The Conciliation: a Founding Document

I am currently carrying out research as part of a Master of Studies in the History of Art and Visual Cultures at the University of Oxford, with the generous support of a scholarship from the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation.

This is an extract from a dissertation on the work of Benjamin Duterrau (2 March 1768 – 11 July 1851)

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Articulating an understanding, or interpreting a picture can be ‘an untidy and lively affair,’[1] especially if, in doing so, we also seek to explain the past. Yet this is exactly what some Australian historians have repeatedly sought to do with the little-known, but highly significant painting The Conciliation (Fig 1.). Produced in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land by the minor British artist Benjamin Duterrau following his arrival in 1832, the picture is today recognised as Australia’s ‘first historical epic painting.’[2] The Museum of Australian Democracy (MAD) acknowledges The Conciliation as one of the nation’s founding documents. Such recognition might be expected to indicate that a detailed critical analysis has been made of the picture; not simply to confirm its ‘first’ status, but also to explicate its meaning and significance as a key statement in the foundational narrative of the Australian nation. Sadly this seems not to be the case, and brings us precisely to the problem that I wish to explore. How has it happened that a visual object is elevated to a monumentally prestigious place in a nation’s consciousness on the basis of what I intend to argue is a naïve and superficial reading of its story?

Conciliation

Figure 1.  The Conciliation,1840. Oil on canvas. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

In this dissertation I seek to answer this question by considering the painting and its recent reception, and by exploring what is known of the context of its production. Little has been written about the artist, who is largely unknown in the country of his birth, where he spent sixty-five years of his life. Yet there is a relatively rich public record of his activities around the time The Conciliation was created. This record, mostly comprised of newspaper reports, points to a fascinating project undertaken by Duterrau upon his arrival. In my analysis, I describe this project as a complex one in which the artist develops a body of work, of which The Conciliation is but a tantalizing, penultimate study for a much grander work, now lost. Duterrau’s project also entailed another development, involving his own reinvention in the most remote outpost of the British Empire; as an artist of far greater status than he could ever achieve in England. To do this, he capitalised on his knowledge of the principles of the British Academy, the ideas and experience of some of its most notable members, and the naïveté of the colonists he groomed as audience and patrons. The limits of his success illustrate some of the difficulties met by early colonial artists in transposing European traditions of painting into a novel setting, and by colonists in creating a new home for themsel in a land already occupied by a Aboriginal nations.

Duterrau was perhaps the first artist in Australia to embark on a concerted campaign to develop a market for (his) art. Understanding all of these processes together offers a unique insight into the character of his most famous painting, which today stands as a milestone in the history of the colony and a discomforting reminder of a nation’s history founded on the extirpation of another. The painting currently hangs in the Colonial Gallery of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), along with a collection of some of Duterrau’s other Tasmanian works (Fig. 2). Like many such small institutions, the TMAG holds objects of great importance at a regional level, but fewer of national significance. The Conciliation is an exceptional part of its collection in this regard. However, despite its importance, there is little to mark out the painting as a cornerstone of national consciousness. In the gallery it is identified by little more than its title, the name of the artist, and nominal dates of production and acquisition.

TMAG Dut

Figure 2.  Duterrau collection, Colonial Gallery, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

The MAD’s explanation of the significance of The Conciliation is more instructive, although limited to a short caption:

  • This 1840 painting idealised the work of George Augustus Robinson, who took up the post of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ in Van Diemen’s Land on 27 January 1830. Benjamin Duterrau’s ‘The Conciliation’ was considered the first historical epic painting in the Australian colonies; it now marks the long path towards legal acknowledgment of Tasmanians of Indigenous descent.[3]

Such is the poor level of awareness by most Australians of Aboriginal history, that few will be able to proceed very far beyond a basic reading of the picture’s denotive content. The group of figures are mostly Aboriginal. One man is shaking hands with another. Some of the figures are gesturing toward this interaction. Others watch or are preoccupied. There are dogs and a kangaroo, as well as several spears. No buildings are in sight. It is probably daytime. For most viewers, progressing an interpretation of the painting as an historical document will be difficult beyond this reading, without referring to the web page caption and their own imaginations. Such interpretations will therefore pivot on three points: the nomination of a principal subject (Robinson) and statement of his title (Protector), which supplys a context for his relationship with several other figures on the canvas as well as establishing a cultural identity for them; the status of the object in the nation’s canon, which implies amongst other things a degree of authority for the painting; and a definitive statement of the image’s present function.

These points are made within a diverse temporal domain, evoking a then, a now, and finally a when that might occur on the suggested ‘long path’ towards the future. Importantly for the contemporary Aboriginal community of Tasmania, who trace their ancestry to the people depicted, this path is suggested to involve achieving an undefined future legal acknowledgement. There can be little doubt that the meaning of this caption will be elusive to most readers outside of Australia who encounter it. More significantly, it is perhaps equally abstruse to an Australian audience. This brief, oblique interpretation would seem to be insufficient as an account of one of Australia’s ‘founding documents’. It offers even less scope for understanding the painting itself.

Investigating The Conciliation as an object must be considered an important task. One might expect that a nation’s ‘first historical epic painting’ would have had a significant influence on Australian art practice, history and criticism if it were better understood by Australians. The MAD’s curatorial statement also marks the picture out as being of critical importance to the future livelihood of Tasmanian Aborigines. It seems to be a kind of promise. One of the most important social and political agendas from the beginning of the twenty-first century in Australia has involved the promise of Aboriginal Reconciliation. Yet, understanding the painting in these terms is difficult, especially in the absence of a relevant critical discourse in which Australian’s might participate. If the painting is established at all in the national imagination, it is as an occasional illustration for publications on colonial history. Yet, even its historiography remains largely unexamined.

The first reproduction of The Conciliation by an artist other than its creator appears to have been in 1870, when James Bonwick published an engraving of the picture in his volume ‘The Last of the Tasmanians.’[4] This early impact on the history of the colony marked the apogee of Duterrau’s success. The artist’s influence waned rapidly during his time in Hobart Town, and as we will see, his work had slipped from the public eye even before his death in 1851. This, perhaps more than anything else, might explain how such an important painting in Australia’s history has continued to rest in relative obscurity, leaving just as many questions about its character and significance unasked as unanswered.

(further chapters will be edited and published on this site soon)


[1] Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: 1985), p. 11.

[2] Museum of Australian Democracy, ‘Documenting a Democracy: Australia’s Story’, <http://foundingdocs.gov.au/enlargement-eid-49-pid-66.html&gt;

[3] Ibid. np.

[4] James Bonwick, The Last of the Tasmanians or the Black War of Van Diemen’s Land (London: 1870), p. 212.

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