Australian landscape history

Early landscape attitudes Click here
Emergence of appreciation of the Australian landscape Click here
National Parks Click here
Post World War II Click here
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Early landscape attitudes

The appreciation of the Australian landscape was slow to develop. Initially settled largely with convicts from England and, later, people from various European countries including some escaping religious persecution (e.g. Germans in Barossa Valley and Hahndorf in South Australia), the Antipodean landscape was viewed with eyes used to the temperate climate and soft folds of the English or European lowlands. The survival imperative drove the exploitation until well into the 20th century. The prevailing ethos was if it moves, shoot it; if it doesn’t, cut it down; and if it’s lying still, dig it up!

Although early artists in Australia have been accused of transplanting English notions of the sublime, picturesque and romantic to the Australian landscape (e.g. Flower, 1975), McLaughlin (1999) analyzed many early paintings and engravings of the Sydney region and found that although they often included features such as Aborigines or striking trees, palms and ferns in the foreground, they were generally accurate in their portrayal of the species and even portrayed the effect of fire on trees. She noted that the arrival of two established artists, Conrad Martens in 1835 and John Skinner Prout in 1840 introduced the picturesque and the Romantic far more strongly in Australian landscape painting. Some early artists including Thomas Watling and William Westall complained about the poor aesthetic quality of the Australian landscape as a subject for painting.

Explorers however, had a different view. From the earliest days of Australia’s exploration and settlement, comments about the beauty of the landscape were included in the otherwise somewhat dry objective explorers’ reports. After leaving the desolate Stony Desert and nearing the River Darling, Captain Charles Sturt (1849) wrote:

Sturt 59 Cooper's Creek C
Charles Sturt, Coopers Creek

“We passed through some very pretty scenery in the proximity of the lagoon where it was lightly wooded, with an abundance of grass; and I could not help reflecting with how much more buoyant and pleasurable feelings we should have explored such a country, when compared with the monotonous and sterile region we had wandered over.”

Ernest Giles, (1889) describing country south of Lake Amadeus near Ayers Rock (Uluru):

“The country passed over between it and our encampment was exceedingly beautiful; hills being thrown up in red ridges of bare rock, with the native fig-tree growing among the rocks, festooning them into infinite groups of beauty, while the ground upon which we rode was a perfect carpet of verdure.”

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Ernest Giles, Queen Victoria’s Spring

George French Angas (1847) wrote of the Mt Lofty Ranges:

“From the summits of the Bugle range, the eye wanders over crowded hills, thickly sprinkled with wood, in all the beauty and grandeur of their primeval state.”

However other writers suggested:

“..I believe the English are greatly deceived with the many flattering accounts respecting the beauty of the country and the fine salubrious air of South Australia.” (Letters of Rachel Hemmings, 1854; quoted by Bird, 1989).

These few quotes, drawn from hundreds from explorers, colonists and settlers, indicate that although there were many features of the Australian landscape which were unfamiliar, and often the opposite of their experience, nevertheless there was an appreciation of its scenic qualities. Certainly there was a prevalence of comments of the picturesque (i.e. that which would look good in a picture) and the Romantic view, the prevailing aesthetic models of the era, couched within the underlying utilitarian concern for the potential productivity of the land. (for a more extensive discussion of explorer’s observations, go to Explorer’s landscape view – The science of scenery (

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Thomas Mitchell, The Yarrayne

A form of landscape that drew universal acclaim was the pastoral landscape, including James Cook’s description of the Illawarra region, trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park, Thomas Mitchell’s Fitzroy Downs of northern NSW: the finest country I had ever seen in a primeval state. A Champaign region, spotted with wood..., his Australian Felix of western Victoria with its stately trees and majestic mountains, and Ernest Giles’ description of Central Australia’s Rawlinson Ranges region: The country down below, northwards, consisted of open, sandy, level, triodia ground, dotted with a few clumps of the desert oak, giving a most pleasing appearance to the eye. It is hard to imagine a landscape more removed from the English pastoral scene.

Anthony Trollop, an eminent writer from England, writing in 1873, had a counter view:

“The fault of all Australian scenery is its monotony. The eye after a while becomes fatigued with a landscape which at first charmed with its parklike aspects. One never gets out of the trees, unceasing trees …become a bore, and the traveller begins to remember with regret the open charms of some cultivated plain.”

Reinterpretation of Australia’s history has identified factors resulting in the early idealization of the landscape:

“Arcadian longings; a belief in the human task of civilizing and ordering the chaos of nature, economic necessity as well a moral responsibility; the nineteenth’s century’s interest in a scientific mode of observation; the need to establish a national identity differentiated from the country of origin; and romantic or neoclassical ideas and value-systems.” (Bird, 1989)

Massive change to the original Australian landscape ensued, with the felling and ringbarking (i.e. cutting through the bark around the tree near its base thus stopping sap flow and eventually killing the tree) of the forest trees, drainage of swamps, driving through of roads and railways, and the building towns and cities. Grazing by introduced stock as well as by feral pests such as rabbits removed the shrub layer and native grasses. Under Aboriginal occupation, fire had been used regularly to open the vegetation and drive out game. With European settlement, fires were controlled but they often devastated the land and its inhabitants.

Emergence of appreciation of the Australian landscape

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Tom Roberts, The Breakaway! 1891

The Heidelberg school of painting near Melbourne in the late 1880s, a century after settlement, produced a distinctively Australian ‘feel’ to the landscapes being painted. In the short space of a few years, the en plein air style of painting produced by artists such as Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers helped to transform the way in which Australians viewed their landscape.

the pioneer McCubbin
Frederick McCubbin, The Pioneer, 1904

The Sydney periodical, The Bulletin, was founded in 1880 and quickly established itself with a character of outspokenness, incisiveness, and sardonic radicalism (Heseltine, 1988). Paralleling the impact of the Heidelberg school of painting, The Bulletin published works by the growing band of Australian writers during the 1890s, including Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. The bush ballad was a major form of writing at that time. The characteristic attitude of the period was ardent patriotism, the equally ardent socialism, the belief in mateship, and the superiority of bush life to that of the coastal cities.

The Australian art historian, Bernard Smith, has remarked that the idealization of rural labor was a global phenomenon of the late 19th century and, although by then most Australians lived in the cities, they identified themselves “with the life and attitudes of the Australian rural worker”. The frontier exercised an enormous influence upon the imagination of all Australians. (Smith, 1971)

Through art and the written word, the landscape and bush thus became an Australian icon, representing the best or the ideal, cloaked by the rose-tinted glasses of patriotism. That this reconception of Australia was largely accomplished in the decade 1885 – 1895, is remarkable.

This is reflected in the statement by Sir John Longstaff, an eminent Australian portrait artist who after living in England for some years said:

“Am I glad to be home again? I cannot tell you how glad. The Australian landscape has always seemed to me the most beautiful in the world as well as the most mysterious. When I first saw the brown, hot earth from the ship’s deck at Fremantle I cannot tell you the emotion it gave me – after all that confounded sappy English Green.”

With the beginning of the 20th century, together with Federation of the nation in 1901, a new confidence became apparent. The national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, spoke of Australia’s landscapes: Our land abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty rich and rare. The anthem was composed in 1878, was sung at the inauguration of Federation in 1901, but was not formally adopted until 1984.

Dorothea McKellar’s My Country, written in 1904 as a 19 year old while in England pining for Australia, contains a classic description of the Australian landscape:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

wide brown land
The wide brown land for me!

National Parks

As in England and the United States, Australia initially established national parks to protect outstanding scenery and to provide areas for public enjoyment, with protection of flora and fauna a more recent motivation. The world’s second national park, Royal National Park, was established in Sydney in 1879, seven years after the first at Yellowstone in the United States. Unlike the English model, there are no nationally designated areas of outstanding beauty. However, many State and local government planning strategies provide for development control of developments that might degrade or impair the landscape (e.g. Haynes, 1975, O’Neil, 1975).

Australia now has over 500 national parks protecting 28,000 sq km of land, but Australia’s total protected area as contained in the National Reserve System conserving landscapes and biodiversity comprises 9719 areas covering 103,299 sq km or over 13% of the Australian land mass (2013) (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Australia’s National Reserve System 2020

 Post World War II

In his book, The Face of Australia, Charles Laseron (1953) described the geological development of the landscape, noting that as ancient land it was not spectacular; its scenic beauty was expressive of a great age. The final chapter of his book is titled Scenery – A National Heritage and proposes that Australians are becoming more scenically conscious and the need is to preserve for future generations this heritage of beauty and scientific interest. Based on love of country:

“let us consider this natural wonderland of Australian (sic) as a sacred heritage, something to be preserved unsullied and intact for the benefit of generations to come.”

Laseron’s book was in the English tradition of using geology to explain scenery. David Corbett’s Geology and Scenery of South Australia (1987) is another example.

The post WW2 period saw the emergence of many strands of environmental concern. Concern about the built heritage led to the establishment of the National Trust in all States: New South Wales 1945, South Australia 1955, Victoria 1956, Western Australia 1959, Tasmania 1960, Queensland 1963. Concern about litter as a form of visual pollution resulted in the Keep Australia Beautiful organization to promote litter control. The Australian Conservation Foundation was established in 1966.

As in America, writers reacted against ugliness in Australia. Robin Boyd’s polemic, The Australian Ugliness (1960) commenced with the words: The ugliness I mean is skin deep (in contrast to the deep foundations of beauty in the human psyche) and went on to describe in biting detail the featurism and aesthetic depravity of Australia’s built environment. Commenting on its native trees, Boyd wrote:

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Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, 1960

“Modern Australians have no especially psychopathic fear of the gum or the wattle, but no two trees could have been designed to be less sympathetic to the qualities of tidiness and conformist indecision which are desired in the artificial background. The Australian bush was made in one of nature’s more relaxed, even casual, moods.”

He was particularly scathing of:

“scenic lookouts and beauty spots (which) are provided with desperately picturesque accoutrements of rustic stone and wood, and two brightly coloured concrete boxes which may be found, on close examination, to be marked with top-hat and powder puff respectively.”

Advertisement using the Australian landscape

Nevertheless a distinctive love for the Australian landscape developed, evident in the popularity of tourism and recreation to experience it however remotely, of the abun-dance of beautifully illustrated books, calendars, DVDs and films of the landscape, its extensive use as iconic symbols in advertising, and of the many conflicts which have occurred when forestry, mining, highways and other forms of ‘desecration’ of the landscape have been proposed.


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