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Shannon Schedlich-Day

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About the author

Shannon Schedlich-Day is a Ph.D. student in history at the Flinders University of South Australia.

Publication details

Volume 11, November 2003

The Visual as Grist for the Memory Mill: pioneer women in colonial painting

Australian pioneer women are remembered in a glorified, idealised manner. Evoked as loyal, religious, hardworking, loving, uncomplaining, reasonably self-sufficient wives and mothers, our foremothers' lives are remembered in a simple, limited way that robs them of their individuality and forces an uncomplicated memory on to a complex group of women. This basic ideal - and early 'memory makers' of such an ideal - can be found in colonial paintings. In these paintings, pioneer women are presented in a very limited world, positioned within a society that determines their place based on the men around them. Such a world is far too simple to have ever existed in reality.

Visual culture is instrumental in the creation and perpetuation of social memory. The same, or very similar, images are used again and again until we become indoctrinated with their implied meaning and the images that they show become our memories of the past. 1 The myths of our national character are created in our visual culture. 2 Hence, the Nolan series on Kelly further cements the outlaw's place in our cultural psyche; Robert's 'Shearing the rams' exemplifies the rural memory of the nineteenth century; and the romanticized paintings of McCubbin typify the pioneer woman. This paper is not concerned with the 'reality' of life for pioneer women but of the memory of such women that exists in the popular national psyche.

Debates surrounding history and memory are long and complex. As such, over some of the main points will be covered here. It should be noted, though, that the arguments surrounding the two are much greater than the brief mention here will credit them with. History, as is conventionally understood, is our construction of past events: How, then, does memory differ? Isn't memory, too, just a construction of the past? From where do the differences start and grow? As Pierre Nora wrote in 'Between Memory and History':

Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic - responsive to every censorship or projection. History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory instills remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds ... History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and no-one, whence its claim to universal authority. Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images and objects; history binds itself strictly to the temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative. 3

Yes, both memory and history are constructions of the past within the current cultural framework. 4 But whereas history tries to be as objective as is possible - and must, to remain relevant - memory is both able and has to be subjective. 5 Memory, by its very nature, must be exclusive.

Some have claimed that the use of terms such as 'cultural memory', 'communal memory' or 'social memory' by historians undermine the differences of history and memory. 6 It is not suggested here that the differences do not exist - they very clearly do. But studies of memory don't tell us about the past - they tell us how those in the present perceive their past, and thus themselves. Thus, while many histories written in the past forty years have dealt with issues such as frontier conflict in Australia, the fact that there are still many within Australian society who chose to ignore (or 'forget') such incidents tells us less about the past these people are forgetting, and more about how such people perceive their current situation.

Social memory differs from individual memory inasmuch as to have a social memory, a person does not need to have any actual individual recollection of an event - the recollection that is important is that of society. Individuals then create their memory based on images and information. 7 This 'postmemory', as Marianne Hirsch refers to it, 8 is an imagination rather than a recollection. It exists between individual memory and simply knowing about events that happened in the past. 9 Those of us in this room today have never met 'pioneer women' such as the ones presented in ST Gill's works, but we 'know' these women. We 'know' what their lives were like, what they were like, not only - and very rarely - from history, but from our social memory. During our lives, we have been presented with these colonial visual images, along with other cultural depictions such as Lawson's 'The Drover's Wife' and Evans' 'The Women of the West,' so many times and with so little alternates that they have become part of the Australian social memory.

The social memory of the pioneer woman limits our understanding of these women and the diversity of their lives. If this memory is pervading, we only consider and remember the lives of a small percentage of the pioneers of our past. We are remembering some, but we are forgetting a whole lot more who would not (could not) fit the ideal. The fact that some of these images were produced by artists who were contemporaries of Australia's rural pioneers raises another issue, too - such images would limit these women within themselves. The paintings of Gill, McCubbin and Prout were held up as how women were supposed to be, how they were supposed to act - the inherent moral suggesting that if women did not behave as such, then they were stepping outside of their societal role. In retrospect, we may remember some women as 'good' who were actually 'bad,' but for women who were confined to artificially imposed roles perpetuated by visual constructions, there was a much more pressing matter. Presumably, even the examples that were historical in subject would have had some impact on rural women and their beliefs about what it meant to be a 'good' woman in the context of the Australian bush. Colonial paintings, and other such cultural depictions, defined the roles of women in rural contexts in extremely limiting terms.

Such paintings position women within a patriarchal society, 10 and reinforced the domination of men. 11 Paintings and other cultural depictions reinforce the societal ideals of an era. 12 While art does reflect the ideas of an age, 13 it also reinforces and directs such ideas. 14 Like a memory, an artist makes conscious decisions about what to include and what to exclude. 15 They only show us a part of what they see - not an accidental choice, but a thought-out, deliberate move. Such choices, as feminist research has shown, 'reflect the dream worlds or vested interests of male artists and their patrons.' 16

In his article, 'The Vision Splendid,' Richard Waterhouse examines how social memory was used in creating popular memories of the bush and the past. 17 Waterhouse believes that popular culture created towards the end of the nineteenth and during the beginning of the twentieth centuries showed a longing for times past. 18 He writes: 'In the end, how Australians envisaged the Bush resulted not just from what the Bush made of itself, nor just what the city made of the Bush, but from complex, and ever evolving interchanges between urban and rural culture.' 19 Urban and rural ideas and images of the bush (and the people who called it their home) came together to form a fusion of conceptions of what life was like 'in the past.' Extending from Waterhouse's thesis, it can be reasonably assumed that while the images presented in colonial paintings may have not been realistic, they did provide the social memory of pioneering times in a way in which reality did not. The memory was created from a union of reality and depiction.

Images such as the ones presented in colonial paintings (and many of women besides) would have had a controlling affect on women: the directorial nature of cultural depictions should not be overlooked. Art can often presuppose the reality, and, in turn, become that reality. As Patricia Stubbs has written:

No matter what part in society individual women in fact play, traditional images focus on their domestic and sexual roles. This has the effect of continually limiting women's notions of themselves and their possibilities; it undermines from within. For images are not an innocent pictorial guide to reality, a neutral mental shorthand which helps us recall the outside world. We certainly use these simplified ideas of how people and things 'really are' to make sense of our experience in the world; but this is an essentially subjective process. So far from helping us to perceive a supposed 'reality', it in fact creates this reality from within. 20

Although history has shown that pioneer women in rural Australia often did manual work alongside of their male counterparts, 21 in colonial painting, this reality was not depicted. Instead, the women in these paintings were shown as wives and mothers, and as contributing in these two ways only. 22 Despite the fact that the 'cult of True Womanhood' never reached the same proportions in rural areas as it did in urban areas 23 (and the proportions that the ideal raised anywhere is debateable 24), it is this sort of ideal which is both presented in the visual culture of the nineteenth century and recollected in the Australian social memory. 25

The women presented in S T Gill's work are doll-like and pretty. Their perfect faces present an attractive vision of our pioneer women. The 1854 painting 'The Zealous Gold Diggers' (figure 1) shows a pretty young mother and wife at her husband's side on the frontier society of Victoria's goldfields. Such romanticisation of the pioneers creates an attractive, appealing memory of the past. The close family unit and relationships shown provide a pleasant image from which charming memories grow. It should be noted, though, that while this is a much idealised presentation, it does offer the viewer one of the few images of a woman on the goldfields. 26

Whilst presenting an image of a woman on the goldfields, though, 'The Zealous Gold Diggers' reinforces other memories of such women. The woman is wife and mother - both central roles in the stereotyping of pioneer women and of the social memory of these women. As Sue Rowley has written, the depiction of 'woman-as-mother' was so popular because it was the least problematic representation for male artists as it did not interfere with men's concepts of themselves or their concepts of the 'natural' position of women. 27 Motherhood gave women a visible place within the Australian tradition - as mothers, they were seen as having a 'purpose,' a role within colonial society. 28 Further, this woman is a wife who, as is the norm in the national social memory, was willing - and happy - to give up everything and everyone who was dear to her to support their husbands in their pursuits. Colonial paintings, and other cultural depictions, reinforced the idea that this sacrifice for their husbands was not only the respectable, right thing for women to do, but it was also the instinctive, desirable course of action that good wives would wish to follow. In turn, this notion of the pioneer woman as 'good' wife has coursed into the nation's social memory, and is a strong component of the memory of such women.

Frederick McCubbin's iconic 1904 painting, 'The Pioneer[s]' 29 is one of the celebrated images in the Australian cultural tradition of 'pioneer-woman-as-mother.' It is only in the second panel of this three panel work, though, that the woman is presented as a mother. This second panel, however, is the largest and possibly the most identifiable to the wider public as the image of rural pioneers. It is this panel - the one of the woman-as-mother - that resonates in the national social memory to the extent that many believe that the final panel represents the husband grieving at his wife's grave, when in fact, it is the grave of the father. This can be ascertained by the passage of time shown in the progress of the city in the background - the man who attends the grave is simply too young to be the man from the second panel. Thus, with only one grave presented and the passage of time considered, one may assume that it is the grave of the man - it was far from uncommon for women's graves in the colonial period to go unmarked. A critic in The Age wrote of the woman-as-mother 'The figure has the same lithe elegance of before [in the first panel] ... The new life and the child have paramount claim on her energies.' 30 Apart from wife-and-mother, the viewer of this painting does not gain any other insight into this woman: this is her in total in McCubbin's eyes. And in and from this iconic work that pioneer women are remembered. From no point in this triptych is there the suggestion that the wife may have helped with the clearing of the bush from the first panel: the man is obviously the worker, whilst the woman is the nurturer. For the public of the day (and subsequent generations) this painting provided an unproblematic site of memory. It is little wonder that reviews of the day responded favourably. 31

McCubbin's triptych can also be examined as an example of pioneer women making great sacrifice for love. The painting gives the viewer an image of a woman who gave up much to be with her man, but gave it up willingly. When remembering our pioneer women, this is often the image that comes to mind. It gives us a narrative from the early days of colonizing until the days when pioneering has passed. The dense bush of the first panel gives way to the illuminated home of the second which in turn is replaced by a bustling metropolis in the third. In August 1905 an article in The Age said, 'The face of the young woman shows that she is strong enough to be chastened by the quiet half hour of personal sadness. The onlooker is sure that she will soon be settling about her duties with the blithe wifely spirit of the pioneer woman.' 32 So we see, as early as 1905, this 'remembering' of our pioneers going on in the press.

Some colonial paintings presented images of a very simple world. One such example is John Skinner Prout's 'A Boundary Rider's Home' (1843). This, unlike many other depictions, is not a heroic depiction of pioneer life. Prout shows a very basic home, with one room, where the sleeping area is divided from the living area by a blanket strung from the ceiling. However, the industrious, homely nature of the pioneer woman is also show-cased in the picture: plates are arranged decoratively on the mantelpiece, and the page from the London News hangs on the wall. The woman - the homemaker - is depicted as a mother and wife. Despite the families strained circumstances, she is making the best of her lot. She fulfils the popular memory of the pioneer woman in spite of the poverty of her situation.

While most visual images (and in fact other cultural depictions) present the viewer with images that one assumes are of English pioneers, this is not always the case. The German settlers in South Australia were considered by the English who founded the colony to be very similar to themselves. 33 George French Angas' painting 'Klemzig, A Village of German Settlers Near Adelaide' painted between 1844-5 shows the young German settlement. The uniformity and lack of ornamentation on the dwellings marks this from similar English settlements, but the memory perpetuated is comparable. 'Klemzig' is not an heroic depiction of settler/pioneer life but it is a triumphant depiction. More developed than many other pioneer settlements depicted in colonial paintings, Angas' work reinforces the social memory of the German pioneers as hard working and industrious.

Paintings by Alexander Schramm were not appreciated in the nineteenth century. 34 They offer the historian with an alternate view of the dominant image of pioneer women, one which fits more comfortably within the current academic history 35 which acknowledges pioneer women of ethnic descent besides the traditionally remembered English. Schramm was a well-established artist in Germany before his migration to South Australia in 1849. Whilst the young colony of South Australia anticipated the arrival of such an artist, upon arriving, Schramm did not endear himself to the population as might have been expected - his interest in the local indigenous people ostracized him from polite society, who found his interest improper and unfathomable. 36 Thus, his work did not enter into the realm of the 'popular' during his lifetime, or for a long time after. 'A Scene in South Australia,' painted around 1850, is an interesting piece for a number of reasons. This painting shows an amicable meeting between a group of Aborigines and a German family. The interest in this painting from the perspective of the depiction of pioneer women springs from where Schramm has placed the German man and the German woman in this piece: the man is situated closest to the house, holding the baby, while the woman is involved in discourse with their visitors. The husband takes the position that is the place of the wife in many colonial paintings, putting her further into the world and bringing him into the feminine space of the home. (For a more traditional representation of gender placing see, for example, John Longstaff's 'Gippsland, Sunday Night' [1898]).

Furthermore, the positioning of two Aborigines between the woman and the home push her further into the public sphere. Another interesting point about this painting is that the woman does not seem at all fearful of her dark visitors - as pioneer women in popular culture are inclined to be. This is not a typical depiction of pioneer women, and although this sort of placement when visitors were around may have, in fact, been a constant reality, social memory of pioneer women would have them placed inside the house, nursing the baby. The woman's lack of apprehension at the fact that she is surrounded by indigenous people also does not seem to fit with the traditional depiction of such women. Two other white figures feature in the painting - a young woman and a child, who are seated to the side. The young woman's part in this dichotomy is ambiguous: daughter, sister, friend, or maid? Her function in the scene, though, is not central. Schramm's work has become more popular in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as acceptance of black-white relations has grown, and has the notion of women as autonomous, self-reliant people in their own right has gained recognition. The image he presents did not fit the social memory of earlier generations but now offers a popular site of memory.

The Australian cultural tradition - the Australian 'legend' - places settler pioneer women in a particular position: Idealised, glorified and romanticised. Although seeming to arise of its own volition, the Australian tradition (like all traditions) did not arise spontaneously. [37] Like all traditions, the Australian tradition was selected, shaped and remembered consciously. Like memory, tradition is not just what is left from our past, but what is chosen to be remembered. Even when women in colonial paintings are represented as being outside the norm (eg, working, non-English, etc), they generally fit the predominant recollection of these women by conforming to other aspects of the memory. Schramm's painting demonstrates how over time the memory of pioneer women has changed, though, to fit more with modern ideas about pioneer women. To remain relevant, memory must be fluid.

The relationship between colonial paintings and social memory was a symbiotic one. Whilst in earlier generations, the social memory of pioneer women was depicted in colonial paintings, for later generations, such paintings helped to create and reinforce the social memory. Thus, the cultural depictions and social memory of Australia's pioneer women is irrevocably entwined.


1. An example of this can be seen in Alistair Thomas's article, 'Unreliable Memories? The Use and Abuse of Oral History' Historical Controversies and Historians. In this article, Thomas illustrates how a 'digger' has made an event that he could not possible have witnessed in to his own memory, after hearing of it on the radio and from others, and from seeing depictions of the event. (Thomas, 'Unreliable Memories,' in William Lamont (ed.), Historical Controversies and Historians (UCL Press) London, 1998, p. 30).

2. Peter Goodall, High Culture, Popular Culture: The Long Debate (Allen and Unwin), St Leonards, 1995, p. 93. See also Anne Curthoys, 'Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology.' Journal of Australian Studies, June 1999, which refers specifically to the creation of the pioneer legend.

3. Pierre Nora, 'Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoíre .' Representations. Vol. 0, Issue 26, Spring 1989, pp 8-9.

4. Mieke Bal, 'Introduction.' Mieke Bal, Jonathon Crewe and Leo Spitzer (eds), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present (University Press of New England) Hanover, 1999, p. vii; Peter Burke, 'History as Social Memory.' Thomas Butler (ed.), Memory: History, Culture and the Mind (Basil Blackwell) Oxford, 1989, p.99.

5. RJ Evans, 'History, Memory and the Law: The Historian as Expert Witness.' History and Theory, vol. 41, issue 3, October 2002, n/p

6. Noa Gedi and Yigal Elam, 'Collective Memory: What is it?' History and Memory, vol. 8, no. 1, spring./summer 1996, p. 41.

7. Susan Engel, Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory (WH Freeman Company) New York, 1999, p.150.

8. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Harvard University Press) Cambridge MA, 1997, p.22.

9. Engel, Context is Everything, p. 147.

10. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, 'Introduction: Feminism and Art History.' Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds) Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany (Harper and Row) New York, 1982, p. 141.

11. Linda Nochlin, Women, Art and Power (and Other Essays) (Harper and Row) New York, 1988, p. 2.

12. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (Routledge and Kegan Paul) London, 1981, p. 115.

13. Peter Paret, Art as History: Episodes in the Culture and Politics of Nineteenth Century Germany (Princeton University Press) Princeton, 1988, p. 5.

14. Broude and Garrard, 'Introduction,' p.14; Parker and Pollock, Old Mistresses, p. 119.

15. Peter Laslett, 'The Wrong Way Through the Telescope: a note on literary evidence in sociology and historical sociology.' British Journal of Sociology, no 27, 1976, p. 319.

16. Broude and Garrard, 'Introduction,' p. 2.

17. Waterhouse, Richard, 'The Vision Splendid: Conceptualizing the Bush, 1813-1913.' Journal of Popular Culture, Vol 33.1, Summer 1999

18. Waterhouse, 'The Vision Splendid,' p.24.

19. Waterhouse, 'The Vision Splendid,' p.31.

20. Patricia Stubbs, Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel 1880-1920 (The Harvest Press) Sussex, 1979, p. ix.

21. Liza Dale, The Rural Context of Masculinity and the 'Woman Question': An Analysis of the Amalgamated Shearers Union Support for Women's Equality, NSW, 1890-1985. (Monash Publications in History), 8, 1991, pp 43-6.

22. See Sue Rowley, 'Inside the Deserted Hut: The Representation of Motherhood in Bush Mythology.' Westerly No 4, December 1989; Sue Rowley, 'Things a Bushwoman cannot do.' Susan Magarey, Sue Rowley and Sue Sheridan (eds) Debutante Nation: Feminism Contests in the 1890s (Allen and Unwin) St Leonards, 1993; Kay Schaffer, 'Henry Lawson, the drover's wife and the critics.' Magarey, Rowley and Sheridan (eds) Debutante Nation.

23. Richard Waterhouse, 'Australian Legends: Representations of the Bush 1813-1913.' Australian Historical Studies, vol 31, no 115, November 2000, p. 219

24. see, for example, Patricia Branca, 'Image and Reality: The Myth of the Idle Victorian Woman.' Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner (eds) Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (Harper Colophon Books) New York, 1974.

25. Naturally, as with any text, paintings can be read in a number of ways. The readings that are presented here today are simply the view of the author.

26. Many of Gill's other works, too, offer presentations of women on the goldfields. In this manner, he offers an alternate view to the norm.

27. Sue Rowley, 'Inside the Deserted Hut,' p. 76

28. Jane Pettman, 'Australia and the Global Future.' Social Alternatives, vol 9, no 2, 1990, p. 34.

29. The name of this painting is a touch ambiguous. In places, it is 'The Pioneer,' suggesting that only the man in the painting is a pioneer, whilst in other places, it is referred to as 'The Pioneers,' making both the man and woman pioneers. Reviews of the day called the painting 'The Pioneer', as does that National Gallery of Victoria, where the painting is now housed. This seems to be the correct title.

30. 'Art,' The Age, Wednesday 16 August 1905, p. 6.

31. 'Art,' The Age, Wednesday 16 August 1905, 6; 'Art Exhibition,' in The Age , Friday, 22 April, 1904, p. 8.

32. 'Art' in The Age, Wednesday, 16 August, 1905, p. 6.

33. See JW Bull, Early Experiences of Colonial Life in South Australia (Advertiser Chronicle and Express Offices) Adelaide, 1878, p.104.; EH Hallack, Toilers of the Hills (Investigator Press) Hawthorndene, 1987 [1893], p.51; Edwin Hodder, The History of South Australia From its Foundation to the Year of its Jubilee with a Chronological Summary of All the Principle Events of Interest Up to Date (Sampson, Low and Marston Company) London, 1893, p.139; John Blacket, History of South Australia: A Romantic and Successful Experiment in Colonization (Hussey and Gillingham) Adelaide, 1911, pp 115-6. Note, though, that all such opinions are proffered by male writers.

34. Ron Radford and Jane Hylton, Australian Colonial Art 1800-1900 (Art Gallery Board of SA) Adelaide, 1995 p. 116.

35. Whether this idea of non-English pioneers has emerged within popular history and memory is questionable.

36. Radford and Hylton, Australian Colonial Art, p. 116.

37. Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art's History (Routledge) London, 1999, p. 10.

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