Deep Gully Mine, near Bendigo c.1857 signed 'Rowe' lower right watercolour on paper on linen 91.5 x 68.5cm (36 x 26 15/16in).
PROVENANCE The artist's widow, London Mr Tothill thence by descent Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Touring exhibitions (Art Union lottery shows) Bendigo / Castlemaine / Melbourne c.1857 Probably London International Exhibition, Mining, quarrying and metallurgy section, 1862 Australian Art: Colonial to Contemporary, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, May - June 1995, cat. no. 9
LITERATURE Australian Art: Colonial to Contemporary, exh. cat., Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, 1995, p. 13 (illus.)
George Rowe's work was so popular among his fellow diggers that he found it difficult to keep up with the demand. Everybody seemed to want a souvenir of the goldfields to send home to their families or friends in England, the USA, or elsewhere. The great gold rushes of the early 1850s had attracted enormous numbers of people to Victoria from all over the world and the sights were unique. Like many others, Rowe came from England, seeking to strike it rich or, in Rowe's case, regenerate family fortunes. In England, Rowe had been an acknowledged watercolourist and one of the most prolific topographical printmakers during the first part of the nineteenth century. He was also publisher of the Cheltenham Examiner and part owner of the Royal Wells Music Hall. But fortune's wheel had turned against him. By December 1852 he was trying his luck on the Castlemaine diggings. Early the following year he and his son George Fawcett moved to the Bendigo diggings, eventually returning to painting.2 With orders 'coming in every day', he wrote to his daughter, 'I hope to knock off a good lot of them, as I begin to paint very fast from the practise I have ...'. 3
In addition, George found time to paint many watercolour views of the gold rush towns and fields of Central Victoria, at Bendigo, Castlemaine and Forest Creek. Four striking watercolours are in the collection of the Bendigo Art Gallery Camp Hill, Sandhurst (the old name for Bendigo) c.1853; Pall Mall, Sandhurst, 1857; the panoramic Kangaroo Flat c.1857; and Sandhurst from Quarry Hill, 1857. They were drawn with such accuracy and attention to detail that some of the buildings depicted can still be identified today. In 1857 fifty of Rowe's watercolours of the Bendigo and Castlemaine goldfields were exhibited in an Art Union at Sandhurst, Castlemaine, and later Melbourne. The following year he exhibited with the Victorian Industrial Society, Melbourne, before returning to England in about 1859. Here he continued to exhibit watercolours of Australian subjects based on sketches taken in the antipodes. Eight of these large views were shown in the London International Exhibition of 1862, where Rowe was the only artist to be awarded a medal. The detail, refinement of technique and quality of materials used in Deep Gully Mine, near Bendigo c.1857 suggests a studio work rather than one on the spot amid the dust or mud. Here, Rowe has turned his love of the panorama on its side to express the grandeur of nature combined with a touch of the sublime. The small details of the miners and their tents provide but minor incidents in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, many of Rowe's watercolours reveal a strong environmental concern, touched upon here in the mullock tipped into the gully. This and his other masterly watercolours display Rowe's familiarity with the goldfields and their diggers, giving his work that authority if not the intimacy of personal experience, seen and felt. They offer that ideal combination of true historical record elevated to the level of high art.
1 It appears possible that this watercolour was one of the eight included in the London International Exhibition of 1862. Following Rowe's death in 1864, his widow retained seven of the eight exhibited works, seven of which later went to a Mr Tothill. Five were eventually sold to Sir William Dixson and are now in the Dixson Collection of the State Library of New South Wales. 2 There was a great demand for painted inscriptions on signboards, wooden tombstones and the calico flags used by the diggers to distinguish their tents. Son George Fawcett also occupied himself painting theatre scenery and performing at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere, leading to an international career in the theatre. 3 George Rowe, letter to his daughter Phillipa, August 1853, quoted in Steven Blake, George Rowe, Artist & Lithographer, 1796-1864, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, 1982, p. 28