The emergence of the Australian legend in the late

Table of Content

nineteenth century islargely explained as a desire of many artists and writers of the period, asan escape from the conditions and pressures of society, and as a retreatinto an alternate reality.

This essay, will examine the works of Graham Davison, Henry Lawson, BanjoPatterson, Tom Roberts, and many other writers and historians who havecontributed, and/or interpreted the Australian legend of the nineteenthcentury.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

In examining these figures, it will analyse and asses how their works werea product of their society, and how they reflect a desire to escape theircurrent situation, and retreat into an alternate reality.

In doing this, this essay will make use of Banjo Patterson’s works toillustrate how these illusions of the bush legend were nothing more thanthe figment of the imagination of artists and writers attempting to createa utopian environment, which in reality just didn’t exist.

Graham Davison in his text ‘the rise and fall of marvellous Melbourne’alludes to the notion of reaction to the conditions of society when hequotes “the rural dream was the reflex of the urban nightmare1”.

Graham Davison in this quote juxtaposes the notions of rural and urbanconditions, with that of the dream and nightmare situations to highlightthe deteriorating conditions of the city in comparison with the utopianalternate reality to which many artists and writers have turned. Thisassists in explaining how the conditions of the urban Melbourne and Sydneylife, culminated in the creation and development of the Australian legend,based in the outback.

Davison extends on this point in another of his publications – Sydney andthe Bush2, when he argues that the “dream-like land of the west” emergedin the 1880’s as a retreat, and rebellion against the conditions of thecity. Davison furthers his argument by making reference to theEmployee/employer disputes of the 1890’s, when he comments on the urbanconflicts of the same period.

He uses the reference of the Employee disputes as an example, and a symbolof the deteriorating conditions faced in the city and presents it as astrong reason why anyone would feel compelled to retreat, (theworker/employer dispute will be discussed further on). Again Davisoncontrasts the two notions of a utopian dream-like paradise with that of thedown graded hell-like city to emphasis further the impact one ‘location’had on the development of the other.

Another figure who is well renounded for his contribution to the Australianlegend is artist Tom Roberts, who was made famous by his painting “sheeringthe rams” in 1891.

This image is an example of a retreat from society’s conflicts into aharmonious environment.

This image was created in 1890, during the depression period, which as wasmentioned, devastated the sheering industry.

95% of the picture is of the sheering shed, which indicates a self-contained world, one in which is blocked off to the rest of society, andhence the illusion of a prosperous world.

The other 5% of the picture is a small window which shows the country sideof Brocklesby Station, Corowa in East NSW3, where Roberts began paintingit. (It is worth mentioning that Roberts completed the painting in hisstudio in Collins Street, Melbourne4, hence it is fair to say the picturecontains influential elements from both the city and the bush whichassisted in moulding the final product and is an example of city the bushbeing developed from the city).

The importance of the idea of a self-contained world is the fact thatoutside the shed, are major societal problems for example the economicdepression, the harshness of the Australian climate, the worker/employerdisputes, and the poverty, and unemployment faced in the city.

Both Richard White and Graham Davison support this notion in theirreferences to the conditions of the city life.

Davison argues that the 1890’s was a period of “terribledisillusionment5”, especially for Melburnians. He quotes “Urbanexperiences intensified by the economic crash might almost sufficethemselves to explain the value structure, if not the mythological settingof the bush legend6”.

During the period Roberts was painting “Shearing the Rams”, there was adepression which had devastated the sheering industry, as wool prices wererapidly plummeting, there had been a major overstock of sheep.

As a result many sheep were considered to have become redundant, and thus,slaughtered.

This was a disastrous incident, as Australia at the time was supplying two-thirds of the world’s fine wool, so hence; the depression crippled thesheering industry.

The image doesn’t show this great strain in the industry, in fact it showsa level of competition, and enjoyment, which makes the area inside theshed, seems like a fading world (in relation to the rest of society).

When the reality of the context of the time period, and the elements whichinfluenced the picture is introduced, the harmonious world seems to bedetached from reality.

The picture in its own way depicts an industry which seems to be alive andthriving, as people are still enjoying what they do, and even competing infriendly competition to get the job done, although, this is not the case,and just as Lawson’s the bush legend of this period (designed by artistsand writers) was a false Utopian environment, so is this.

Hence it is fair to say the picture depicts a world which is fading away.

The presence of the old man on the right-hand side gives an allusion to ajudge of the competition between the shearers, a manager, or an owner ofthe barn.

This is an important detail, as during this period, there is an ongoingconflict between employers and employees which led to many unions, strikes,and rebellions (as will be discussed in further on in relation to BanjoPatterson) against the higher, wealthier classes.

As again, this element depicts a reality which is false, as the harmoniousrelationship between the shearers and the employee class was non-existent,hence this picture demonstrates a retreat from the degrading conditions ofsociety, into a false, harmonious, utopian environment, which has becomethe basis for the Australian legend.

All these elements combined demonstrate how Roberts’s picture is a primeexample of the utopian environment many artists and writers of the timeattempted to construct to escape the realities of society.

As a result of the deteriorating conditions of society, writers and artistsbegan to create this imaginary Australian, Utopian environment based in thebush. Legend writer Banjo Patterson’s most famous poem Waltzing Matilda isa profound example of the reality of the bush culture, and how it wasn’t aUtopian environment, instead, it was a harsh, desolate area with its owncommunital problems.

The poem talks of a man who had retreated to a pond with ‘jumbucks’ – anAboriginal term for sheep, and had been trailed by a patrol of squatters -higher class of authorities, however the swagman, instead of being caught,jumps into the pond, and drowns.

At first glance, and to many Australians, Waltzing Matilda exemplifiesqualities commonly shown by Australians such as a disregard for theauthorities. In his text, ‘The Australian Legend’, Russel Ward7 discussesthis trait, when he argues an ‘Aussies’ despise of officiousness andauthority, especially when it is embedded in military figures, and police.

However, the historical context reveals more than what the poem deliversstraight up.

Historian Rodger Clarke8 argues the poem was developed as a result of theconflict between workers and their employers.

During this period unionisation had emerged in Australia, and the sheep-shearers (employees) were fighting the employers for better wages andconditions.

Employer and writer John Monash9 supports this notion (Which was also thecase in the city with a strong distinction between the classes), when in aletter written in 1891, he criticises the working class calling them “raw,ignorant Irishmen, strong and muscular, intemperate, improvident, uncleanto look upon, and with not a thought beyond the day, and with the narrowestpossible horizon. In his work, the average man exercises no intelligence,and takes and obeys the orders of the ganger (higher class employers) likea horse obeys the reigns – blindly”.

This demonstrates a critical point of the attitude of the higher classtowards that of the workers, illustrating the reasoning behind the feudbetween the two societal groups.

On the 1st of September 1894, four months prior to the development of theUnions, shearers rebelled against the higher class, and set the Dagworthwoolshed station in central Queensland ablaze, cremating a hundredsheep10.

During this incident three police troopers had pursued the rebelling party,and in the chase, one of them, a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, a German manwho had been a union organiser11 had shot himself.

As was discussed prior, during this period, there was an economicdepression which virtually crippled the shearing industry, making sheep(wool) a very valuable asset, hence, the seriousness of Hoffmeister’sactions.

The 1894 Shearer’s Strike could not have escaped Patterson’s attention asit was of national significance, but more importantly, Patterson wasactually at the Dagworth station in central Queensland when he was writingWaltzing Matilda a year later in 189512Banjo Patterson had used this incident and adapted it into a poem toexplain the relations (lack thereof) between the two classes of worker andemployer to explain the deteriorating conditions of society.

This poem depicts the bush conditions which is a much different argument tothat of Davison who claims it is the city life which drove people away.

While working as a lawyer in the city, a critical tool Patterson harnessedto portray his perceptions of the Australian identity, was a magazinetitled ‘the bulletin’, which was used by many writers to explore ideas, andargue debates.

A central debate of which was the reality of the bush life, a topicPatterson was well aware of, as he was born in Orange, a small countrytown.

However, Patterson was constantly debating with a fellow writer, andAustralian icon, Henry Lawson, who subscribed to the notion of theAustralian utopian identity which was a major development of the period,and who had a much narrower view of the bush lifestyle, although he hadvisited North Queensland on a number of occasions, but was mainly broughtup in the city.

Patterson and Lawson frequently argued and contradicted each other aboutthe reality of the bush.

This brings up the issue of reality vs. the fiction of the nature of bushlife.

Historian Richard White, in an article titled Bohemians and the Bush13,discusses this notion, and argues that the writings of the bush weremisinformed as they were written from a city point of view – an escapistideology in which they created something to retreat into – a utopia whichdid not exist.

He argues this point when he quotes “The bush simply provided a frame onwhich to hang a set of preconceptions”.

White furthers this point when he refers to a collection of writers who haddecided that to get a true glimpse of what the country rural life was like.

Henry Lawson’s original expectations of the bush culture were summed up ina piece of poetry he wrote in 1888 “further out may be the pleasant scenesof which our poets boast14”.

However the reality of the bush context was a rude shock for Lawson whowrites that on the journey through Byrock, “They were soon depressed by thesoul-destroying sameness, relieved only by dreams of city pleasures anddelights, so they turned off the track to the Bogan River on reachingit15”.

This is a prime example of how the bush legend was very much just analternate reality in which writers and artists could escape – one in whichdidn’t exist – it was a utopian environment created in the minds ofdreamers.

Patterson on the other hand very much illustrates the true conditions ofthe rural outback, as in Waltzing Matilda; the historical context isbrought out, revealing a very grim reality.

Russel Ward, an influential historian who is regarded by Graham Davison asthe Australian Identities “most influential interpreter16” alsosubscribes to the notion that the conditions of the bush were harsh, anddegrading, and he points strongly to the Australian geography as the mostimportant influence which shaped the life of the outback community17.

Ward also points to “economic factors and the effects of landlegislation18” as other equally important factors which contributed tothe harshness of the Australian outback culture, proving (in his terms)that the bush ideal as presented by many artists and writers, was nothingmore than the figment of their imagination, and used as a means to escapethe urban conditions.

Interestingly, the key ideological element which is at the heart of theAustralian identity – mateship – is derived from socialist values, and ispresented through two particular writers, Henry Lawson during the 1890’s.

As Graham Davison writes in Sydney and the bush19, Lawson, in 1891 was anactive member of a socialist circle, whose members were banded together tohelp each other combat the deteriorating conditions of the city.

The secretary of this movement, which was to be known as the Australiansocialist league, was a man named E.J. Brady, who had disobeyed hisemployer, and as such was dismissed, and now lived a life similar toLawson’s.

Graham Davison examines this notion when he refers to a piece of Lawson’spoetry, which he believes precisely establishes his “urban situation”, andso accurately describes “his legacy of loneliness”, as a result of the poorsocietal conditions.

“They lie, the men who tell us for reasons of their own that want is here astranger, and that misery’s unknown; for where the nearest suburb and thecity proper meet, my window is still level with the faces of the street -drifting past, drifting past, to the beat of weary feet, while I sorrow forthe owners of those faces in the street20”.

This was the sort of life many artists, writers, or just plain peopleexperienced in the cities of either Melbourne and/or Sydney.

Their engagement in this movement laid a basis for the ‘egalitarian’ and’collectivist’ elements of socialist values, which were also central to thebush ethos, and as such, these ideals were transformed into the notion ofmateship.

The idea of banding together to help each other combat hard times was andis a central theme in the notion of mateship, and in this context, theideals were formed out of a desire to escape the pressures, and theconditions faced in Australian society in 1890.

All these artists and writers in their own way have a desire to escape thepressures, and conditions of reality in particular the, poverty, and classdistinctions.

These harsh realities had forced these artists and writers to create animaginary world, which had at its core the notions of, egalitarianism,collectivism (which were used to create mateship), and healthy settings.

This utopian environment developed and created a national identity,however, its creation was developed as a result of a desire to escape fromthe harshness of society, and retreat into an alternate reality, free fromstrain.

———————–1 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘The suburbs’ in The rise and fall of MarvellousMelbourne, Melbourne University press, Australia, page 2512 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘Sydney and the Bush: an Urban context for theAustralian Legend’, in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resourcematerials book 1, page 2143 National Gallery of Victoria, 2000, ‘The Artists: Tom Roberts: Shearingthe Rams 1888-1890’, Artists footsteps, retrieved 14th/6/03 from Ibid5 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘Sydney and the Bush: an Urban context for theAustralian Legend’, in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resourcematerials book 1, page 2146 Ibid, page 2157 Russel Ward, 1958, The Australian Legend, Oxford University press,Melbourne, Australia page 1808 Rodger Clarke, 2002, ‘The Writing of Waltzing Matilda’, Rodger Clarke’sWaltzing Matilda retrieved 7/6/03 from John Monash, 1981, ‘John Monash’s description of the Navvy, 1891’,Labour History, volume 40, page 9310 Rodger Clarke, 2002, ‘The Writing of Waltzing Matilda’, RodgerClarke’s Waltzing Matilda retrieved 7/6/03 from Dennis O’Keeffe, 2002, ‘Who was the swagman?’, Waltzing Matilda story- the legendary swagman retrieved 7/6/03 from National Library of Australia, Origins (of Waltzing Matilda), Who’llcome a Waltzing Matilda with me?, accessed 15/6/03 from Richard White, 1981, ‘Bohemians and the Bush’, Inventing Australia, inHIST 154 Australia through two centuries, resource materials book 1, page24014 Henry Lawson, ‘faces in the street’, Bulletin, 28th July 1888, in HIST154: Australia through two centuries, resource materials book 1 page 21115 Richard White, 1981, ‘Bohemians and the Bush’, Inventing Australia,page 24016 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘Sydney and the Bush: an Urban context for theAustralian Legend’, in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resourcematerials book 1, page 20917 Russel Ward, 1958, ‘A country practice’ The Australian legend, Acountry practice in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resourcematerials book 1, page 20718 Ibid, page 20519 Ibid, page 21420 Ibid, page 211

Cite this page

The emergence of the Australian legend in the late. (2018, Nov 20). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront