Rare Burke and Wills drawings to attract history art buffs

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 1st September, 2013

Rare early drawings of the ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills by well-known colonial artist William McLeod are intriguing highlights of Amanda Addams Auctions latest sale from 6.30pm Monday at 344 High Street, Kew.

In 1887, McLeod, who also completed a drawing of John King – the only member of the expedition to cross the Australian continent and return to tell the tale, became joint owner and managing director of the Bulleting magazine with J.F. (Jules Francois) Archibald, founder of the Archibald Prize.

This was a role he filled for the next 40 years before selling his majority shareholding to journalist Samuel Henry Prior, whose family was the next one of significance to become involved with the Bulletin.

McLeod was intrigued by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, commissioned by the Royal Society of Victoria in 1860 to lead an expedition of 19 men across Australia – from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north – to explore and map largely unknown territory.

Burke, an Irish-born officer with the Austrian army who later became police superintendent, was appointed expedition leader, despite his lack of exploration experience – while Wills (third in command) was recommended as surveyor and navigator. 

Heavily weighted down with 20 tonnes of supplies, the wagons, horses and camels, the men made painfully slow progress once leaving Melbourne on August 20, 1860 and took two months to travel 750 kilometres.

Eventually, Burke, who was keen to obtain the £2000 (about $289,000 in today’s figures) reward the South Australian Government had offered for the first successful south-north crossing of Australia, split up the party – taking seven of the fittest men with plans to push on quickly to Coopers Creek (the northernmost extension of European exploration), where they would wait for the others to catch up.

However, instead of waiting out the Australian summer and the extreme heat, Burke took three others (including Wills and King) and made a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Monsoonal rains hampered their return and, by the time they arrived back at Coopers Creek, the others had departed. Instead of continuing south, Burke decided to head for Mount Hopeless across the Strzelecki Desert before eventually returning to Coopers Creek where he and Wills perished.

The auction contains several other artworks including an early David Bromley nude, and paintings by Sidney Nolan, Bill Coleman, Charles Bush, Fed Warren, Albert Henry Fullwood, Benjamin Edwin Minns and William Russel Flint.

Buyers should be interested in the Georgian, Victorian and Continental sterling silver items, along with French glass that includes early Lalique, Murano and Whitefriars.

There are Japanese bronze sculptures, vases and clocks, high quality estate jewellery, Victorian, retro and arts and crafts furniture and signed rare Australian art books – with over 50 from one collection.

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