If you are familiar with Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, the NGV in St Kilda Rd, you might be forgiven for thinking for a moment that a Minotaur could be lurking somewhere deep within its vaults. It is a labyrinth of a building, home for much of the Gallery’s (estimated) more than 70,000 works of art.
Of course, only a fraction of this huge collection can be displayed at any one time within the bluestone, prison like walls of the St Kilda Rd building, a building once described appropriately enough as a “perfect place for a hanging”.
One of the items formerly on display in the NGV’s European ceramics collection was the so called “Aesthetic Teapot”, a marvellous little pot manufactured by the Royal Worcester Company in the second half of the 19th century. The teapot is a no show these days so maybe it has been withdrawn from the public eye for use in the Gallery Director’s morning cuppa. Who can say? The “Aesthetic Teapot” was modelled after the character “Patience” from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera of the same name but to my mind, “Patience” as portrayed by the Worcester porcelain factory, always reminded me of the recorded photographic likeness of another Aesthetic character of the 19th century, Edward La Trobe Bateman.
Mr Bateman was a multi-talented 19th century artist and garden designer who might loosely be described as a member of the Aesthetic movement although his origins are arguably to be found in the earlier activities of their precursors, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The PRB as it styled itself was an influential reformist English art movement which vouchsafed a return to the purity of the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe. The Brotherhood started as a sort of “Dead Poets Society” of the Arts in 1848, a year of political upheavals across Europe known as the “Year of Revolution”. This month the National Gallery of Victoria has a great little hanging happening which they have dubbed “Medieval Moderns”. It draws from a diverse range of Pre-Raphaelite work, mainly from the Gallery’s own collection, to tell the story of the Brotherhood and of the part in it played by some of their followers. The yarn as presented by the NGV runs with a singularly Australian bent and it is a bend that bends with a surprising angle on Yallambie.
Taking pride of place just to the left of the exhibition entrance as you access “Medieval Moderns” are three drawings by the old teapot himself, the artist E La Trobe Bateman. They are from a set of at least 12 that he produced in the 1850s of the Bakewell brothers’ “Floraville”, AKA “Yallambee” or “The Plenty Station”.
Alisa Bunbury writes in the “Medieval Moderns” exhibition catalogue that Bateman’s drawings depict the Bakewells’ Yallambee “in exquisite detail and from numerous viewpoints the buildings and, more particularly, the much-praised garden which had been established (some of which still survives)”. I wonder if the Parks and Gardens Department at Banyule Council are listening.
The NGV Bateman drawings are not on permanent display and I presume are usually kept guarded by the Minotaur somewhere deep inside the NGV vaults. You can request to see them privately however and they are serious enough to be trotted out now and again for use at temporary exhibitions with previous shows both at the St Kilda Rd and Federation Square galleries.
The Victorian Government Botanist, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller once described Bateman as a “splendid artist”. The “Station Plenty” pictures drawn by Bateman are executed with a meticulous hand and are so finely finished that today it has possible to create a reasonable 19th century plant list of Yallambie from their resource.
Edward La Trobe Bateman was born in Yorkshire in 1816 and was a cousin of the Superintendent of Port Phillip and first Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria, Charles Joseph La Trobe. Bateman’s work first popped up in the PRB year, 1848 with the publication of a set of chromolithographed flowers. Slightly older than the seven original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Bateman was known by them as “the illuminator”. He worked with PRB leading light, John Everett Millais on the interior decoration of a house in Leeds and both men produced illustrations for a small, privately circulated magazine. Bateman was also an intimate friend of key PRB figure, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and lived with him at Highgate in 1852. Bateman’s concern for the truthful depiction of nature as urged by the preeminent art critic of the era and PRB supporter, John Ruskin and so evident in the Yallambee set, became a crucial element in the thinking of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Bateman came to Australia in 1852 in the company of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner and another PRB sympathiser, Bernhard Smith. Ostensibly this trip was in order for these men to try their luck on the newly established Victorian goldfields but in Bateman’s case his motives were of a more personal nature and primarily connected with the Howitt family. Bateman was unofficially engaged to Anna Mary Howitt, the daughter of the writers, William and Mary Howitt. William was in Victoria to lead an exhibition to the gold fields, hoping perhaps to find a fortune but more especially to furnish material for a book he planned to write.
On arriving in Victoria, Bateman stayed at the Collins Street East home of William’s brother, Dr Godfrey Howitt, a meeting place of the infant colony’s smarty pants set.
Soon after he packed his brushes up with a pick and shovel and headed to the diggings where he fell in with his prospective father in law’s expedition before falling out with the old boy himself. It had been anticipated that Bateman’s brush would supply the illustrations for William’s book when written but in mid-1853 the relationship between Bateman and William Howitt broke down. It wasn’t quite the stuff of pistols at dawn but it must have been something more than a storm in the Bateman teapot. The engagement between Anna Howitt and Bateman was broken and William returned to England in 1854 where he published “Land, Labour and Gold” but without the intended illustrations. “Land, Labour and Gold” contains a wealth of detail about life in the early colony including a (previously quoted) detailed description of the Bakewells’ “Yallambee” property. The one thing that is missing from the narrative however is Bateman himself who was certainly a member of the party for much of the expedition but who is mentioned maybe 10 times in a two volume set numbering something over 800 pages.
William’s son Charlton, writing of the goldfields expedition, described the odd figure of Bateman in company with his father on the trail:
“…the governor often walks first in his broad hat and wide trousers; often the Painter walks beside him in his glazed cap, blue jumper and leather overalls which come up his thighs and with a courier pouch at his side for his sketching things, but just as often he is stalking ahead of everybody for he has a very long pair of legs and they seem to carry him involuntarily.”
Bateman stayed on in Australia after William Howitt’s return to England and it was after this that he produced the Yallambie drawings that are now part of the NGV collection. The Bakewells’ became life-long friends of Bateman and probably commissioned the drawings from him to provide a permanent record of their property at a time when their return to Britain was being contemplated. The “Yallambee” drawings were complete by 1856 when they were available in London for a review by a writer in “The Athenaeum” who, while writing anonymously, would most likely have been Bateman’s former fiancée, Anna Howitt, writing presumably without the knowledge of her father. Anna had written for “The Athenaeum” previously and the style of the article suggests a feminine hand of the Victorian era and the prose a previous knowledge of Bateman’s career:
We have been much pleased this week by some drawings of Australian scenes, the work of Mr Bateman, a gentleman who formerly assisted Mr Owen Jones in some of his miraculous and laborious books. The tepid air that bathes the gum-tree forests has not relaxed the hand of this skilful draughtsman, nor has it lost a whit of its old accuracy and ‘cunning’. The pencil drawings are merely scenes on a farm on the Plenty River, the property of Messrs Bakewell. Early settlers in Victoria. The views are taken at different points — here the stately cattle feeding, there the river sleeping and the reeds whispering to it their silly secrets.
In No. 1 there is a stream, dark, calm, unruffled, and sullen, — trees leaning about in a rude, helpless way; some leafless, others in the full flush of leaf. In the distance are out-buildings, with every plank hinted, and the very nail heads implied, if not delineated, with photographic skill and care.
No. 2 is a growing wonder, with elaborate neat fences, slopes of hill and dale, full of swelling wealth, as if mother Nature was baring her breasts to her suckling children. The leaves, grass, and trees are admirably expressed with sharp ciphers of black lead. Pre-eminent among them, and especially characteristic of the gold and copper country, is the stringy bark tree, with its ragged cordage hanging about it like shattered rigging round a mast.
No. 3 is remarkable for its dark, ghostly cypresses, solid cones of black shade, silent and watchful as sentinels. The leaves of the plants, fingered or fan-like, are given to botanical truth.
No. 4 is the house, a homely English cottage, with its broad brim of a verandah, latticed with flowers and encumbered with sweets, — the broad level lawn, calm and sunny as a good man’s conscience, is bordered by bushy plants and flowering aloes.
No. 5 is a dark, cool pool, criss-crossed by trees, that watch it as lovers do a woman’s eye.
No. 6 is a cave, that, used for a garden-house, is hollowed out under the brow of the hill.
No. 7 is a garden-walk, after the old loved English model, — just such as line round the rector’s garden, where peaches bask their velvets on the warm south wall, or the snug rich corner of the cathedral close, where the leathery medlars ripe and rot. There are huge bushes some ten feet high, and reeds with each square flat leaf snapped at an angle.
No. 8 is a flight of wooden steps leading from one garden to another. The dry arrow-headed palm boughs and the great cypress trees, so sad and solemn — so like huge hearse-plumes — are admirably drawn.
No. 9 is another view of the pool, where some black Narcissus may have drowned himself or his gins.
No. 10 is the verandah and sheltering trees;
No. 11 the river, with its wild and grassy banks; and
No. 12 is the house, with the cattle feeding in battalions, and the pigeons in a white cloud wheeling round the stable roofs.
We envy Mr Bateman his skill in delineation, his knowledge and his patience. His sharp, clever, precise touch, neither dry nor mechanical, evinces mechanical talent of a high order, — the distances and the selection indicate a higher power: — together and combined they promise an artist of rare ability, — one whose pencil may stick at nothing, — who, starting from the ability to render all he sees, will rise to the ability — if he has not already done so — of representing all he wishes to see, — of selecting from, or recombining, of sorting, chastening, heightening and refining Nature. (“The Athenaeum”, London, No. 1523, 1857)
As numbered in “The Athenaeum” article and ordered above based upon the interpretation by Anne Neale in her doctorate “Illuminating Nature”, Bateman’s pictures were probably intended to be hung in sequence around three walls of a room with an effect something like a guided tour, with NGV View V and View I (Anna Howitt’s No. 1 and No. 12) the bookends to the sequence. However, as noted by Neale in a previous NGV exhibition, (“This Wondrous Land” 2011), the numbering used by the writer in “The Athenaeum” article does not match the current NGV catalogue descriptions. “The Athenaeum” summary having been written in 1857 it can however be more or less assumed to be the more correct sequence of the artist’s intended order although Dr Neale suggests intriguingly that it could mean that the two sequences actually represent the overlapping parts of a larger and now certainly lost set.
E La Trobe Bateman remained in Australia until 1869, producing sketches and paintings, botanical illustrations and illuminated bindings, graphic and textile designs, garden designs and architectural plans. His was a remarkable talent that has left a significant mark on the history of Yallambie.
Bateman may be best described today as an Aesthetic. As an interesting end note, some years ago we heard from a descendant of a man by the name of John Morris, reputedly a gardener for the Bakewells. Morris was a Ticket of Leave convict who had been sponsored by Bateman to work at the Plenty Station, which he did so happily for 20 years, marrying and producing five children along the way. One can only wonder if this John Morris was in any way related to the family of the famous William Morris, one of the founders of Aestheticism, and himself a keen gardener.
Bateman decamped Australia at the end of 1869 after injuring his drawing hand in a buggy accident, taking virtually all of his drawings with him on departure. The “Yallambee” drawings remained by descent with the Bakewell family in England until 1935 when they passed to Alice Miller and John Compton Miller from whom they were purchased for the NGV by the Felton Bequest in 1959. Bateman spent the rest of his life as a landscape gardener to the Marquess of Bute at Rothesay in Scotland where he died in 1897 aged 82, a well brewed teapot.