Eugen von Guérard and Victoria’s volcanic plains cypress-pines

I previously blogged about the cypress-pine stands around Bacchus Marsh area. Whilst perusing a book on the colonial artist Eugen von Guérard I came across a painting of what is almost unmistakeably a stand of cypress-pine growing on the stony rises near Colac.

The 1857 painting has variously been called “Stony Rises, Corangamite” and “Stony Rises near Colac” and “Lake Korangamite”(1). It depicts an Indigenous camp under some basalt boulders at sunset, a memorable enough painting, but what really captured me was the trees.

eugene_von_guerard_-_stony_rises_lake_corangamite_-_google_art_project
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The native cypress-pine here is probably Callitris columellaris or C. glaucophylla (taxonomists have revised it since I learned it and I’m still catching up). These pines are rare south of the Divide. From comments on my previous post, as well as the three main Callitris populations around Bacchus Marsh, there are also more at Keilor and Batesford, and some in Enfield state forest.

As a very useful tree for timber, and that does not tolerate frequent fire, and when young is susceptible to grazing (especially by rabbits and hares) it should not be surprising if it once occupied a much wider range in the region.

We should, of course, ask whether the painting can be taken as a true botanical record. Bruce (1980) emphasises von Guérard’s attention to scientific accuracy, quoting a contemporary critic James Smith:

His landscape may not present quite fifteen hundred different grasses as there are not generally so many to be found in the bush scenes with which his pencil is familiar, but they offer a minutely laborious description of almost every leaf upon the gum trees, and of every vein and crevice in the rocks, which would make them delightful illustrations of a treatise on the botanical or geological features of the Colony.(2)

On the other hand, von Guérard is said to have constantly used ‘qualitative involution’ which is explained as “the synthesis of several elements of landscape executed at different times and of different views, into the one painting, thereby creating an ‘interior landscape’ by an act of inner vision and imagination”(3).

Edit: Ian Lunt has also blogged about von Guérard’s fidelity to detail, and points to the grass trees in the foreground as an example where he used some artistic licence. Read it here.

Von Guérard’s 1857 journey was one of his earlier, but he may have seen Callitris elsewhere such as on the way to the Ballarat goldfields when he first arrived in the colony, to incorporate it into this painting. But given his commitment to scientific accuracy (which he saw as indistinguishable from his art), I think it’s reasonable to expect he was painting a stand of native pines he saw on a stony rise, exactly the sort of topography they would be found in now.

Returning to the scene from my first post on the cypress-pines at Bacchus Marsh, an early (1914) history of the town mentioned the stand on Bald Hill, now present as a patch on the side of Swans Rd.

On this side of Ball Hill, three miles from the town, there is a natural curiosity. The hill is bereft of trees save one small belt, and this is formed of Murray pines . The conundrum is, How did they get there? And why do they specially grow there?(4)

One wonders if the current small patch of pines in a north-facing gully would qualify as “one small belt”, or was there a larger patch? It’s quite conceivable that they were in a “belt” extending further around the hill.

This leaves us with the question: just how widespread were these pines, in southern Victoria, before colonisation overturned the previous ecology and society? This species is normally found on hotter, inland slopes and plains. Should we be replanting it this far south, in anticipation of climate change perhaps? I’ll return to this question in another blog soon.

References

  1. Bruce, Candice (1980). Eugen von Guérard. Australian Gallery Directors Council.
  2. ibid. pp. 84-85
  3. ibid. p. 81
  4. Williams, W. (1914). ‘Bacchus Marsh’, The Bacchus Marsh Express. Accessed at Trove.
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7 thoughts on “Eugen von Guérard and Victoria’s volcanic plains cypress-pines

  1. Well written blog Ben, I wasnt aware that there may have been Callitris in the Stony Rises but I’m not surprised either. They’re on the Moorabool River, Leigh River and someone told me the Woady too. Have you checked the ALA to see if there are records in the Stony Rises?

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    1. ALA has Callitris rhomboidea just west of Enfield SF, and southeast of it various records of columellaris, gracilis, glaucophylla. See here: http://biocache.ala.org.au/occurrences/search?q=lsid:http://id.biodiversity.org.au/node/apni/2901419#tab_mapView

      I think when I initially searched (a couple years ago) I was only looking for C. glaucophylla because I wasn’t aware of the taxonomic changes and confusions. C. rhomboidea is usually pretty distinct to look at, but as I understand, the others maybe not so much. I wonder what species a careful re-examination of these locations would reveal them to be. But no records (on ALA) of any Callitris species around Lake Corangamite/Stony Rises anyway.

      Ian Lunt suggested (on twitter) it would be pretty cool to find the location of the rocks in the painting, and see if there are any records of Callitris species in early settler accounts around Colac area. A bit of work, but it might be fun! Environmental History honours project maybe?

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      1. The other option is trying to speak to landholders, a lot of that stony rise country is in private hands and there is every possibility that the trees, like the Moorabool, Leigh and Jacksons Creek trees or their offspring, are still there.

        Didnt realise there was C. rhomboidea in Enfield, we should go and try and find them. I’ve had a few “off the beaten track” rambles in the Enfield, mostly looking for other stuff but it would be good to take a day off and look for them.

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  2. 25years ago there was about 6 very old white cypress pine near korkuperrimul creek.They were not in good Nick,maybe the big drought finished them off,I don’t know.They were growing in red Scotia cliffs.I bet they were part of the”belt”you were talking about.I can show you where they were….I think!!!!

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      1. I went looking on Korkuperrimul Ck, there’s only 2 that I could find, but they seem to be in reasonable health with a good seed crop. Protected from fire on top of a small bluff.

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