The growing appreciation of the Australian landscape

For the early European explorers and settlers, the Australian landscape was harsh and unforgiving, a far cry from the soft green downs of England. It took about a century, not until the 1880s with an Australian-born generation, that the Australian landscape started to became appreciated, an appreciation which has grown with each passing generation whose roots were Australia.

John Bechervaise described the landscape as seen by the first European eyes:
trees so far outside experience as to seem gaunt, aloof, and even awe-inspiring, their huge columnar trunks the reservoirs of white tributaries in the sky; brilliant flowers that heralded no sustaining fruits for man; undergrowth either prickly, dry, and unkempt, or dank and gloomy, with tree-ferns reminiscent of a carboniferous age. Colours formed new, unimagined combinations, unlike those of any other landscape. Greys, fawns, and olive-greens predominated…
Australia: World of Difference, Rigby

The following quotes sample the shift in attitudes towards the landscape from the early English explorers and writers, through the changed attitudes of the late 19th century, to the deep attachment that Australians have today. The spelling is the original.

quarantine bay eden
Quarantine Bay near Eden, New South Wales

Sir Joseph Banks, The Endeavour Journal, 1768 – 1771 On sighting Australia south of Bulli, NSW

The country tho in general well enough clothd appeared in some places bare; it resembled in my imagination the back of a lean Cow, covered in general with long hair, but nevertheless where her scraggy hip bones have stuck out farther than they ought accidental rubbs and knocks have intirely bard them of their share of covering. 

Sir George Shaw, (1751 – 1813)

The vast Island or rather Continent of Australia, Australasia, or New Holland, which has been so lately attracted the particular attention of European navigators and naturalists, seems to abound in scenes of peculiar wildness and sterility.

Thomas Watling, convict, writer, artist, 1794

The air, the sky, the land are objects entirely different from all that a Briton has been accustomed to see before. The sky clear and warm; in the summer very seldom overcast, or any haze discernable in the azure;… The land, an immense forest, extended over a plain country, the maritime parts of which, are interespersed with rocks, yet covered with venerable majestic trees, hoary with age, or torn with tempsets.

Charles Sturt, explorer, 1833

He who has never looked on any other than the well-cultured field of England, can have little idea of a country that Nature has covered with an interminable forest.

western victoria
Western Victoria, Grampians in distance

Sir Thomas Mitchell, explorer, 1836 On viewing western Victoria – Australian Felix

We had at length discovered a country ready for the immediate reception of civilized man; … Unencumbered by too much wood, it yet possessed enough for all purposes; its soil was exuberant, and its climate temperate;…it was traversed by mighty rivers, and watered by streams innumerable. Of this Eden I was the first European to explore its mountains and streams – to behold its scenery – to investigate its geological character – and, by my survey, to develope those natural advantages, certain to become, at no distant date, of vast importance to a new people.

John Lhotsky, naturalist & explorer, 1839 (W. Moore, 1934, The Story of Australian Art)

Australian sky and nature awaits and merits real artists to portray it. Its gigantic gum-trees, forty feet in girth some of them, covered with a smooth bark externally as white as chalk; the enchantment-like appearance of forests, the foliage of which is pruinose and mellow; mornings and evenings so pure and serene that the eye is absorbed, as it were, in the depth of the azure of the horizon … there is a whole system of landscape painting of the most striking character yet available for human art.

Bega country
Country near Bega, New South Wales

Caroline Carleton, 1859 The Song of Australia

There is a land where summer skies
Are gleaming with a thousand dyes
Blending in witching harmonies,
in harmonies,
And grassy knoll and forest height
Are flushing in the rosy light
And all above is azure bright,
Australia, Australia, Australia.

Anthony Trollop, writer, 1873

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 traveler begins to remember with regret the open charms of some cultivated plain.

1DSC_0008 (194)C
River Murray, South Australia

Thomas Henry Kendall, (1839 – 1882), poet, Bell Birds

By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling:
It lives in the mountain where moss and the sedges
Touch with their beauty the banks and the ledges.
Through breaks of the cedar and the sycamore bowers
Struggles the light that is live to the flowers;
And, softer than slumber and sweeter than singing,
The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing

Forest near Mallacoota 3
Forest near Mallacoota

Adam Lindsay Gordon, poet, 1876

Which is the dominant note of Australian scenery? That which is the dominant note of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry – Weird Melancholy… The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade… In the Australian forests, no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gum strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly… From the corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant…

Adam Lindsay Gordon, poet, 1876

In Australia alone is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and or beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours. But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hieroglyphs of the haggard gumtrees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue.

Advance Australia Fair (part), Australia’s National Anthem. Written 1878

Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare

Sir John Longstaff, artist, 1910

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.

Freegon road2
Near Fregon, NW South Australia

Dorothy Mackellar, poet, My Country, 1911

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!

D.H. Lawrence, writer, Kangaroo, 1922

For one thing I love Australia: its weird, far-away natural beauty and its remote, almost coal-age pristine quality.

The strange, as it were, invisible beauty of Australia, which is undeniably there, but which seems to lurk just beyond the range of our white vision. You feel you can’t see – as if your eyes hadn’t the vision in them to correspond with the outside landscape. For the landscape is so unimpressive, like a face with little or no features, a dark face. It is so aboriginal, out of our ken, and it hangs back so aloof.

And yet, when you don’t have the feeling of ugliness or monotony, in landscape… you get a sense of subtle, remote, formless beauty more poignant than anything ever experienced before.

Mallee near Cadella
Mallee trees, South Australia

George Lambert (1873 – 1930), artist, (W Moore, 1934. The Story of Australian Art)

The beauty of the Australian bush is staggering. I have been much struck with the subdued and harmonious colour of the landscape – the distinctiveness of the quiet greys of the bush. What has impressed me very much is that the values are so subtle, the difference between foreground and middle distance being quite slight as compared with what you find in an English landscape. Wherever you look, there are romantic landscapes like tapestries, and human intervention canot improve their design.

George Furphy (Tom Collins), writer, 1903, Such is Life

It is not in our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this, and as clearly here as at the centre of the continent.  To me the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub has a charm of its own; so grave, subdued, self-centred; so alien to the genial appeal of more winsome landscape, or the assertive grandeur of mountain and gorge.  To me this wayward diversity of spontaneous plant life bespeaks an unconfined, ungauged potentiality of resource; it unveils an ideographic prophecy, painted by Nature in her Impressionist mood, to be deciphered aright only by those willing to discern through the crudeness of dawn a promise of majestic day.  Eucalypt, conifer, mimosa; tree, shrub, heath, in endless diversity and exuberance, yet sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal …

Ethel Richardson (Henry Handel Richardson), writer, 1930. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

…fresh from foreign travel, from a wider knowledge of the beauties of the old world, he felt doubly alien; and, with his eyes still full of greenery and lushness, he could see less beauty than ever in its dun and arid landscape. – It was left to a later generation to discover this: to those who, with their mother’s milk, drank in a love of sunlight and space; of inimitable blue distances and gentian-blue skies. To them the country’s very shortcomings were, in time, to grow dear: the scanty, ragged foliage; the unearthly stillness of the bush; the long, red roads, running inflexible as ruled lines towards a steadily receding horizon … To their eyes, too, quickened by emotion, it was left to descry the colours in the apparent colourlessness: the upturned earth that showed red, white, puce, gamboge; the blue in the grey of the new leafage; the geranium red of the young scrub; the purple-blue depths of the shadows.

Morialta trees
Trees in Morialta park, South Australia

Elioth Gruner, artist, (1882 – 1939) W Moore, 1934. The Story of Australian Art

In Europe the tree forms and the hills are more massed and much more simply composed. Our trees are comparatively thinner in their outlines and the vast spaces emphasize their singular forms. The painter has a much more difficult problem here than abroad. Except for the tropical parts, the difference in lights is not so marked and the blue of Sydney Harbour is like that of the Mediterranean. The dominant notes of the colour of the bush, I should say, are bronze, green, ochres, and browns, which give our landscape a lower and more sombre key than in Europe. Ours is called a new country, but what impresses the landscape painter is its extreme oldness and the primitiveness of its quaint forms in trees, hills and animal life.

Breakaways, Coober Pedy, South Australia

Duncan Meldrum (1875 – 1955), artist, W Moore, 1934. The Story of Australian Art

It is quite apparent that the artist has to mix more shades and varieties of colour than when painting in Europe; and so we come to the paramount distinction, different, as I am aware it is, to that of popular acceptance – the Australian landscape subtle and varied in colour, the European rich and monotonous, the one changing its first sensation of monotony to an ultimate realization of variety; the other as strangely reversing this order of impression.

William Moore, 1934. The Story of Australian Art

Europe has its peaks piercing the sky but we have the horizon.

Julian Stow (b. 1935), Landscapes

A crow cries: and the world unrolls like a blanket; like a worn bush blanket, charred at the horizons.

Heysen Moralana 1930
Hans Heysen, Moralana, 1930

Hans Heysen, from visits to the Flinders between 1926 – 33.
H. Mincham, 1964. The Story of the Flinders Ranges

The Flinders region has held a “spell” over me ever since I first went to Quorn and Hawker… I had come into contact with the “bones of Nature” laid bare. Since then my interest in this unique landscape has grown with each successive trip into the Arkaba and Aroona country. I have found each trip (and they have been many) an exhilarating experience in form and colour … The stark outlines of the Flinders excite after the more gentle undulations of the Mount Lofty Ranges… The great Red Gums in the creek-beds of the Flinders fill me with wonder; their feeling of strength of limb, of vigour and life, suggest the very spirit of endurance. They fascinate me as do the “bare bones” of the ranges.

Hans Heysen. W Moore, 1934 The Story of Australian Art

There is an infinity of landscape here, caused by the purity of the atmosphere. It has been said that there is a lack of colour. It is not so obvious as the greenness of England, but it is infinitely more varied and more delicate in tone. The landscape is a pinky mauve, a lilac, and the reflection of the sun of the particles of the atmosphere is a warm amber.

Judith Wright, writer,1946, South of My Days, writing of New England plateau

South of my day’s circle, part of my blood’s country,
Rises that tableland, high delicate outline
Of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
Low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite –
Clean, lean hungry country.

Patrick White, author, 1981

Till well into my life, houses, places, landscape meant more to me than people…It was landscape which made me long to return to Australia while at school in England. It was landscape more than anything which drew me back when Hitler’s War was over.

waite tree2a
Red gums above Waite Institute near Adelaide

Murray Ball, author, Eucalyptus, 1998

The gum tree has a pale regged beauty. A single specimen can dominate an entire Australian hill. It’s an egotistical tree. Standing apart it draws attention to itself and soaks up moisture and all signs of life, such as harmless weeds and grass, for a radius beyond its roots, at the same time giving precious litte in the way of shade.

It is trees which compose a landscape.

King Sound, Kimberlies
Google Earth King Sound, Kimberly

Tim Winton, author, Dirt Music , 2001

They bank out across mangroves and mudflats. The great delta is webbed with rivulets and tide wrinkles and where the Fitzroy spills into King Sound the water is the colour of milk chocolate. Beneath the overcast sky they bear northeast into the interior and Fox sees how old and beaten-down the land is with its crone-skin patterns, its wen and scars and open wounds. The plains, with the sparse, grey tufts of mulga scrub, rise into the high skeletal disarray of the sandstone ranges where rivers run like green gashes toward the sea. All rigid geometry falls away; no roads, no fences, just a confusion of colour. Out at the horizon the jagged, island-choked coast.