Past Catalogue | Night Two: The Stock in Trade of Savill Galleries | Date: 22 September, 2016

Lot 232
Milford Sound, New Zealand 1878
oil on canvas
60.5 x 91.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: I Whitehead 1878


Private collection, Melbourne
Deutscher-Menzies, Melbourne, 26 November 2003, lot 32
Savill Galleries, Sydney (label attached verso)
Private company collection, Sydney
Savill Galleries, Sydney (label attached verso)


Colonial painting has often been criticised for being imagined painted memories of European scenery rather than depictions of root and branch of the Australian bush. The first immigrant painters, like contemporary painters now, were not immune from European fashion. Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901) moved from quiet representations of the goldfields to creating sublime expansive yet intricate formal panoramas of rural life; but his fashionable contemporaries Louis Buvelot (1814-1888) and Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) adopted a more subjective approach creating dappled pictures that often pre-figured impressionism and the very Australian Heidelberg School rising by the turn of the century. By contrast Isaac Whitehead’s pictures were a keenly-observed colonial record: he painted what he saw.

Whitehead moved to Victoria with his family in the 1850s, creating a business as a master gilder and picture framer to von Guérard, Chevalier and Buvelot and their colonial contemporaries. His frames were patterned, elaborate and fashionable and his business was successful, allowing him to develop his skills as a painter. From his base in Melbourne, he travelled into rural Victoria and the bushland east of Melbourne. He developed considerable skill in rendering the giant Mountain Ash trees in the forests of Gippsland, with his paintings having ‘an overall patterned quality and little compositional drama’. 1  However, what Whitehead was able to achieve in his forest landscapes was a sense of scale, placing tree giants in ferny glades to emphasise their spectacular size.

Whitehead’s colonial colleagues von Guérard, Chevalier and Buvelot all visited New Zealand’s South Island in search of sublime vistas. Whitehead similarly found his way to visit New Zealand in the 1870s, possibly motivated by his friends’ enthusiasm: it is here that he painted Milford Sound, New Zealand, 1878. The colonial painters of the day would have visited this location by steamer; even to this day it remains a remote 4 hour drive from Queenstown through the Southern Alps. Whitehead’s Milford Sound shows clearly his characteristic skills as a colonial painter: the overall patterned effect of the image with the foreground framing the mountains; the mountains themselves are rendered with impressive scale through an emphasis on the vertical sea cliffs. The curved tree trunks in the foreground water at the head of the Sound create a rhythmic framing pattern that is echoed in the flattened growth of beech trees in the lower edges. They are painted in a manner that is stylised rather than exacting. His vantage point from the inner reaches of the Sound looks west towards the sea entrance, hidden beyond the chasm between Mitre Peak on the left and the adjacent Stirling Falls. He paints the natural arch of a magnificent hanging valley with the Pembroke Glacier somewhat hidden in the alpine tops beyond.

In von Guérard’s Milford Sound, New Zealand, 1877-9, in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and often hanging for display in the colonial room, there is a greater emphasis on topographical detail, with an overall maudlin violet colouration giving a sense of the vista being closed in towards nightfall. His image, perhaps grander in scale, lacks the implied rustic intensity of the Whitehead. Their emotional positions differ, as do their painting’s viewpoints. Von Guérard’s line of sight is from a point near Lady Bowen Falls towards a more classical view of the bishop’s hat shape of Mitre Peak. Both paintings have light-filled skies glazed with thin washes of paint, layer after layer. Both have the American Luminist’s appeal of sky to land ratio of 2:1. Ironically, Von Guérard’s image is encapsulated in a richly decorated gold frame hand made by Isaac Whitehead.


1.  Johns, E. et al., New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian and American Landscapes, catalogue accompanying National Gallery of Australia exhibition, Thames & Hudson, Melbourne, 1998, p.180

Professor Peter James Smith BSc (Hons); MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD