St. Kilda in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria and Melbourne from the Botanical Reserve in the State Library of Victoria. A frequent exhibitor in Melbourne, he showed with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts, and in the Victorian Exhibition of Fine Arts, in Intercolonial exhibitions, as well as at Ballarat, and in Adelaide with the South Australian Society of Arts. In charge of the School of Design of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts from 1857, Clark was appointed teacher in figure design at the Carlton School of Design in 1869 and in 1870 Master of the School of Design, of the newly established National Gallery School. He was a foundation and council member of the Victorian Academy of Arts. His sketching tours included the Western District, the Adelaide region, and New Zealand. In 1864 Clark was commissioned to paint the official portrait of Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of Victoria, now in the collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Murndal in the Early Days is still in its resplendent original gilt frame made by Isaac Whitehead, Melbourne's premier frame maker of the mid to late nineteenth century.

1. Herald, Melbourne, 9 August 1860, p. 4
2. Examiner, p.11
3. Forth, G., 'The Winter Cooke Papers', La Trobe Library Journal, Melbourne, vol. 7, no. 25, April 1980, p. 2
4. ibid., p. 1
5. Kiddle, M., 'Samuel Pratt Winter - a Note', typescript, Winter Cooke Papers compiled by Margaret Kiddle, 1950, Murndal
6. Serville, Paul De, Port Phillip Gentlemen and Good Society in Melbourne Before the Gold Rushes, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980, p. 45
7. Quoted ibid.
8. Hone, J. A.,'Winter, Samuel Pratt', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 6, Melbourne University Press, 1988, p. 425 9. Kiddle, op. cit. 10. Hone, op. cit., p. 425
11. Hone, ibid.
12. Examiner, ibid.
13. Forth, G., Winters on the Wannon, Deakin University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p. 45
14. ibid., p. 46
15. ibid., p. 45
16. ibid.
17. 'Letter from Jackey White, a Black fellow, to Mr. Samuel Winters, Murndull [sic]', 7th January 1877, Winter Cooke Papers compiled by Margaret Kiddle, 1950, Murndal
18. 'Instructions from S. Winter to Trevor Winter Given in the Night of Dec. 22, 1878, at Fern Lodge, Mt. Macedon', Winter Cooke Papers, ibid.