Australian Legend


The emergence of the Australian legend in the late nineteenth century is largely explained as a desire of many artists and writers of the period, as an escape from the conditions and pressures of society, and as a retreat into an alternate reality.


This essay, will examine the works of Graham Davison, Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Tom Roberts, and many other writers and historians who have contributed, and/or interpreted the Australian legend of the nineteenth century.


In examining these figures, it will analyse and asses how their works were a product of their society, and how they reflect a desire to escape their current situation, and retreat into an alternate reality.


In doing this, this essay will make use of Banjo Patterson’s works to illustrate how these illusions of the bush legend were nothing more than the figment of the imagination of artists and writers attempting to create a utopian environment, which in reality just didn’t exist.


Graham Davison in his text ‘the rise and fall of marvellous Melbourne’ alludes to the notion of reaction to the conditions of society when he quotes “the rural dream was the reflex of the urban nightmare[1]”.


Graham Davison in this quote juxtaposes the notions of rural and urban conditions, with that of the dream and nightmare situations to highlight the deteriorating conditions of the city in comparison with the utopian alternate reality to which many artists and writers have turned. This assists in explaining how the conditions of the urban Melbourne and Sydney life, culminated in the creation and development of the Australian legend, based in the outback.


Davison extends on this point in another of his publications – Sydney and the Bush[2], when he argues that the “dream-like land of the west” emerged in the 1880’s as a retreat, and rebellion against the conditions of the city. Davison furthers his argument by making reference to the Employee/employer disputes of the 1890’s, when he comments on the urban conflicts of the same period.


He uses the reference of the Employee disputes as an example, and a symbol of the deteriorating conditions faced in the city and presents it as a strong reason why anyone would feel compelled to retreat, (the worker/employer dispute will be discussed further on). Again Davison contrasts the two notions of a utopian dream-like paradise with that of the down graded hell-like city to emphasis further the impact one ‘location’ had on the development of the other.


Another figure who is well renounded for his contribution to the Australian legend is artist Tom Roberts, who was made famous by his painting “sheering the rams” in 1891.


This image is an example of a retreat from society’s conflicts into a harmonious environment.


This image was created in 1890, during the depression period, which as was mentioned, devastated the sheering industry.


95% of the picture is of the sheering shed, which indicates a self-contained world, one in which is blocked off to the rest of society, and hence the illusion of a prosperous world.


The other 5% of the picture is a small window which shows the country side of Brocklesby Station, Corowa in East NSW[3], where Roberts began painting it. (It is worth mentioning that Roberts completed the painting in his studio in Collins Street, Melbourne[4], hence it is fair to say the picture contains influential elements from both the city and the bush which assisted in moulding the final product and is an example of city the bush being developed from the city).


The importance of the idea of a self-contained world is the fact that outside the shed, are major societal problems for example the economic depression, the harshness of the Australian climate, the worker/employer disputes, and the poverty, and unemployment faced in the city.


Both Richard White and Graham Davison support this notion in their references to the conditions of the city life.


Davison argues that the 1890’s was a period of “terrible disillusionment[5]”, especially for Melburnians. He quotes “Urban experiences intensified by the economic crash might almost suffice themselves to explain the value structure, if not the mythological setting of the bush legend[6]”.


During the period Roberts was painting “Shearing the Rams”, there was a depression which had devastated the sheering industry, as wool prices were rapidly plummeting, there had been a major