The ABC’s Great Southern Landscapes follows a not unfamiliar path: looking at places where iconic landscapes were painted, listening to local voices, exploring local issues—and, in the case of Arthur Streeton’s The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might, exploring the painting’s place within the Australian psyche.
Streeton painted Purple Noon overlooking the Hawkesbury River on a hot summer day in 1896. He was a Romantic painter, obsessively fond of quoting Keats and Shelley. The painting reflects Streeton’s desire to capture the ‘great golden plains’, the ‘slow immense summer’. And while Streeton naively paints nature, Purple Noon’s capture of a sundrenched moment is as impressionistic as Monet’s Sunrise capture of a hazed morning in the industrial port city of Le Havre in 1872.
It is difficult to convey the nuances of Streeton’s evocation of heat, light, distance and place in a 30-minute television show. Dharug woman Erin Wilkins provided an opportunity to interrogate Purple Noon when she described Dyarubbin, the river that settler society calls the Hawkesbury, as a sentient being and spoke of the trauma of invasion. It was a passing dark glimpse into the shimmering brilliance of Streeton’s mythscape.
Contextualising Purple Noon as a landscape not just as a noun, but also as a verb, enables the possibility that, whether or not he was aware of it, Streeton was creating a mythscape that endures in shaping settler imagination.
Painted in 1896, Purple Noon was a manifestation of Australian nationalism and a forerunner to Federation. Drenched in light, it reflects God beginning creation with light. A splash of white in the middle distance evokes another ancient tradition: it is Belmont, the newly built home of Phillip Charley, one of the original founders of BHP. It replaced the earlier Belmont built by Archibald Bell, a NSW Corps officer. The name belmont, meaning a beautiful hill, came from Normandy to England in 1066 with the new owners. A longer view of the big white house straddling the hilltop places it within a settler narrative stretching back to Gilgamesh’s Eanna, the sheepfold, the cloudbank, the house of the gods—and the inevitable consequences of the first agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent. It is that long tradition of a God-ordained struggle to tame the wilderness that Purple Noon blesses Settler Australia with. And looking askance at Purple Noon, I wonder at the potency inherent in its creation.
When National Gallery director Bernard Hall recommended the purchase, he mistook its title for The Purple Noon’s Transparent Light—a sympathetic and serendipitous mistake. When viewing Purple Noon, we are not looking at the Hawkesbury as though we were standing alongside Streeton. Rather, we are seeing a refracted view through the lens of Streeton’s eyes. In looking at it as a refraction rather than a reflection, I am turning away from a Newtonian perspective and observing it from the philosophy of Goethe, Heidegger and Derrida. Streeton’s eye-blinding brilliance of light both conceals and reveals. The ‘colour’ of Purple Noon comes not from the high-noon sun, but from the shadows, from that which is concealed, from that which does not go away, from that which haunts the settler narrative.
I do not view Purple Noon with awe or reverence. Painted in the beginnings of the great Federation Drought, it records a typically clapped-out Australian landscape, the detritus of an ever-moving frontier. The river is shrunken by drought, exposing collapsed banks and river-choking shoals, reflecting poor land management practices. The dairy cattle heading across the river suggests that the fences are down, and their sun-burnt pastures don’t have enough fresh grass or shade. When the Richmond Lowlands were settled in 1795, the native trees were cleared for wheat and corn. The Hawkesbury became the breadbasket of the colony, ensuring its survival until the 1860s, when the parasitical fungus popularly known as rust destroyed the wheat crops. And while distinctly Australian, the landscape also echoes an earlier British rural landscape formed when the first governors gave thirty-acre land grants to the ex-convicts on the banks of the water courses that remain forever in floods-way.
This landscape is not a manifestation of a triumphal struggle over droughts, floods, hardships and Blacks. Rather, it is a refraction of swirling patterns of memory, memorialisation; suppression, repression and revelation; constantly ravelling and unravelling, endlessly struggling to erase or incorporate the Other and soothe the settler pillow.
The invasion of Dyarubbin began in 1789, as the colony was on the brink of starvation. Aboriginal hostility was growing as the harbour was stripped of its fish. When the Sirius returned from the Cape in May with supplies, smallpox had swept through the harbour-side Aboriginal population and was making its way up to Broken Bay. Governor Phillip sailed and rowed in the Sirius’ longboats up Dyarubbin in June to what he called Richmond Hill, the blur of blue at the foot of the gap in the Blue Mountains. He was looking for farmland to make the colony self-sufficient. Smallpox, the settler’s handmaiden, followed in his wake.
Settlement of what was now the Hawkesbury began in 1794 with twenty-two ex-convicts. Soldiers of the NSW Corps massacred their way across the Richmond Lowlands in June 1795. By September they were landholders there, explaining why it is called Freemans Reach. Upstream and across from Belmont, Aboriginal warriors killed William Rowe and his son in revenge.
Near the bottom lefthand corner of the painting is Curry Burry, a farm once owned by Edward Powell, who, along with four others, was pardoned for murdering two Aboriginal lads on a downstream farm in 1799. Curry Burry is Corroboree, a ceremonial ground of which the physical traces are gone. Below it in the river is a deep water-hole and that which is in it also waits.
In the left middle distance of the painting lies Agnes Banks, the land grant to Andrew Thompson, ex-convict, businessman and special constable. In May 1805, Thompson attacked Aboriginal camps on the long reach of the river in the distance of the painting, probably down to Emu Plains. Nearly ten years quiet followed this campaign.
The fighting that began in 1814 on the Upper Nepean gradually worked its way down to the Hawkesbury. In March 1816, Aboriginal men killed Mrs Lewis and her servant on a farm on the Grose River, on the other side of Belmont. This was not the settler nightmare of a night-time attack on a settler’s hut. Rather, it was a traditional response to the ‘very rough usage’ the men received when expecting payment for work done. Not that the Sydney Gazette reported that.
In April 1816, Governor Macquarie ordered the 46th Regiment into the field. Captain Schaw prowled across the central ridge to the right of Belmont without making contact. Further to the South, Captain Wallis was carrying out a massacre of Aboriginal men, women and children at Appin. In June, Aboriginal warriors killed two men on a Grose River farm. Again, it was probably a response to an offence given. Magistrate Cox organised a punitive expedition that set out from near Belmont in early July. On the same day, the last settler who had not been driven off the long ridge behind Belmont was killed. In mid-July, Cox reported that Cocky, Butta Butta, Jack Straw and Port Head Jamie were killed. At least three of them were hung on that long ridge. They were the only reported Aboriginal casualties on the Hawkesbury in 1816.
We now know through Trove that five parties of soldiers commanded by NCOs roamed the Nepean and Hawkesbury valley in September and October 1816, without reporting any contact. Many years later, the well-respected Proper Tuckerman calculated that 400 Aboriginal people were killed at this time. Around the same time, another old man, Toby Ryan, recalled a massacre in the distant riverside foothills of the painting in which Aboriginal women and children were slaughtered in another night-time attack on a sleeping camp.
Although peace descended over Dyarubbin in 1816, the last recorded killing took place at the Upper Castlereagh at Kerry Lodge in 1846. Dame Mary Gilmore recorded her grandmother witnessing the braining of a young Aboriginal girl by two ‘gentlemen’. It was the sport of ‘the military officers and the landed gentry’. The Hunt in NSW was somewhat different from its British counterpart. In recent years, not far from Kerry Lodge, the archaeologist Eugene Stockton found artefacts dating back 50,000 years, casting Purple Noon as an apocalyptic burnt offering.
Purple Noon is both Lethe and Aletheia, more translucent than transparent, a threadbare shroud concealing that which refuses to go, biding its time.