State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 1 April 1968


Portrait of William Buckley, Attributed to Ludwig Becker

Towards the end of 1967 the Friends of the La Trobe Library, with part of a generous bequest from the Ian Potter Foundation, purchased their first gift for the La Trobe Library historical collections.
This was an oil portrait,1 sold as anonymous and undated, of William Buckley.2 Cleaned and reframed after purchase, it is now in fairly good condition.
The significance of the work is three-fold.
Historically, it is a unique piece of Australiana — a contemporary portrait of Victoria's first permanent white resident.
Anthropologically, the story of Buckley is unique in the history of mankind. He is the only white man known to have lived the span of a generation alone with a primitive race.
Artistically, the portrait is important because I believe it is one of the few life-size portraits Ludwig Becker3 painted during his two years in Tasmania “paying his way by taking likenesses”, as Lady Denison wrote in her diary.4
The provenance of the painting at this stage cannot be fully traced. We know the date of execution must have been between 1850–52 when Becker was in Tasmania, and we know its history for the past sixty years or so.5 Who owned it for the preceding fifty years may never be known. But known historical facts, the age of the painting, the technical structure, the materials used, and the style, confirm that Ludwig Becker was the artist.
Characteristic of Becker's work in oils is the broad brushwork and sombre tones, highlighted only by the flesh-coloured pigment used for the stern face, the contrasting white of Buckley's shirt front, and the suggestion of a penetrating brightness in the ageing reddened eyes, haunting and watchful,
instinctively as watchful as the hunted eyes of Buckley's primitive friends.6
It has been suggested7 that the lithograph8 used as a frontispiece to John Morgan's Life and Adventures of William Buckley (1852) was by Alfred Bock, son of Thomas Bock, portrait painter and engraver. Alfred Bock also worked in Hobart as an artist and engraver but his known date of birth (1835) rules out the likelihood that he would have been entrusted with the lithography at such an early age. His earliest known dated lithographs were produced in 1857.9
That a mole appears on Buckley's left cheek in the lithograph and in a later wood-engraved copy,10 although not in the original painting, is immaterial. Artists have frequently omitted such disfigurements at the sitter's request.
But the possibility that the portrait was painted from a daguerreotype is not entirely discounted. George Goodman, who had introduced daguerreotypes to Australia in 1842,11 spent six months in Tasmania in the early 1840's taking portraits of many notables. Buckley certainly looks nearer sixty than seventy in the painting. At sixty the mole might easily have been less noticeable.
Becker's actual artistic training is unknown but he gained some competence in the art of lithography in Frankfurt-am-Main where he worked for a Herr Vogel.12 As we shall see from his later work in Victoria, he was accustomed to working on the stone and I believe he would have prepared the Buckley lithograph himself for Morgan's Life. He was still in Hobart at the time.
Sir William and Lady Denison left delightfully human pictures of Becker and his life at Government House.13 Sir William had met him “up the country” and, enjoying his company, asked him to stay at Government House. It seems he was there for some months in 1851–52 and amused the family with his quaint language and his versatile talent. “He is one of those universal geniuses who can do anything; is a very good naturalist, geologist, etc., draws and plays and sings, conjures and ventriloquises….very fond of children, amuses and astonishes ours….he is very odd-looking besides, with a large red beard….”
An existing cartoon recaptures some of this merriment at Government House that Lady Denison describes. Referred to as a lithograph by an unknown engraver, c.1850, (Mr. Novchum) calls

Nicholas Chevalier, 1828–1902. Portrait of William Buckley, drawn from a portrait by Ludwig Becker, engraved on wood by F. Grosse. Engraved surface 5½″ × 4½″. The Australian Newsletter, August 1857. La Trobe Library Collection.

Frontispiece to The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, by John Morgan, Hobart, 1852. F12813. Lithographer probably Ludwig Becker (1808–1861). Page surface 7½″ × 5″.

at Government House
, it is reproduced by Dr. Clifford Craig.14
The main historical evidence for the authenticity of the oil portrait is the following slightly ambiguous note appended to the wood engraving already mentioned:
The portrait given above is drawn after that taken during his life for the illustration of Mr. Morgan's memoir, with modifications, by Dr. Ludwig Becker, who had frequent opportunities of observing Buckley in his lifetime, while residing in Tasmania.15
We know, too, that William Buckley was accustomed to being produced as a celebrity at Government House ever since his reunion with one of his fellow convicts from the Calcutta who arranged for him to call on Governor Franklin.16
It would seem, then, that the oil painting is the long lost original of the familiar lithograph which Becker himself would have engraved on stone in Hobart. Chevalier, who did not arrive in Australia until 1854, later copied it for the wood engraving published in The Australian Newsletter in 1857. This portrait has the familiar “N.C.” signature beside it and the actual engraver was F. Grosse.17 Chevalier had copied other sketches by Becker for The Australian Newsletter.18 Buckley himself died, in 1856, before the engraving appeared.
The Tasmanian portraits were the precursors of the series of portraits Becker began in Men of Victoria.19 This was published in 1856 and contained biographies of William Stawell, John Hodgson, Andrew Clarke and Peter Lalor, written and illustrated “by myself from the life and from carefully executed photographs … transferred to the stone by my own hand.”20
Prior to this he had painted on the goldfields and held a successful exhibition in Melbourne in 1854. Soon afterwards, in 1856, the Society of
Fine Arts was founded and Becker became one of its original Council members.
But it was as a naturalist that Becker was best known in his own day. His contributions to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, later known as the Royal Society, included at least ten scientific lectures to the Society between 1855–59. He also illustrated some important lectures Professor Frederick McCoy and Baron von Mueller delivered to the Society.
Soon after he arrived in Australia, Becker planned to write a great scientific work on Australia, illustrating it himself.21 But it was not to be. He joined the Victorian Exploration Expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria, 1860–61, led by Robert O'Hara Burke, and carried out his duties meticulously as artist and naturalist. But he died of exhaustion due to scurvy and dysentery at Bulloo, eighty-five miles from Cooper's Creek, on April 28th 1861.
When the Melbourne Public Library acquired the Burke and Wills papers from the Royal Society in 1875, the eighty-five sketches and water-colours that Becker recorded in the early months of the expedition were among the most precious items. He sketched these by lantern light, exhausted after long hours of journeying, during the early stages of the expedition.
Other works by Becker now held by the La Trobe Library include a variety of lithographs, a number of other topographical watercolours mostly sketched around the Bendigo district, and some sketches of Tasmanian aborigines. An oil painting, Old Prince's Bridge and St. Paul's by Moonlight, is said to be the first nocturne painting in Victoria.
The only authentic likeness of Becker himself is a lithograph by F. Schonfeld in which he is portrayed as a rather stern bespectacled scholar.22
Becker's vision was largely limited to the Northern European tradition which had nurtured him. But he remains one of our more important colonial artists because of the delicacy and faithfulness of his scientific and topographical sketches, the historical content of the Burke and Wills works and the high standard of lithography achieved in his historic portraits.
Marjorie Tipping


Illustration 1.


William Buckley (c.1780–1856), born near Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, is known to Australians as the “Wild White Man”. Transported to Australia in H.M.S. Calcutta in 1803 for having received stolen goods, he escaped from the temporary settlement at Port Phillip and was left behind when the settlement was abandoned. He lived for nearly 32 years among the blacks before surrendering himself in 1835 when the white people returned to settle. He died in Hobart in 1856. The Life and Adventures of William Buckley by John Morgan, Hobart, 1852, F12813, is the best of several biographies. A German edition was published in 1964, a Russian edition in 1967 and a second Australian edition, edited by C.E. Sayers, in Melbourne, 1967. The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 1 (Buckley entry), gives further details and bibiography.


Ludwig Becker, 1808–1861, born at Darmstadt, Germany. Further details in the Australian Encyclopedia; the forthcoming Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. III, includes an extensive bibliography of source material on Becker.


Sir William Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life, London, 1870, F9107, p. 170.


The painting was purchased at Leonard Joel's auction rooms, Melbourne, in September 1967. The vendor was J.E. Pyke Esq., son of W.T. Pyke, author of The Story of William Buckley, Melbourne 1889, F14548. About five years ago Mr Pyke told me that the painting had been hanging in a back room in his home in Denham Street, Hawthorn for many years. About sixty years ago an unknown friend presented it to his father because of the latter's interest in Buckley. He recently confirmed that the late Mr W.T. Pyke had always said it was copied for the frontispiece of Morgan's Life, but he did not know the artist.


For an interesting re-assessment of Morgan's narrative see C.M. Tudehope, “William Buckley”, Victorian Historical Magazine, XXXII, iv, pp. 216–236, May 1962. See also Mrs Tudehope's review of Morgan's Life, ed. C.E. Sayers, ibid, XXXVIII, iii, pp. 160–161, August 1967.


C.E. Sayers, op. cit. p. xx.


Illustration 2.


Clifford Craig, The Engravers of Van Diemen's Land, Hobart, 1961, p. 80. Dr. Craig reproduces the Buckley lithograph on p. 99 but does not ascribe it to anyone.


Illustration 3.


Australian Encyclopedia, Sydney, 1958, Vol. VII, p. 102.


Australische Monazeitung, No. 1, February, 1862, Melbourne.


Denison, op. cit., pp. 170–180. Lady Denison's diary entries refer to the lighter side of life with Ludwig Becker, Sir William writes of Becker's ability as a scientist.


Op. cit., plate 44, p. 145. Although she has not seen the original, I asked Dr. Ursula Hoff whether she thought this cartoon could have been by Becker. Dr. Hoff thought it unlikely because the line of the cartoon appears to be more sophisticated than any of Becker's original work that she has seen.


The Australian Newsletter No. XIV, August, 1857, Melbourne.


Morgan, op. cit., pp. 144–5: “About this time I was visited at Mr. Cutts' by one of my old shipmates in the Calcutta, who had become a wealthy and respectable settler, near the Green Ponds, about thirty miles from Hobart Town. After a few days, and he had settled his business, I accepted an invitation to accompany him to his home, where I was hospitably entertained more than three weeks; when, being tired of an indolent life, I begged my friend to make interest with his Excellency Sir John Franklin, so that I might have employ. My friend lost no time in acceding to my wishes; and, in a few days I was directed to call at Government House at an early hour, and had the honour to be introduced to Sir John and Lady Franklin, and to several gentlemen who were breakfasting there. Numerous were the questions they put to me, and amongst the rest was, what I wished on my own account? I replied, a small allotment of land! His Excellency said he could not grant land, but that he would see what could be done in the way of finding me employment.” My own check of Calcutta convicts shows that the old shipmate would have been Joseph Johnson, the only one settled at Green Ponds who fits this description. For further information on Joseph Johnson, see Journals of the Land Commissioners for Van Diemen's Land, 1826–28, ed. Anne McKay, Hobart, 1962.


Chevalier does not appear to have visited Tasmania until January 1868 when he travelled as an artist with H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh. William Archer's Journal, 16 January 1868, the Archer Papers, MS. Collection, University of Tasmania.


The Australian Newsletter, XII, June 1857, Melbourne, etc.


Becker, Ludwig, Men of Victoria, Part I, Melbourne, 1856. F6854. (Part II did not appear).


Ibid. Preface.


Hobart Town Courier, 10 October 1851, p. 3 c.3.


Also in the La Trobe Library.