Almost spring. August 20 1860. A good day to walk across the continent. The Argus doesn’t mention the weather (the first Australian weather map published in a newspaper was in 1877) but I imagine the air would be getting cold at 4pm as Burke and Wills and crew departed from Royal Park, surrounded by thousands of well wishers.

Artist William Strutt painted many pictures of the expedition, but it was The Burke and Wills expedition: the first day’s order of march (below) that caught my eye. The expedition included 19 men, 27 camels and 23 horses which carried over two years worth of supplies and an enormous amount of equipment. ‘In Joseph Furphy’s novel Such is Life (1897), a yarn-spinning bullock driver claims to have seen Burke at Menindie with a carpet, a bedstead and a specially-constructed carrying case for his top hat.’ (Dig).

The Burke and Wills expedition: the first day’s order of marchH5107

The painting reminds me of the images of the European settlement of North America- the advancing colonists making their way west; the line of wagons, the people and animals stepping out thousands of kilometres. Although it is not a large picture (12.4 x 49.2 cm), by setting the expedition crew back in the landscape, at a distance from the viewer, the land becomes the dominant element. As the explorer’s queue rolls over the horizon, they turn at a right angle to cross our eye line. This creates a huge square of empty space, where land and sky merge and space seems endless.

Both people and animals are surrounded by the featureless land- the daunting reality facing this slim crew of explorers. You can imagine the scene could be anywhere on their trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria as the land mass would not shrink across the continent- unlike the expedition party.

Detail from The Burke and Wills expedition: the first day’s order of march; H5107

The painting also illustrates Strutt’s fondness and deft touch in drawing animals, (he would later travel to Africa to study animals). The camels in the above detail are shown from a number of angles; from side to rear to front on- and in different poses including standing, kicking, kneeling and turning. Here Strutt has used the painting to provide a 360 degree study of the camel.

Detail from The Burke and Wills expedition: the first day’s order of march; H5107

The Burke and Wills expedition… also features many characters spanning a wide geography- a style repeated in some of Strutt’s other works such as Black Thursday, (below) which captures the widespread Victorian bush fires of 1851.

Black Thursday, February 6th. 1851; H28049

In another Burke and Wills image, The parting cheer, (below) Strutt captures a chaotic, claustrophobic leaving scene- with the huge crowds gathered, animals out of control and a seemingly frustrated Robert Burke determined to get the expedition going- like a parent waiting in the car to begin their holiday. It wouldn’t surprise after this scene if the party longed for the open plains of northern Victoria- although their first stop would only be down the road at Essendon. Leaving so late in the day was probably not the ideal start to a 2500km journey.

The parting cheer : Robert O’Hara Burke at the head of the exploring expedition leaving Royal Park 20th Aug. 1860; H1663

Detail of The parting cheer showing Burke on his horse Billy, trying to get the party moving.

The Library has a dedicated website to the expedition, Dig: the Burke and Wills research gateway, as well as other Strutt resources. The State Library of New South Wales has digitised and album of Strutt’s drawings illustrating the expedition.

This article has 4 comments

  1. A really enjoyable and informative read using Strutt’s painting as a guide. Thank you!

  2. Thankyou SLV . I love these glimpses of history that you send out to us.

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