Inside Story

John Glover, born-again artist in Tasmania

Ron Radford shows how an elderly Englishman became the first notable white Australian landscape painter

Jim Davidson Books 27 March 2024 1285 words

“My object was to give an idea of the gay happy life the Natives had before the White people came”: Glover’s Aborigines Dancing at Brighton, Tasmania (also known as Natives at a Corrobory, Under the Wild Woods of the Country), c. 1835. State Library of New South Wales

For a long time there was a mystery about John Glover. Whatever prompted an established artist in England, aged sixty-three, to pack up and remove himself to a remote corner of Van Diemen’s Land — when, apart from anything else, it took six months to get there? Gradually, for those of us with only a general knowledge, it emerged that he had a son already established in Tasmania. We now learn from Ron Radford’s excellent book, John Glover: Patterdale Farm and the Australian Landscape, that he had three. Moreover, it was known — no doubt they tipped him off — that free land grants were about to end. It was a case of now or never. And so, in 1830, Glover made the move to a distant colony.

In England, although he had been exhibited at the Royal Academy, it had again rejected his application for membership. His English and European landscapes, they seem to have felt, were not distinctive enough: his watercolours — and he was active in marketing the genre generally — were seen as potboilers. Glover hoped for some sort of rejuvenation. “The expectation of finding a new Beautiful World,” he wrote to a patron, “new landscapes new trees new flowers new Animals Birds &c &c is delightful to me.”

“I mean to take possession of 2,000 Acres,” Glover continued, and “to have a vineyard &c &c upon it.” Born the son of a tenant farmer, a gentleman-proprietor is what he wanted to be, and became. A responsible but strict father, he ran a tight ship: one (unmarried) son functioned as his personal assistant. Altogether, with the sons and their families, free labourers and convict servants, Glover was patriarch to some thirty or forty people. (We tend to forget that big colonial properties were in effect small villages.) Eventually he ran some 3000 sheep on the property, named Patterdale after a favourite spot in the Lake District. And there he died.

Ron Radford’s book, building on the scholarship of Ian McPhee, David Hansen and others, is particularly focused — as the subtitle indicates — on Glover’s Tasmanian period. But due attention is given to the English and Continental paintings, since Glover kept producing them even at Patterdale. The thing was, they sold — in England. In Tasmania, inferior paintings by English artists were preferred by homesick settlers. And they had no interest in local scenes. Apart from a few commissions, it was only at the end of his life that Glover sold one or two major Tasmanian paintings locally. He was, as Radford puts it, “the key, though isolated, figure in what can be called Tasmania’s ‘golden age’ of colonial prosperity, culture and art.”

Radford, as a sometime gallery director, is fully aware of the importance of the market, together with patronage and questions of framing. This practicality carries across to the placement of the sumptuous illustrations: they are always adjacent to the discussion of the paintings, even repeated if necessary.

Glover was a practical, prudent man — except when it came to his house. Perhaps in his enthusiasm he was led to over-estimate his own abilities, for Patterdale was built hurriedly and mistakenly on damp clay, near a soak, and of rubble sandstone. Floors and walls were inadequately joined: the façade fell away in the 1940s, to be replaced by one in concrete and weatherboard. Later there was risk of further collapse. An interesting chapter relates the post-Glover history of the house, culminating in its purchase, rebuilding and elegant restoration by Rodney and Carol Westmore.

Glover had already turned to oils in England, but at Patterdale he painted in them almost exclusively, responding to the new environment with his greatest burst of creativity. The result, writes Radford, is a succession of “realistic and light-filled celebrations of his recently adopted country.” He explains that Glover adapted a technique from his watercolouring, using a white ground which would glow through translucent glazes, helping to capture the intensity of Australian light. Indeed, the painter rose immediately to the challenge of a new country: in an early painting of a gully on Mt Wellington there is no idealisation, but characteristically Australian forest regrowth after fire, and dead stumps.

Even so, while alive to the “thrilling and graceful play in the landscape,” Glover found it more difficult to render than European ones. “There is a remarkable peculiarity in the trees,” he noted, “however numerous, they rarely prevent your tracing, through them, the whole distant Country.”

As was customary at the time, Glover did not perceive such vistas as the direct result of Aboriginal land management — burning the undergrowth to create pastures for kangaroos and wallabies, thereby making hunting easier. The assumption of white settlers was that all this was a God-given natural pasture, just waiting for the sheep and cattle to arrive. (A rare romantic strategy by Glover was to supplant sheep in his paintings with cattle, more picturesque.)

Radford is at pains to show that Glover was keenly sympathetic to the Palawa (Tasmanian Aborigines). The last tribals were being rounded up by George Augustus Robinson when Glover arrived in the colony. Robinson turned up at Patterdale with a small group of them, was well-received, and was shown massacre sites. Tellingly, Glover’s very first — and possibly last — paintings there would be of moonlight corroborees. At every opportunity he inserted the departed Aborigines into his landscapes. For Robinson he produced a painting of Aborigines Dancing at Brighton, Tasmania, explaining that “the figures are too small to give much likeness — my object was to give an idea of the gay happy life the Natives had before the White people came,” and also, he added, “an idea of the Scenery of the Country.” Interestingly, there are almost no whites and no cultivation in his landscapes. They are Edenic, essentially a record of what they were like before the invasion.

At one level Glover was, as the historian W.K. Hancock put it, “shedding an economical tear” about the displacement. For it was so recent, and in stark contrast to Glover’s sense of his own achievement on the same land, caught forever in the famous paintings of his house and garden and in the “My” of My Harvest Home. A contradiction: you might say that — surrealistically — his characteristic spaghetti gum trees had buckled under the strain. For there are few like that around Patterdale, yet Glover fixated on them; they became a trope. Significantly, Radford points to a yearning for synthesis: late works include an ambiguous Ben Lomond (Scotland — or Tasmania?) and the fanciful A Dream At 82.

Glover is still underestimated. Working in Tasmania alone and now perceived as a white man, he was described only a few weeks ago in the press as the “so-called father of Australian landscapes.” Yet, as Ron Radford tells us, he is still the Australian artist most widely represented in galleries abroad — extending to a good half dozen American ones, and the Louvre. Equally tellingly, Tom Roberts — having married into a northern Tasmanian family — painted the landscape Glover’s Country in homage around 1929. When he died a couple of years later, Roberts chose not to be buried where he lived, at Kallista in Victoria, but in a Tasmanian churchyard within view of Glover’s Ben Lomond. And twenty years ago, the locals of Evandale instituted the annual Glover Prize for Tasmanian landscapes, a prestigious and generous award.

In all, it is an impressive node of continuing influence, buttressed by the preservation order recently placed on the Patterdale landscape and the scrupulous restoration of the house. Ron Radford’s book will go a long way to making Glover even better known. •

John Glover: Patterdale Farm and the Australian Landscape
By Ron Radford | Ovata Press | $49.95 | 216 pages