Legends of the Bush

Bailed Up by Tom Roberts Legends of the bush

The horse in Australia has played a central role in the formation of our national identity. The distinctive Australian values of mateship, toughness, anti-authoritarianism, and concern for the ‘battler’ were carved out in the presence of horses.

From the ponies who arrived here on the First Fleet in January 1788, and the others who joined them and were bred here, in peace and war, in sport and leisure, in work and play, horses and their riders have been fundamental to our collective sense of Australian-ness.

In the colonial period, skill with horses and firearms made the mounted bush worker something more than a mere labourer, since a trained horseman always had the makings of a gentleman.

A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson reflects the prestige accorded the remarkable horseman in his great poem, The Man from Snowy River’ (1890). The ‘Man’, an amalgam of three great stockmen known to the poet, Jack Riley, Owen Cummins, and Charlie McKeahnie, pursues another aristocrat, a thoroughbred racehorse ‘the colt from old Regret’ – “he was worth a thousand pound” who had run off to join the wild bush horses.

“… the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat — It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride … The man from Snowy River is a household word to-day, And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.”

Bushrangers were equally famed for their horsemanship, and their feats in the saddle have made a handful of them household names; the Kelly Gang, Captain Starlight [both of them!], ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan, and Captain Thunderbolt. From 1788 to 1901 over 1,200 of them ‘lived in the bush and subsisted by robbery by violence’.

Captain Thunderbolt, (Frederick Ward) who we see here on the chestnut gelding on the far left in Bailed Up, is in fact also depicted seated with effortless grace on a plunging horse in a commemorative statue made in 1988 by Dennis Adams. It stands on the corner of the New England Highway and Thunderbolt’s Way, Uralla.

Ned Kelly too was ‘eloquent in the saddle’, a fact even frustrated troopers had to admit. Elsewhere, in central/northern NSW a ‘second generation’ of bushrangers lured by discovery of gold in the 1850s, were also famed horsemen. Here the most notorious gang was led by Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall and John Gilbert. ‘All three were excellent horsemen, often using stolen racehorses to outrun the police. Their greatest robbery was of the Forbes gold escort at Eugowra Rocks on its way to Sydney in June 1862. The gang got away with £14,000 in cash and gold.’

Bushrangers were popular subject matter for both artists, poets and illustrators. In William Strutt’s Bushrangers of 1852 we see a line of handcuffed and hapless victims sitting on the ground while their tormentors filch gold, coins, and other valuables.

Leading colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill also produced dozens of dramatic and exciting prints and watercolours of mail coaches being robbed, as in Attacking the Mail, 1865, and in many others depicting mounted police in pursuit of bushrangers.

Condensing all of these ideas is Tom Roberts’ masterpiece, the iconic Bailed Up, 1895 which has been described as ‘the greatest Australian landscape ever painted’. Many of us know it better from posters, calendars, placemats, greeting cards, and school project kits than from the original, which hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

Bailed up is ‘set’ in 1865, some thirty years before the date of its production, so it is what we call an ‘anachronistic’ image. Roberts, as he’d done with Shearing the Rams, and A Breakaway, was making a self-consciously historical painting in order to talk about the past. He approached the historical dimension of the picture with his usual almost ‘forensic’ research skills to ensure that every detail in it was correct; from the people’s clothing, to the horses’ saddlery, and to the guns carried [Martini-Henrys were actually not available in 1865, a rare slip up]. He even built a viewing platform over his chosen robbery site on the road half-way between Newstead Station Inverell, and another station, Paradise, so he could construct the scene in an actual landscape.

In 1895 when Bailed Up was painted, the ‘bush’ itself was becoming less remote. Much of it around Sydney and Melbourne had been penetrated by the laying down of new railway lines. Those that ran to Heidelberg from Melbourne actually made it possible for the Australian Impressionists; Tom Roberts, Fred McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, to get quickly and cheaply to their legendary campsites at Eaglemont and elsewhere. Moreover by now attacks by bushrangers, while not eradicated, were basically ‘consigned to the past’. The so-called ‘last bushranger’ Jimmy Governor was hung in 1901.

Bailed Up shows the dramatic moment of an actual hold-up as recounted to Roberts by a local Inverell man, ‘Silent Bob Bates’ an ex Cobb and Co driver who had been held up thirty years earlier by Captain Thunderbolt (aka Fred Ward) and his gang. In gratitude, Roberts based the appearance of the driver on Silent Bob.

In the stillness of a bush midday the tension never quite boils over into tragedy – and this point is also factually accurate; Captain Thunderbolt, the ‘gentleman’ bushranger, seemingly never shot at victims of robbery – but the danger of violence is quite clear.

If we visually divide the painting into three zones; right, centre and left, we can almost perceive three distinct emotional ‘micro-climates.’ On the far right, we see an elderly man seated on a rock, peeking out just behind the grey bushranger’s horse. He is smoking a pipe and even appears to have a book on his lap.

Beside him is a small boy in sunhat and short pants, whose anxious gaze is fixed on the gun that lays across the saddle of the bushranger on the grey horse.

Psychologically, only this little boy, and, at the other end of the picture, the lead grey carriage horse in the Cobb and Co team, raising its head and striking out with a forelimb, who express the emotional reality of the situation. Too young and too equine to be constrained by societal dictates, they are the ‘canaries in the mine’; the only ones who express with natural and authentic feeling, the danger in which their group is in.

Further along reading right to left; the lady inside the coach (her appearance purportedly based on local hotelier Isabella Caldow), seems to be amused by something the dis-mounted bushranger holding the dark brown mare, has just said. His mare idly sniffs the ground for stray forage.

Atop the carriage, the driver sits stiff and mortified, a pistol trained at his head by the bushranger on the white horse behind the carriage horses. The tension in this section of the painting is palpable.

The far left hand section features the curious forward-leaning posture on the part of Captain Thunderbolt mounted on his chestnut gelding. It’s not clear what Roberts envisioned here in terms of a reading – maybe the Captain is horse-whispering to the grey carriage horse (he did spent the first half of his life as a master horse-breaker), however, beholding the gun held slantwise over the bushranger’s lap, the upset grey carriage horse, won’t be talked down.

Roberts ‘considered this painting to be his “big gem” but few agreed and it failed to find a buyer for thirty years. Eventually a Mr Maund bought it, and loaned it, and then later sold it to the AGSNW, after which generations of fresh, modern-eyed audiences and curators have since hailed it as a masterpiece.

Now 123 years old, it’s had a life as hard as the subjects it depicts. In the 1950s it famously fell off the back of the truck transporting it from Sydney to Melbourne for an exhibition tied in to the Olympics, but with skilled conservation, and x-rays, (that revealed Roberts’ 1927 ‘changes’ that flattened and modernised it), it lives on to intrigue current and future viewers.

Bailed Up will remain, I hope, as Roberts intended it, a complex and sophisticated rendering of real historical events in the Australian bush, and one that highlights horses as key players.

Further reading:

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Dr Georgina Downey

An art historian who's published extensively on the domestic interior, Dr Georgina Downey is the human of Classic, the dressage schoolmaster and Angas, the Cairn terrier. In this regular Horses and People in Art column, she provides a unique equine-centred perspective to famous equestrian artworks.


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