15 April 2012


A solo exhibition of the first lot of paintings based on my experiences on King Island opened last Friday night (13 April 2012) at Red Chapel Art, corner of Sandy Bay Rd and Red Chapel Ave, Sandy Bay.

Here is some background information for the paintings, plus photographs of some of the things I found on the island. I have, of course, been selective in which photographs I chose, picking the ones closest in spirit to the paintings. You can see larger images of the paintings on my website, www.tasmaniangothic.com.

30.5cm x 40.5cm oil on canvas (sold)
This is one of the first King Island paintings, done before I visited the island. I don't know whether there ever were mermaids on King Island, but I'm sure the last of them would be long extinct, like the wombats (small, white ones) and emus that didn't survive the arrival of European hunters.

76cm x 91cm oil on canvas (sold)
There aren't any Nototherium left on King Island, either, but you can see the skeleton of one they found there in the museum in Launceston. 
From The Examiner of 24 February, 1912:
A Nototherium is a humungous great prototypical wombat. They probably didn't look anything at all like this, and the King Island landscape probably didn't, either, but I'm an artist, not a paleontologist and I don't let facts get in the way of a good idea for a painting.

61cm x 91cm oil on canvas
The first Europeans to visit King Island were probably sealers, whalers and other sea-hunters who didn't bother telling anyone about it. The first person who reported it officially was Captain William Campbell of the Deptford, on the way to Sydney from India in 1797. Matthew Flinders spent a day there in 1802.
Some mariners arrived by accident and didn't survive to tell the tale. In 1802, a month or so before Flinder's visit, the same Captain William Campbell, now of the sealing brig Harrington, found wreckage strewn right down the west coast of the island, most of it at the extreme southern end. There was a drowned cat among the wreckage, but no other sign of life. Nobody ever discovered what ship it was, or the fate of its crew.

Here are some of the rocks at the southern end of the island:

This is what the southern part of King Island's west coast looks like. There's nothing magnificent about it – it's just plain nasty. But it's a nice walk along the top of the cliffs, safely above the ocean.

45cm x 61cm oil on canvas

Small wooden ships seem foolishly fragile when brought into the vicinity of that unforgiving King Island coastline; it was scary enough safely on land on a calm, sunny day. In the dark, with a howling storm around you and no idea where you were? Bad place.

76cm x 61cm oil on canvas

In 1799 Bass and Flinders reported that the Bass Strait islands were home to huge herds (flocks? Colonies? Whatever) of seals, which were valuable for their skins and oil. There were soon about 200 sealers working in the Strait.

They were pretty tough chaps, being put ashore with a few provisions and left to fend for themselves until their Sydney employer got round to sending a ship to pick up the skins and barrels of oil and leave them a few more supplies. Sometimes the relief ships were months late, and gangs of desperate sealers would turn up at Port Dalrymple looking for food. Eventually Governor King had to draft regulations fining neglectful employers.

46cm x 51cm oil on canvas
When Baudin's expedition explored King Island they met up with a sealing gang, and Fran├žois Peron described the men's camp.
There were four huts, built by driving pieces of wood into the ground at an angle so they met at the top, then filling the gaps with rough pieces of bark. The leader lived in his own hut, with a Hawaiian woman; the men in the other huts. There was one big fireplace for warmth and for cooking, and a big shelter nearby for oil barrels and dried seal skins.
The gang survived to a large extent by hunting emu, wallabies and wombats.
It must have been a harsh, lonely existence.

76cm x 61cm oil on canvas (sold)
Fur seals were hunted for their skins, and for their oil; elephant seals (sea elephants) for their oil. Demand for oil for lighting, lubrication, and manufacturing was huge and trade was lucrative. Whales, seals and for a short time penguins were boiled down to  keep the wheels of industry illuminated and turning.  
In the 1850s a method developed for distilling kerosene from petroleum proved much cheaper and whale oil was gradually replaced by mineral oils.
Peron had warned that the number of seals on King Island was declining rapidly and they would soon be extinct. He was right. By 1830 the island was devoid of emus, wombats and seals and the hunters had moved on to New Zealand and other places.
About 1876 the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria visited Sea Elephant Bay, where Australia's only elephant seal breeding colony had been. All they found was one ancient, battered skull.

Sea Elephant Bay in 2011
So-called "sealers' wall" at Stokes Point, the southernmost bit of King Island. Nobody knows who built it, when or why, but it's been there for a long time.

50cm x 40cm oil on canvas
The first cat recorded on King Island was found drowned in the wreckage of an unidentified ship. It was described as an English cat, thus proving the ship was either British or American. I'm not sure what the difference is between a  French or Russian dead cat and an English dead cat; if anyone does, perhaps they could enlighten me.
At any rate, on King Island a dead cat is a good cat. Feral cats roam the island, preying on birds and small marsupials and generally making themselves unwelcome. There are efforts to eradicate them, and one enterprising lady I met tans the skins to make lovely fur hats. You can have one with or without a tail. I've ordered a black one, but feral cats revert to basic tabby in a couple of generations, so black ones are rare. However, I live in hope.

46cm x 51cm oil on canvas
King Island is right in the middle of Bass Strait, running north-south for about 65 kilometres. It is low-lying, surrounded by rocks and reefs and some of the world's wildest seas, directly in the path of the Roaring Forties.
More than sixty vessels were wrecked on King Island, averaging one every two years between the beginning of the 19th century and 1930. And they're only the ones we know about. Practically every feature on the coastline that isn't named for large sea mammals (Seal Point, Phocques Bay, Sea Elephant Bay etc.) is named for a ship that came to grief there.
Best known are the wrecks of Neva in 1835 on the Navarine Reef in the north and Cataraqui in 1845, which remains Australia's worst peacetime shipwreck. Nineteen out of 230 people survived from Neva, to be rescued along with the crew of a small vessel called Tartar, wrecked there a few weeks earlier. Four hundred and fourteen people were drowned from Cataraqui, with nine survivors.
Passengers travelling to Brisbane in 1866 were more fortunate when Netherby struck the rocks outside what is now Currie harbour. All 500 people on board survived – and another one was born two days later. They were rescued and taken to Melbourne, where two hundred or so decided they'd had enough of travelling and stayed behind when the other 350 left for Brisbane.
This was an excuse to paint a cute, wide-eyed child clutching a teddy bear.

Cataraqui Point, on the west coast of King Island.
There is a pyramid-shaped monument towards the inland end of the point.

Site of the mass graves where Cataraqui victims are buried, a few hundred metres from the point

101cm x 76cm oil on canvas
While I was painting this I was listening to a poetry programme on the wireless. Mention was made of the old belief that drowned sailors wandered the oceans forever in the shape of sea-birds. So there was the title for my painting.
I don't think there are any rocks on King Island that look like this, but they suited the mood I wanted to express.

40cm x 51cm oil on canvas (sold)
Sometimes vaguely connected thoughts become a picture - island – surrounded by water – things  emerging from the water, onto the land; island -  surrounded by rocks – sentinels guarding the coast; creature emerging from water – too tired/apathetic/stupid (insert adjective here) to care.
You make up your own story.
I painted this before I went to the island. Below are some photos of real King Island rocks. Much better than anything I imagined.

approx. 30cm x 20cm  oil on canvas board (sold)
In 1861 a lighthouse was erected at Cape Wickham; at 52 metres, it is the tallest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere. It was followed by a steel tower at Currie in 1879 and later with a light at Stokes Point.

From the top of the Cape Wickham lighthouse; Neva struck the Navarine Reef just off the right of this bit of coastline.

30cm x 30cm oil on canvas
Somebody on King Island told me a story about his mate, out fishing with his ten-year-old son. The boy suddenly asked “Hey Dad – why is that lady coming up out of the water with all her clothes on?” Dad couldn't see anything.

I told this story to several people and everybody wished it were true. With so much tragedy, so many people buried in unmarked graves or vanished without trace, you'd think there'd have to be a few ghosts around, wouldn't you?

50cm x 41cm oil on canvas
What have cows got to do with shipwrecks? Not much – unless they're on King Island, which is famous for 1. shipwrecks and 2. dairy produce.
Early surveys of King Island were unpromising. It was reported to be pretty barren and not much use for agriculture. Some years later melilot, or sweet clover (sometimes known as King Island clover) was found growing abundantly in the southern part of the island. Seed was collected, and it was used to establish pastures that became the basis of the dairy industry.
The seed originally came from straw used to stuff mattresses that had come ashore from the mysterious 1902 shipwreck.

122cm x 122cm oil on canvas
When I was born, my father was the electrical engineer at King Island Scheelite, one of the world's richest scheelite mines. The mine's fortunes have fluctuated over the years, and in 1990 it closed. All the buildings were removed and much of the site rehabilitated. 
The open-cut mine is now full of water. But the ghosts of the machines still wander aimlessly among the rubble.

Processing plant in late 1940s. All that is left now is the base of the rough ore bin (above, right)

Flooded open-cut mine at Grassy

61cm x 51cm oil on canvas
Another painting done before I visited King Island. I had heard of the Petrified Forest but never seen photographs of it. This picture is pure fantasy.
The real forest is not petrified, but calcified; that is, it isn't fossilised wood. It is actually calcium built up around the roots of plants which eventually died, as plants eventually do. The vegetable material decayed leaving hollow casts of its shape.
These fragile structures were buried in sand, which has eroded away exposing them to the elements and to souvenir hunters, but the area is still bizarre and fascinating. And, like so much I found on the island, much more exciting than anything I imagined.

61cm x 45cm oil on canvas (sold)
Saturday night at the Grassy Club with audience appropriately costumed to watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show, preceded by a performance by the local dancing teacher.
Other bits of things I saw got into the picture, too: kelp. Calcified Forest. Roadkill. Oh well.

This is the first of what I hope will be at least three exhibitions based on my King Island visit; plenty more ideas to be painted!

Meanwhile, if you can't get to the gallery in time, you can see the exhibition on my website at www.tasmaniangothic.com, follow Tasmanian Gothic on Facebook, and keep up with progress on the new exhibitions right here.

More King Island Gothic paintings:
Shane's Grassy Oppy
Return to the Island
When the Tide Goes Out