State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 75 Autumn 2005


Madeleine Say
Black Thursday:
William Strutt's “Itinerant Picture'

… an itinerant picture in search of a place in a public collection.
Christine Downer1
It Is fitting that William Strutt's massive historical painting Black Thursday, February 6th 1851 adorns the cover and is reproduced in this edition of The La Trobe Journal. The painting is considered to be the most important, and certainly the most valuable, of the La Trobe Picture Collection. Much reproduced and referenced in a substantial body of literature, the painting has attracted interest since it was first displayed in the Scandinavian Gallery, at the Haymarket, London in 1864.2
Carefully composed and precisely painted, the picture was considered by Strutt to be his “magnum opus'.3 He used the particularly Australian experience of a bushfire to produce a dramatic historical painting in the European tradition. William Strutt (1825–1915) arrived in Melbourne in July 1850, and the following February was his first experience of an Australian summer. While he did not directly experience the fires of “Black Thursday”, he wrote vividly in his journal of the heat, dust and eerie effect of dense smoke on the city. The painting is a curious mixture of the representational and the contrived. This is apparent in many aspects of the work, for example in the realistic depiction of the birds and animals, contrasted with the contrivance of their composition into a memento mori arrangement in the foreground of the painting.
Strutt always intended this instructional work should be included in a public collection, and the painting's sheer size and dramatic subject matter certainly made it unsuitable for a domestic setting.4 It took until 1954, almost one hundred years after completion, for the painting celebrating a major episode in Victorian history to finally find a home in a public collection.

A colonial picture in search of a patron

When first displayed in London Black Thursday“…was much admired and got some excellent press notices,” as Strutt noted in his memoirs.5 Indeed, a selection of these notices was reprinted in the Melbourne newspaper, the Weekly Age, in September 1864. The editor urged: “The proper destination of this … really historical picture, is the colony itself, where it should be preserved in any public collection as a memorial of a terrible incident in colonial annals'.6
Strutt exhibited the painting at least twice in 1866. First in the commercial gallery attached to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in London, where a collection of 900 works was exhibited and the commission on sales was 5%.7 Later that year the painting was included in a display of his paintings at the Corn Exchange, Chelmsford, Essex.8
While much admired, the painting failed to find a buyer. A group of former Victorian colonists now residing in London planned to purchase the painting, raising the money by subscription, and send it to the Melbourne Gallery. As part of this plan Edward Wilson (1813–1878), the one-time editor of the Argus, wrote to Strutt offering to hang the painting in his dining room in Kent and thus bring it to the attention of his (presumably wealthy) visitors.9
There was a moment of high drama when “Black Thursday most unfortunately fell on to the dinner table”, but fortunately, neither the guests nor the painting were hurt.10 Strutt was asking the paltry sum of £300 for the painting, but Wilson was unable to raise this amount, even by subscription. This seems extraordinary, considering the personal fortunes that had been made during the gold rush or from pastoral life in the colonies.
James Smith (1820–1910), journalist and art critic, was a champion of the campaign. In a letter to the Argus he writes that £60 has already been subscribed towards the purchase of the painting, and remarks: “The artist, I am informed, is willing to take £200 for the picture. At that price, I believe it would yield him something less … than the wages of a colour-grinder.'11

Black Thursday begins its Australian Odyssey

Nothing came of these proposals. In 1880 James Smith became a Trustee of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery. Soon afterwards he visited Strutt in his English studio and viewed the painting. The two men had corresponded for a number of years during their campaign to have the picture placed in the Melbourne Gallery. Now as a trustee Smith probably thought he could finally influence the Gallery to purchase the painting.12
However, very soon after Smith's visit the painting was finally sold. It was included in a consignment of Strutt's paintings bought by H.J. Johnstone for E. J. Wivell of Adelaide. The full extent of the partnership between Henry Johnstone (1835–1907) and Edward Wivell (c.1835–1909) is uncertain, but the relationship continued for many years. As Johnstone and “Wyvil” they had exhibited a collection of photographs at the 1856 Victorian Exhibition of Art. Johnstone, a photographer and painter, is better known as a partner in Johnstone & O'Shannessy photographic studio. In the 1870s Johnstone left Melbourne for London where he focused on a career as a painter. Wivell had left Melbourne for Adelaide in the 1860s. Here he operated a number of business ventures, including a dancing academy and photographic studio. In 1880 Wivell became the proprietor of the leading commercial art gallery in Rundle Street which displayed art works and prints. Wivell was the agent for Johnstone's paintings, promoting his works on colonial subjects.13
Johnstone negotiated the price of £260 for Black Thursday.14 There is no record of Wivell's reaction to its inclusion in the consignment, which included other rather more saleable paintings by Strutt on religious themes. By 1883 it was being displayed at Wivell's Art Gallery in Adelaide. Immediately the Melbourne Argus reported the arrival of the “fine picture “Black Thursday” in Adelaide, and sourly reported that “it is greatly to be regretted that it

William Strutt, artist. Black Thursday, February 6th |85|. Oil on canvas, 106 x 343 cm. H280049. La Trobe Picture Collection

should not have found a place in our national collection'.15
In April 1883 the South Australian Advertiser reported that “Mr Wivell has disposed of Strutt's celebrated picture “Black Thursday” to Mr George Hamilton for the sum of £2,000. The picture will be lent for exhibition at the National Art Gallery.'16 It is doubtful whether there was any truth in this report, and the sale never appears to have been finalised. Wivell continued to be listed as the owner when the painting was displayed at various venues in New South Wales and Victoria until 1901, and the price for the painting was never listed above £500.17
Almost immediately the painting arrived in Australia Wivell transported it to Victoria for public display. It was the drawcard for the exhibition of “high class works of art by eminent artists” organised by Wivell at the Athenaeum in Collins Street, Melbourne, in 1883. Admission was one shilling. Wivell printed a 24 page pamphlet for the exhibition. This included extracts from the Argus and the South Australian Advertiser extolling the importance of the painting and, cheekily, the reprint of a letter from Strutt to the South Australian Advertiser. “Though this picture has been a labor of love to me, and also a pecuniary loss, I shall rejoice to hear that Mr Wivell has obtained £2,000 for it, which is certainly not above its value.'18
There appears to be an element of inter-colony rivalry in Wivell's gamesmanship. However, despite being displayed at least four times in Victoria and New South Wales the painting still failed to find a buyer.
In 1893 the Quiz and Lantern, a South Australian newspaper, noted that a farewell concert was to be held in the Town Hall for Mr E. J. Wivell, who was described as: “well known in Adelaide … and … the possessor of the historical paintings, “Black Thursday” and “The Explorer'.19 This development induced another attempt by public figures to find a home for the painting in a State gallery collection.
In 1902 Thomas Gill (1849–1923), a collector of Australiana and governor of the South Australian Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, wrote a letter of protest to the President of the Public Library Board of South Australia. His request for the Gallery to purchase Black Thursday had been rejected. The board had undiplomatically advised Gill that Black Thursday was regarded as “unfit to be associated with the Masterpieces and other considerable works of art at present in the Art Gallery.” In his letter Gill stated that the painting was for sale at the “small amount of £250” from Mr Wivell, who “intended to take his unsold pictures, including “Black Thursday” to Perth Western Australia'. Gill concluded: “It cannot depreciate in value, and its removal to another State would, in my humble opinion, be a reproach to South Australia.'20
It is not known if Wivell ever made good his threat to leave South Australia, but sometime between 1902 and 1912 he finally sold the painting to a Mr W. S. Smith of Adelaide. At this time the painting was removed from public view until it was listed for sale by the Adelaide firm of Theodore Bruce Auctions in 1954.
“Mr Smith”, the only private owner of the painting in its entire history, was most probably William Sidney Smith, a Canadian-born photographer who had been residing in

Harold Godfrey Myers, photographer. Black Thursday. [ca. 1900-ca. 1914] Glass lantern slide. H91.93/55. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Adelaide since 1900. Smith's obituary in the Adelaide Advertiser in June 1960 describes his professional life in some detail and notes that until recently he had resided in a large house in East Terrace. Smith moved from this house to seaside retirement at Port Norlunga, at the time of the 1954 auction.21 However, the obituary does not mention ownership of the painting, and further evidence on the identity of “Mr Smith” may yet come to light.

Black Thursday finally comes home to Victoria

The purchase of Black Thursday by the Public Library of Victoria for the Historical Collection at the 1954 auction is almost an anticlimax. The purchase generated only a brief entry in the 1955 Annual Report of the Trustees, “A notable purchase was that of “Black Thursday”, an oil painting by William Strutt depicting the disastrous bushfires of February 1851. 150gns.'
No comment on this purchase by the Library in the contemporary press has been found. One has to conclude that the event was thought completely un-newsworthy; certainly there was no thought that the purchase price was outrageous.
From 1965, when the Library's new La Trobe building was opened to house the Australiana collection the painting was on permanent display.22 In this setting, Victorians in general came to know and love the painting.
Once the painting was part of a public collection and readily accessible, its importance in the history of Australian art was evaluated by a new generation of Australian art historians.23 Very few works by Strutt were part of the state collections in Australia until the early 1970s. While the Library purchase of Black Thursday alone cannot be credited with bringing about the reassessment of Strutt's importance as a colonial artist, it is interesting to note that the purchase was serendipitously made when his reputation as an artist was at its lowest.

Black Thursday travels into 21st century

Not even a prominent place in the Library's collection could save the painting from further travels. In the late twentieth century a combination of factors conspired to take the painting on another journey around Australia.
The exhibition staged for the Bicentennial, “Creating Australia; 200 years of Art 1788–1988”, fortunately included Black Thursday. This exhibition of masterworks celebrating Australian art and history toured to all state galleries during 1988 and 1989.24
By the time that the painting returned from the final exhibition leg in 1989 plans to refurbish the State Library of Victoria buildings were underway. The travelling case specially built for the large painting was kept by the library to protect the picture during the building works. The sheer logistics of moving the painting were obviously problematic in the extreme.
The prospect of packing Black Thursday away from public view for at least a decade disquieted staff and public alike. In response to this eventuality Christine Downer, the Picture Librarian during this period, had the foresight to lend the painting to the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, which had not been part of the itinerary in the Bicentennial exhibition.
The period of Library redevelopment was, inevitably, extended, leading to a corresponding extension of time that Black Thursday spent on its new “itinerant” journey. From the National Gallery the painting travelled to the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1995, and then finally, making good Wivell's threat, it crossed the Nullabor to the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1997.
In all these institutions, it was given temporary hanging space and displayed for the enjoyment of many thousands of people far from its home. A journalist writing in the West Australian newspaper noted the arrival of the painting and that “After endless black and white …history books, the full reality of this record of the disastrous bushfires around Melbourne in that year took my breath away.'25
The final stop on this modern journey was at the National Gallery of Victoria in March 2003 where, as in the nineteenth century, the painting was the main drawcard in an exhibition. The exhibition “Bushfire: our community responds”, was organised by the gallery to raise awareness and financial support for the Victorian Bushfire Recovery Appeal Fund.

F.A. Sleap, engraver. Black Thursday, February 1851. 1888. Wood engraving. Illustrated Australian News, I August 1888. La Trobe Picture Collection.

“Home” at last

In 2004 Black Thursday returned to the State library of Victoria and is now on permanent display with other works from the La Trobe Picture Collection in the Cowen Gallery. Its return to the Library was a media event, and a colour photograph of the installation of the painting in the new gallery featured in the Age newspaper.26
Finally the painting has a prominent place in a display focusing on Victorian history. As a complement to the grand painting a small preparatory sketch of smoke, one of many preparatory sketches completed by Strutt, hangs beside it.
As noted in “Bushfire: our community responds” the tragedy of fire is a recurring theme in Victorian, and indeed Australian, history. While Strutt's painting was composed to narrate one particular fire event in Victoria's history, that of the disastrous fire of 6 February 1851, images from his vision continue to resonate with each recurrence of the fire in the Victorian landscape.27


I am indebted to an essay by Christine Downer, former Picture Librarian at the State Library of Victoria for this phrase. See her catalogue essay, “Bushfire Panic”, in Daniel Thomas, ed., Creating Australia: 200 years of Art 1788–1988. Sydney. International Cultural Corporation of Australia and Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1988, pp. 44–46.


For example see: Bernard Smith, Australian Painting, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 52–56; Alan McCulloch, Artists of the Australian Gold Rush, Melbourne, Lansdowne Editions, 1977, pp.179–182; and Leigh Astbury, City Bushmen: The Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology. Melbourne, Oxford University Press., 1985, p. 142, for Strutt's influence on the Heidelberg school.


As quoted in Heather Curnow, The Life and Art of William Strutt 1825–1915, Martinborough, N.Z., Alister Taylor, 1980, p. 47.


Curnow discusses in detail Strutt's attempts to have the painting placed in a public collection. See pp. 48–50.


As quoted in Cunow, p. 47.


Weekly Age, 16 September 1864, p. 11.


J.R. Piggott, Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham 1854–1936, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004, pp. 133–134.


See a full listing of Black Thursday exhibitions in the catalogue by Heather Curnow for the exhibition, William Strutt, Sydney, Australian Gallery Directors Council with the assistance of the Australia Council Visual Arts Board and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1980, p.101.


See Curnow, pp.48–49 for a discussion of the scheme to purchase Black Thursday in the 1860s and Edward Wilson's involvement.


Note by Strutt in his personal papers, as quoted in Curnow, p. 49.


Letter to the Editor from James Smith, Argus, 23 November 1868, p. 5.


For a description of Smith's visit to Strutt's studio, see Curnow, p.48.


See Joan Kerr Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992. The entry for Johnson is on pages 407–408 and Wivell on pages 875–876. I would like to thank Jenny Scott, Collection Specialist with the State Library of South Australia, for additional biographical information on Edward Wivell.


See Curnow, p. 49


Argus, 16 March 1883, p. 6.


South Australian Advertiser, 25 April 1883, p. 5.


Black Thursday was exhibited in 1884 at the Victorian Jubilee Exhibition in Melbourne, Catalogue no. 420; at the Royal Anglo-Australian Society of Artists Exhibition in Sydney and Adelaide in 1890, Catalogue no. 131; and at the Victorian Gold Jubilee Exhibition held in Bendigo in 1901, Catalogue no. 156.


Edward Wivell, Grand Fine Art Exhibition: William Strutt's great historical picture, Black Thursday, an episode of the bush fires in Victoria of February 6, 1851, Adelaide: McGlory &Co, printers, [1883?].


Quiz and Lantern, 6 October 1893, p. 5. I would like to thank Jenny Scott, Collection Specialist with the State Library of South Australia for bringing this reference to my attention.


For Biographical information on Thomas Gill, see his entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography, v. 9, edited by B. Nairn and G. Serle, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1983. A copy of the Letter from Thomas Gill to the President of the Public Library Board of South Australia dated 17 December 1902 is held in the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.


Adelaide Advertiser, 15 June 1960, p. 5. I would like to thank Jenny Scott, Collection Specialist with the State Library of South Australia, for biographical information on the “W. S. Smiths” residing in Adelaide during 1902–1910.


See Essay by Christine Downer, “Bushfire Panic”, in Daniel Thomas, ed., Creating Australia 200 years of Art 1788–1988., Sydney, International Cultural Corporation of Australia and Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1988, pp 44–46.


For example see Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, pp. 49–50; Andrew Sayers, Australian Art, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp 60–62.


The catalogue from the exhibition was published as Daniel Thomas, ed., Creating Australia 200 years of Art 1788–1988. Sydney, International Cultural Corporation of Australia and Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1988.


West Australian, Big Weekend Section, 10 May 1997, p. 7.


Age, 24 October 2003, p. 16.


Bushfire: our community responds, Melbourne, Council of Trustees, National Gallery of Victoria, 2003.