Digging For Gold: the artist who tried to make a fortune from his paintings in 1850s Victoria
Like thousands of other young men in the 1850s, Edwin Stocqueler rushed to the Victorian goldfields, eager to make his fortune.
But the British painter wasn’t searching for nuggets — he hoped to get rich through showing his art.
“To be honest, he didn’t have a lot of luck,” Martha Sear, head curator at the National Museum of Australia (NMA), said.
Travels in colonial Victoria recorded
Edwin Roper Loftus Stocqueler (1829-95) was born in Bombay and educated in England before travelling to Australia with his mother, Jane.
He wasn’t the only artist on the diggings, but his work shows he had wider interests than most other painters of the era.
“[Stocqueler and his mother] travelled up and down the rivers — the Murray River, the Goulburn River, the Ovens River — in a canvas boat,” Dr Sear said.
“He was interested in natural history and in recording the landscape of those places, and he also recorded his encounters with Aboriginal people.
“There’s a sense in his pictures of all those things coming together which I find really interesting.”
Live art show flopped
In 1857, Stocqueler set up a panorama in Bendigo called The Golden Land of the Sunny South.
People paid to hear a narrator, accompanied by sound effects, describing the scenes as around 25 paintings on canvas were unfurled from a spindle.
He hoped to make a living from it but audiences were less keen than he’d expected.
One of Stocqueler’s most important works, Digging For Gold, was painted from sketches 30 years after he left Australia.
It’s recently been installed in the Bendigo section of the NMA’s Landmarks Gallery.
The painting depicts the first days of gold diggings on a creek and shows how quickly the environment was changed.
“There are many paintings of goldfields when the rush is in full swing, but this one shows that rare moment where the miners have just turned up,” Dr Sear said.
He never made his fortune
Stocqueler sailed from Australia in 1860 and travelled through India, Zanzibar and South Africa, always hoping to make a living from his art.
He ended up destitute and working as a pavement artist in London.
Stocqueler drew this picture of the Zanzibar slave market in 1860 for an anti-slavery journal. (Supplied: Wikimedia Commons)
The canvas on the reverse side of Digging For Gold is rough and grubby, indicating it spent time on the ground.
“The image we have of the goldfields from many artists is one of vigour and excitement and anticipation and possibility,” Dr Sear said.
“This painting tells a slightly different story of the potential damage that was wrought by mining on the environment, as well as the personal narrative of somebody who didn’t make their fortune on the goldfields and who ended their life chalking paintings like this on the street.”