Skip to main content
Menu

The art of conciliation

by Gareth Knapman, 25 July 2017

The Conciliation, 1840 by Benjamin Duterrau
The Conciliation, 1840 by Benjamin Duterrau

The early nineteenth century Australian colonies were fortune-producing pumps, with wealth extracted from the landscape flowing into the hands of the new settlers at the expense of the original inhabitants. The pursuit of Mammon thus captivated the imagination of the early settlers, and art was no exception. Artists arrived in colonial Australia seeking the patronage of the emerging squattocracy, with these parvenu patrons wanting portraits to demonstrate their new-found status in life.

Following commercial instincts, artists were also looking to depict large events of great social importance for the new colonies. Epic artworks acted to memorialise the nation-shaping events occurring through settlement, contributing to the construction of a social identity of the emerging colonies. While there was social value in such works, there was also a public and private market for depictions of these occasions. ‘The Conciliation’ in Van Diemen’s Land was one such nation-shaping event, and one that resulted in a mushrooming of public and private artistic expression.

The conciliation was an agreement that brought an end to ‘The Black War’ between settlers and the Palawa (Aboriginal people) of Van Diemen’s Land. It saw the Palawa cease their resistance and accept government protection, Christianity and a reservation of land on Flinders Island. The conciliation was the result of the ‘Friendly Mission’ in which the settler, George Augustus Robinson, along with the Palawa people Woorrady, Trukanini and others, travelled Van Diemen’s Land seeking out Aboriginal tribes who were resisting colonial expansion. Robinson, Woorrady and Trukanini succeeded in persuading the hostile tribes to cease their resistance and take the offer of government protection, thereby ending a bloody colonial war.

1Truggernana, a native of southern part of V.D. Land, 1835. 2Woureddy, a wild native of Brune Island, 1835. Both Benjamin Duterrau.

The trio became celebrities, and the artists of the Van Diemen’s Land colony saw an opportunity. There were many mementoes produced, such as the 1835 Bothwell Cup, which honoured Robinson, but also the numerous paintings produced by John Glover and Thomas Bock that depicted the characters involved. However, it was the two Benjamins – Duterrau and Law – whose artistic careers were most defined by their desire to cash in on the memorialisation of the Black War.

Before emigrating to Hobart in 1832, Benjamin Duterrau was a professional artist in London. He established a studio in Hobart, with the idea of being a portraitist as well as an art dealer.  In 1833 he produced seven paintings of Aboriginal people from Bruny Island, all of whom were associated with Robinson. Whilst these paintings served to document the Bruny Island people, Duterrau also used the images as publicity for his skills. His main objective was gaining commissions from prominent, wealthy individuals to paint their portraits. In 1835 Duterrau decided to paint a ‘national picture’ celebrating the conciliation, and he also undertook a series of studies of Aboriginal people. Two of these studies, Trukanini (1835) and Woorrady (1835), are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

Although historically significant, Duterrau’s studies of Trukanini and Woorrady appear more as constructed caricatures than portraits. Many people in the colony preferred the portraiture of Thomas Bock over that of Duterrau, whose portraits of Trukanini and Woorrady lack an expression of their character. Trukanini’s face is little more than a perfect circle with eyes and a smile, whilst Woorrady’s face is limited to a simplistic smile and the tip of a broad nose, with the eyes covered by long, ochre-encrusted hair. The only hint of character discernible in the images is that the subjects are smiling – a characteristic common in many of Duterrau’s images of Tasmanian Aborigines, but not so common in his portraits of European colonists. The titles of the works tell us that Woorrady was ‘a wild native of Bruny Island’ and Trukanini was ‘a native of southern part of V.D. Land’. Duterrau’s portraits of Trukanini and Woorrady depict the scenario as one of contentment and happiness, with the emphasis on their nativism.

1Trugernanner (aka Truggernana or Truganini), 1837-1847. 2Woreddy (aka Woureddy or Woorrady), 1831. Both by Thomas Bock.

Benjamin Law’s busts of Woorrady, Robinson and Trukanini depict an opposing picture. Law’s tribute to the Friendly Mission presents them as serious figures who have achieved a momentous outcome. Read in order of production, we see both the development of Law’s artistic skill and an evolving narrative on the act of conciliation and the human consequences of the Black War.

Benjamin Law arrived in Hobart with his family on 15 February 1835. We know very little about him. He initially looked to farming to make a living, describing himself as an ‘agriculturalist’. He had come from a family of silversmiths, and, according to his wife’s letters, hoped to use his skill as a sculptor in the colony, only to be told that ‘the colony [was] too young for art’. In one of the few surviving letters written by Law, he said of the colony (to a potential patron living in Britain):  ‘I have witnessed the success of others’ and ‘with a small capital we could soon realize a fortune’. We know that he made four busts (Woorrady, Native Chief; GA Robinson, The Pacificator; Trukanini, Wife of Woorrady; and Dr James Ross) and what was described by the Quaker reporter James Backhouse as ‘casts of the faces of the natives of Port Phillip; along with a person named [John] Fawkner, who brought them to Hobart and returned them to their own country again’. After producing these works, Law gave up the life of the artist and became a teacher and shopkeeper; he then ventured to Melbourne and went on to work in the railways, as a clerk, before his death in 1882. Law’s only other work was titled Nightingale, which received several amateur awards in Melbourne art circles. It is unclear from the descriptions if the work was a painting or sculpture.

Law’s busts were relatively cheap and effectively mass-produced. However, because he cast them in white plaster to look like marble (in the case of Robinson), and painted them as either stone, bronze, or black (for Trukanini and Woorrady), the busts maintained a veneer of classical dignity whilst also creating a racial distinction. The Aboriginal busts were a commercial venture based on filling a market niche for mementos of victory through conciliation, with the editor of the Hobart Town Courier calling the bust of Woorrady a ‘very valuable memento’. The busts were popular, but not as mementos; instead the artworks tapped into the emerging market for ethnographic curiosities.

Woorrady was Law’s most commercially successful work. The artist decided a likeness of Woorrady would be a good investment, at a time when he did not have a house or studio. (He moulded Woorrady in a stable). The bust was to provide Law with the capital he needed, with his wife describing the success of the sculpture:

‘[They] are called for not only in all Quarters of the Colony, but are being sent to India, to Sweden, to England, Scotland, and one went last week to Cambridge College, the Gift of the rural Dean of this land the Governor has purchased one and ordered a second he is sending one to the Home Secretary, the Attorney General etc, and indeed all or nearly all the great people, here, he sells these Casts at 4/4 each so that we begin now to be very comfortable indeed.’

As art historian Mary Mackay has argued, ‘Law’s depiction of Woorrady retains a romantic notion of the “noble savage”’ and ‘the idea of dignified, uncorrupted man is projected in Woorrady’s frontal posture, penetrating eyes and kangaroo skin cloak’. Mackay concluded that at the time Woorrady sat for Law, his garment was the ‘blue serge shirt issued to all the male Aborigines on Flinders Island’. Law therefore presented Woorrady in a noble, primitive, Arcadian mode that was very different to his contemporary state. Nevertheless, Robinson noted that Woorrady ‘was highly pleased with the model’, and liked being portrayed in his traditional costume.

1Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy, 1836. 2Woureddy, an Aboriginal Chief of Van Diemen's Land, 1835. Both Benjamin Law.

Robinson was impressed with the success of Law’s bust of Woorrady, and requested that his own likeness be rendered by the sculptor. However, there was very little interest from the public in purchasing copies of Robinson’s bust, and most of them were purchased by Robinson himself. Law depicts Robinson’s character as calm, diligent, noble, and probably older than he actually was, lending him an air of esteem and wisdom. Labelled the ‘pacificator’, Robinson had a reputation for working for the public interest, and rather than using military conquest he extended the Pax Britannia through evangelical Christianity. In short, Law was trying to present an image of Robinson as a Roman patrician conquering ‘savages’ through Christian virtue, rather than war. This was the image that Gilbert Robertson, the editor of political despatch True Colonist, found contemptible. For Robertson, Law had submitted to the ‘foolish vanity’ of Robinson, concluding that the bust was ‘a very bad spec’.   Rather than the Roman patrician, Robertson maintained Robinson was the ‘Orpheus of Flinders Island’, a reference to the mythical Greek musician that enchanted people with his music and words.

Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy was Law’s last work in the trilogy, and his masterpiece. In Trucaninny, Law captured human emotion. Unlike the smiling images of Duterrau, Law’s Trukanini is serious, with a depiction of sorrow. She had not had an easy life. A white settler had killed her mother; her first husband was brutally murdered by timber-getters; and sealers had abducted her sister.

In sculpting Trukanini, Law’s Friendly Mission trilogy was complete. Together, the three busts created a unison between the classical vision of civilising empire, as well as the perceived natural liberty of the savage. This neoclassical imagery, juxtaposing the noble savage with European antiquity, was drawn on in different ways to debate the morality of colonial conquest in Hobart. For the European settlers of the 1830s, the Aboriginal personified the barbarian/savage resisting the yoke of civilisation through empire. This resistance, however, could be characterised in many ways, from noble, impertinent or even, in some cases, ridiculous, depending on the view of the writer. Law drew from this same neoclassical lexicon and imagery to present his more humanitarian tribute to conciliation.

When viewed as a trilogy, the Law busts portray conciliation as both a flawed and destructive policy, yet also a noble, humanitarian one. As the first bust in the series, Woorrady is depicted as possessing natural authority and liberty. It sets the moral tone. In Robinson’s bust, we see the elevation of the servant of empire, who pursues pacification and civilisation of Aborigines rather than their destruction. (It is noteworthy that Lieutenant-Governor Arthur – and the newspapers – agreed that if the Aborigines were not removed, settlers would kill them. In 1835, Robinson was their saviour.) Both Woorrady and Robinson convey differing images of nobility: natural versus civic. Robinson, as the pacificator, demonstrates the victory of civic nobility and Christianity; but the bust of Trukanini presents the viewer with the consequences of the Black War and Robinson’s conciliation. As Mackay argues, ‘her features portrayed by Law suggest a certain air of sadness and resignation’. In this respect, Law follows the tradition in western art of using women to depict the human suffering brought about by politics and war. Law’s sculpture acts in a similar fashion to those of Roman historians, such as Tacitus, who used the voices of barbarians to criticise the Roman Empire, whilst also singing its praises.

As a memorial to the Friendly Mission and the act of conciliation, the three busts are imbued with a deeply political meaning. In choosing the title ‘pacificator’ over ‘conciliator’, Law was playing to market perceptions. Robinson was declaring that he had solved peoples’ problems – that his pacification of the Aborigines had achieved what public opinion demanded. The term ‘pacificator’ also meant something deeper to Robinson. Conciliation to Robinson was about ending Aboriginal desires for revenge. He believed this could only occur though bettering Aborigines and transforming them into Christians. He approached conciliation from a desire to pacificate. As the pacificator, Robinson became the Roman patrician implementing peace. In this context, the busts of Woorrady, Robinson, and Trukanini constitute both memorial and critique to the Friendly Mission. Woorrady is the proud and free noble savage, united with, but also controlled by Robinson, who possesses civic nobility. Trukanini, meanwhile, with her implicit sadness, showed the consequences of the humanitarian victory.

© National Portrait Gallery 2019
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia


Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196
The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land upon which the NPG stands.