The farm of Mr Perry on the Yarra 1855 signed and dated 'Eug. von Guerard fec. Melbourne 1855' lower left oil on canvas 60.1 x 91.2cm (23 11/16 x 35 7/8in).
PROVENANCE Commissioned by Mr Perry of Symonds & Perry in 1855 By descent Private Collection Australian and European Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Part I and II, Christies, Melbourne, 29 April 1997, lot 79 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1997
EXHIBITED On loan to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1941-1955 Eugene von Guérard, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, June - July 1980; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, August 1980; Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Ballarat, September October 1980; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, November 1980; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1980 On loan to the Hamilton Regional Art Gallery, Hamilton, c.1980-1997 Eugene von Guerard: Nature Revealed, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 16 April - 7 August 2011; Queensland Art Gallery Brisbane, 17 December 2011 4 March 2012; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 27 April 15 July, 2012, cat. no. 178
LITERATURE The Argus, Melbourne, 22 April 1855, p. 5 Candice Bruce, Eugene Von Guerard, Australian Gallery Directors Council, Sydney, 1980, pp.34, 35 (illus.), 101 Candice Bruce, Edward Comstock and Frank McDonald, Eugene von Guerard, 1811-1901: a German Romantic in the Antipodes, exh. cat., Alister Taylor, Martinborough, 1982, pp. 80-81, p. 186 (illus.) Greg Burchill, 'Picture yesteryear's Yarra, for $2m', (unsourced clipping, 1 April 1997) (illus.) Michael Reid, 'Heavyweight gallery tipped in chase for Von Guerard', Weekend Australian, Sydney, 26-7 April 1997 Mike Edmonds, 'Brushing up on art of bargain-hunting', Herald Sun, Melbourne, 30 April 1997, p. 15 (illus.) Terry Ingram, 'A moveable feast of our heritage', Australian Financial Review, 19 November 1997, p. 29 Sophia Pavlovski-Ross, 'Coate Park and Rudder Grange: discovering local history and cultural: heritage in two parks in Alphington', Rural remnants: some early Melbourne landscapes & what has happened to them, Yarra Melbourne Local History Forum, Melbourne, 2003, pp. 39-42, (illus. front and back cover) Richard Aitken, Gardenesque: a celebration of Australian gardening, Miegunyah, Melbourne, 2004 Mary Eagle, 'Homestead views by Eugene von Guerard', Artonview, Summer 2006, no.48, p. 30-35 (illus.), titled Mr Perry's Farm Candice Bruce, 'The farm of Mr Perry on the Yarra 1855'; in Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guerard: Nature Revealed, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011, pp. 178, 277, 286, p.174-5, 179 (illus.)
This painting of the Perry family's farm, Fulham Grange at Alphington on the Yarra River, is unique amongst von Guerard's works for two reasons: it was the artist's very first commission in the colony and, importantly, it depicts not just an early homestead (a genre von Guerard would later make his own) but one that was also a working farm, vineyard and nursery.
The land was still untamed bush when Englishman Richard Perry and his wife Elizabeth first took it up in the early 1850s, creating a farm, market garden, vineyard and after a time, a tree nursery, eventually known as Perry's Nursery Garden and Orchard. They had nine children but it was the three eldest sons Richard (b.1825), William (b.1827) and George (b.1829) who developed the business, along with a wide range of property interests, including the Melbourne land auctioneering firm, Perry & Symons. William was the most dynamic of the trio and was said to be the 'Mr Perry' who, in late 1854, commissioned the painting from the artist, not his father or brothers.
In 1854 von Guerard was just setting out on his artistic career in Australia having abandoned all hope of striking it rich in the goldfields. He was finding the going tough, however, in spite of receiving a good critical reception at the 1854 Melbourne Exhibition. Winning this important commission was something of a coup and no doubt led the artist to feel optimistic about his prospects.
The composition is an unusual one, showing the house and surrounding orchards sitting high on the ridge with two-thirds of the canvas filled with the foreground detail, while one-third is open clear sky. Von Guerard brings all his skills to the canvas, enabling the viewer in one glance to take in a huge amount of detail along with a wide panorama. The eye is swept across the vista, down to the river and up once more onto the smooth foreground slope where cows calmly graze. In the process, we also absorb an enormous wealth of detail: the farm house and out buildings, the kitchen garden and shaded beds, the vineyards, the barrels of home-made brew, the rows of fruit trees, the long elegant driveway though still looking very new and bare and fine carriage and passengers, the small boat with two figures and the tiny birdhouse perched high in a tree with a possum collar around the trunk.
Around the perimeter of the property is a wealth of native vegetation, including river gums, yellow box, she-oak and blackwood; they circle the house and heighten its isolation and, as with other canvases by the artists, the just-felled trees and their nearby stumps pointedly illustrate that the land is still in the process of being cleared.
Extensive and detailed underdrawing in both pencil and ink in many of von Guerard's paintings, discovered by National Gallery of Victoria conservator Michael Varcoe-Cocks, has revealed much about the artist's technique. It is this careful and exacting preparation, a process that began with small drawings in the artist's sketchbooks (such as the drawing of the birdhouse, illustrated) before being realised in a series of larger drawings and then on the canvas itself, that makes von Guerard unique. No other artist working in Melbourne at this time had his rigorous approach; no other had his thorough European academic training; no other had the years of experience and sheer physical stamina, and his limitless curiosity about nature and science.
The Perrys' nursery business expanded rapidly after the gold rush the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables being almost unlimited although labour was expensive and hard to find. The firm ran almost weekly advertisements in the Argus throughout the 1850s and 1860s for gardeners, labourers, timber splitters and bush carpenters, many of whom are depicted at their work in this bucolic painting. Here is cultivation in the midst of wilderness; here, the final result of hard work and determination; here, the true spirit of the Pioneer; here, Utopia. It was a golden moment of optimism and prosperity and one that would not last.
After Richard Perry's death in September 1867, his three sons further extended the business, planting more trees and installing sophisticated machinery to cook and bottle fruit for both a local and overseas market. By the late 1860s, Fulham Grange held more than 100,000 apple, pear, plum, peach, apricot, damson, quince, lemon, orange and shaddock (pomelo) trees, and every year produced tons of jams, marmalades, condiments, jellies and bottled fruit. As well, the brothers ran a tree nursery which stocked almost every variety of exotic tree available in the colonies.
They seemed to have proceeded with the expansion in defiance of a slowing of the Victorian economy after the earlier decade's gold rush. The business gradually declined and in 1884 the property was subdivided and sold off in allotments to create one of Melbourne's first garden suburbs.
Von Guerard left a rich legacy of paintings and drawings but none other than this canvas captures so brilliantly the economic, cultural and agricultural history of settler life in the nascent colony.
Dr Candice Bruce
1 Argus, Melbourne, 26 May 1868, p. 6, this article implies the Perry family may have tried settling in Tasmania in about 1848 before arriving in Melbourne. 2 Argus, Melbourne, 24 April 1855, p. 5, I am also grateful to Michael Varcoe-Cocks for information on the Perry family and their business interests. 3 For further information on Eugene von Guerard see Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guerard : Nature Revealed, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011 4 For further information on von Guerard's technique see R. Pullin, op.cit., pp.167-169; M.Varcoe-Cocks, in Pullin, op. cit., pp. 29-31, and, 'The verisimilar line: The use of infrared in a survey of a group of paintings by Eugene von Guerard', in Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art, vol. 2, Underdrawing, University of Melbourne, 2005, pp. 19-34 5 Argus, Melbourne, 26 May 1868, p. 6, a catalogue of the nursery stock was published in the 1870s