State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011


Madeleine Say
Father and Son: John Goulson Burtt and John Wesley Burtt


One of the largest pictures in the State Library collection is a curious colonial history painting entitled Batman's treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835,1 Placed firmly in the centre of the painting are John Batman and the Aboriginal chief Jaga Jaga. Batman holds 'the deed in his left hand', and the Aboriginal Chief a 'lump of turf' in his open palm signifying 'giving possession of land to Batman'.2
A large cast of European and Aboriginal figures gather around these two men. The accompanying key prepared by Burtt names some of the Europeans and Aboriginal members of Batman's party, and distinguishes the local Aboriginal chiefs involved in the 'treaty'. The group is gathered together under a large gum tree. The artist has identified Merri Creek and Ruckers Hill, in present day Northcote, as the background. On the right of the painting a European man lays out on two blankets goods suitable for 'trade', and on the left a man, identified as a Scotsman by his tam o'shanter, gives a string of beads to an Aboriginal child.
The scene is calm and peaceful, despite many of the figures being heavily armed. The Europeans carry firearms, Batman himself has a pistol tucked into the front of his trousers, and the Aboriginal men hold spears and other implements. Beside the blankets a dog sits looking wistfully out at the landscape, oblivious to the action behind him. In contrast on the right another dog stands to attention, close to his Aboriginal master.
The painting is in the Library collection because of its subject matter, not for any intrinsic artistic merit. One is arrested by the sheer size of the work, and can admire the effort in creating such a large painting. But overall it is not a well executed canvas. Many of the figures are wooden or poorly modelled. The artist has had trouble with perspective and the blankets laid out on the grass seem to levitate, as though they are going to turn into magic carpets and fly off with the 'trinkets'.
The appearance of the painting is not helped by damage to the surface, as though the canvas at some stage has been put through a giant roller. The cause of this distortion is not known, but may have been the result of heat treatment during past conservation.3 A conservation assessment conducted in the 1980s found the work needed considerable attention. In addition to general dirt and grime, the original stretcher for the painting was found to have been poorly constructed, and was inadequate to support the heavy canvas.4
This picture has been at the Library since the 1930s when it was borrowed from Northcote Town Hall for an exhibition in the McAllan Gallery. It then featured in the
Victorian Centenary exhibition of 1934, and subsequently remained on site at the library.
The artist did not sign or date the painting. When first borrowed for the Library exhibition it was described as the work of John Wesley Burtt. Although Burtt is listed as a foundation member of the Victorian Academy of Arts in 1870, no other paintings by this artist are known to exist. This paucity of knowledge about the artists has made it difficult to confidently assign a date to the painting.
The artists' intent has never been in question. He published a small pamphlet supporting the authenticity of the scene presented in his 'history painting' and a key to the painting.5
The Dictionary of Australian Artists, Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, has a substantial entry on Burtt, mainly discussing the Batman painting. The contributors were unable to assign his birth or death date. They note his inclusion in exhibitions during the 1870s and, on this basis, describe the painting as being exhibited at 'Wise's Rooms in Melbourne, apparently in the early 1860s . . .'6
This reference has been widely used since, especially by amateur historians who did not grasp the nature of history painting as an artist's vision rather than historical fact. Recently historian Bain Attwood, in his thorough examination of the Batman treaty and legend assigned a more realistic date to the painting of the early 1890s.7
The purpose of this paper is to present recent research on the artist, his background and this curious painting.

A Note on Research Resources

The germ of this paper developed during an idle moment in my life as a librarian. I was leafing through the A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament 1851-1900, and came across the listing for a John Goulson Burtt. In the brief outline of his life and parliamentary career was the tantalising sentence – 'One son was an artist.'8 Surely, I reasoned, this Burtt must be connected with the artist John Wesley Burtt. Here for the first time were biographical details for at least one generation of the Burtt family.
John Goulson Burtt was a member of the Victorian Parliament from 1864 to 1874, and by any measure a minor figure in Victorian history. Thus it is no surprise the connection between the parliamentarian and artist had been overlooked.9
Because of public debate over the date the Batman painting was created I had previously tried to confirm the death date for John Wesley Burtt, artist. A number of people with the name John Burt or John Burtt died in Eastern Australia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and without other evidence it was difficult to confirm which was our man. Now armed with two names, and a few more facts from the parliamentary records, I thought it worth trying again.
And so it proved. John Goulson Burtt's parliamentary career was brief, and mostly unremarkable, but his family never allowed anyone to forget it. I came to realise that the life of his father had a profound influence on the character and career of the son. To
avoid confusion in discussing the lives of the father and son, I will refer to the father as John Goulson and the son as John Wesley throughout this paper.

John Goulson Burtt

John Goulson Burtt (1809(?)-1901) was an ironmonger, a 'zinc and tin manufacturer', supplying the shipping community in East London with metal hardware. He and Mary and Anne Burrt had five children, the eldest being John Wesley Burtt, born in 1839 and named after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. The family lived in Clarence Place near the East India Road, in the parish of Poplar.10 This is close to the bend of the river Thames poetically known as the Isle of Dogs. In the 1850s the area was densely populated and industrial. This was the working heart of London's East and West India docks. Major manufacturing industries, such as the Thames Iron Works, glass works and shipbuilding yards were located there.11
John Goulson made his first trip to Port Phillip in 1853, bringing ironmongers supplies to sell in Melbourne.12 For the rest of the decade he made voyages back and forth to Britain and imported substantial quantities of building supplies and metal goods to sell from a store in Russell Street.13 His family, wife Mary Anne and the children now aged from nine to sixteen, travelled to Melbourne with him in 1858.14 John Goulson was now running an importing business at 151 Swanston Street and the family lived for the next few years in Cecil Street, Emerald Hill [South Melbourne].15 I have been unable to find a record confirming John Wesley's voyage to Port Phillip. Regardless of exactly when he arrived, John Wesley was resident in Melbourne from 1860, as he is listed as the proprietor of one of the family businesses in the 1860 Melbourne Directory.16
As historian Stuart McIntyre has noted, Australian cities founded on assisted or free emigration developed differently to those with strong convict legacies. In Melbourne citizens, rather than craving anonymity, formed voluntary associations based around civic, religious or recreational ideas. They wanted to create sociable communities, and in this type of society John Goulson flourished.17
The two principal interests of his life were the Temperance movement (he had taken the pledge in 1836) and the Church of Christ for which he was still preaching every Sunday at the age of 88.18 John Goulson also comes across as man with a robust ego, a good sense of his own worth, and a willingness to voice these opinions.
When interviewed late in his life John Goulson never failed to mention his political credentials. He claimed to have been involved with the Chartists political movement.19 Chartists, though they pushed for reform, aimed to do it primarily thorough law abiding means. In 1839, after a series of large public meetings and rallies, a petition supporting The People's Charter was presented to the British Parliament. It is quite likely John Goulson was present in the crowd at this event, as he later claimed. However, he probably romanticised his involvement, since no records supporting his claim to have been imprisoned for Chartist principles, or being instrumental in presenting the petition to parliament have been traced.20
By 1860, John Goulson was noticeably active in Melbourne public life, developing a profile by speaking at rallies on social issues such as labour and land reform. He was a lay preacher at the Church of Christ in Swanston Street, which still operates from the building opposite the State Library.21 He was also the secretary of the Band of Hope, effectively the children's education arm of the Temperance movement.22
The Victorian Land League, founded by social reformers with Chartists principles, was exactly his type of organisation.23 John Goulson is not listed as an official candidate of the 1857 Convention, but as the newspaper reports make clear, he was there speaking his piece. When a motion to petition the Legislative Assembly was proposed 'Mr Burtt supported the resolution in a humorous and animated speech' reported the Argus.24
His public life brought him into contact with like-minded Melburnians who encouraged him to stand for Parliament. Interviewed late in his life he mentioned Richard Heales, one-time Victorian Premier and fellow Temperance supporter (for whom Healesville is named), as his prime supporter.25
John Goulson political life was relatively brief, just ten years. After an unsuccessful stand as a candidate for Brighton in 1861 and South Gippsland in 1864, he was elected as the MLA for North Melbourne in November 1864. This was the seat he held until 1874, when he lost to another pilar of the Temperance movement, James Munro.26
The Victorian Parliament was less than 20 years old. It was a dynamic environment, with eighteen changes of government occurring between 1855 and 1877.27 John Goulson was one of many small players in this volatile environment. Melbourne Punch lampooned him as 'little Burtt', no doubt a reference to his small stature, as well as his limited ability. When he exited parliament at the 1874 election, the Punch cartoonist included him as a small footnote in Victorian Parliamentary history.28
His obituaries stress his support for social reform, and causes such as the eight hours movement, tariff protection and technical education.29 The parliamentary record indicates that he was a vocal opponent of the Wine and Spirits bill, even handing in his resignation during the 1870 debate on a point of principle (the parliament knew this was a bluff and the speaker handed it back).30
Opponents accused John Goulson of nepotism, and of being a 'hot head' and a public nuisance.31 In a witty reference to the spelling of his name and adherence to non alcoholic beverages, Punch referred to him as 'Burtt never going without his two teas'.32 John Goulson does not appear to have been a subtle man, and his support for the interests of his four sons, and his son in law, were rather obvious.33
His parliamentary career over by 1874, John Goulson spent the next thirty years of his life supporting his causes: technical education (he was appointed to the Royal Technological Commission 1886-87), Temperance and religion. Interviewed by Table Talk in 1896 he is describes as living 'far out from the city' with 'members of his family in North Fitzroy'.34
By 1896 the family was sadly diminished. His wife Mary Anne had died in 1892.
Their daughter lived in King William Street Fitzroy with her husband John Dunning, an auctioneer and estate agent, and one time Fitzroy councillor.35 Of the four sons, only the eldest John Wesley, was still living.36 He was not mentioned by name in the Table Talk article, but reference is made to John Goulson's son as a 'distinguished artist', and apparently still residing in the family home.37
Father and son remained close to the end. When John Goulson died at the advanced age of 92 in 1901 after being admitted to the Kew Asylum, the son was named as executor of his estate.38 It appears John Wesley failed to carry out his executor's duties. When queried in 1905, he stated in court that he thought probate would not apply to his fathers estate, as it consisted of nothing more than 'four landscape paintings' worth less than 15 pounds'.39

John Wesley Burrt, 'artist'

There is no indication why John Wesley Burtt decided to become an artist. There is little connection in the family background to the arts or creative life. One brother, William, became a jeweller, thus moving from coarse to finer metal trade. His sister Mary Anne established a theatrical costumière emporium, a business of which she was justifiably proud, operating it for over 20 years from various parts of the city, and finally bequeathing it to her two daughters in law.40
In the early 1860s John Wesley is named as the proprietor of an offshoot from the family business, running a hay and corn depot in the Eastern Market.41 But by the end of this decade, he was devoting all his energy towards a career as an artist. His entry in the Dictionary of Australian Artists speculates that John Wesley . . had presumably received some artistic training outside Australia . . .'42 but there is no information to confirm this. It is likely any training he have had would have been rudimentary.
John Wesley was a frequent exhibitor in the colonial exhibitions held in the late 1860s and early 1870s. His contributions were portraits or copies of works in the Melbourne Art Gallery and were cycled between exhibitions. As the Argus correspondent noted in the review of the Sandhurst [Bendigo] Fine Arts Exhibition of 1869 'Mr Burtt contributes several copies, some of which we have already seen at the Melbourne Exhibition'.43
The portraits, if named, are of parliamentarians or public figures, and were, 'private commissions' as John Wesley hastened to assure his critics. These works were 'well appreciated by the owners and their friends, who consider them highly satisfactory, (and) they have obtained for him fresh patrons'.44 John Goulson's parliamentary connections must have been useful if the Governor and one-time premier of the colony did pose for the young artist as he claims. It is impossible to judge their merit. None of these portraits, if they have survived, are currently identified.45
Alongside the portraits John Wesley exhibited copies of paintings in the National Gallery collection. Producing copies of works in public collections was an acceptable

Having a dig at his stature, Melbourne Punch (23 April 1874, p. 163), refers to John Goulson Burtt as a small footnote in Victorian Parliamentary History following his 1874 election defeat at the hands of James Munro.

practice in the mid nineteenth century, particularly as training for art students. The copyists certainly worked hard. The 1871 annual report of the Trustees of the Library and Art Galley lists 15 paintings copied during the year, most more than once. The most popular, the The Hay Waggon by G. Cole, was copied five times.46
John Goulson was quick to speak up when Parliament was discussing any issue relating to the Art Gallery. In 1869 when Parliament debated the supply of funds to the
'Museum of Art' John Goulson called attention to the expenditure of '£400 on a drawing master'. This he hoped would allow the 'several students who had been accustomed to attend at the Museum of Art, prior to the opening of the building to the public, for the purpose of copying the works there' to 'once again take up this practice'.47 Recently the copyists had been banned, on the grounds paintings risked getting damaged. The newly appointed master, John Goulson argued, should be present not only to teach, but also to provide supervision for those wishing to copy the pictures for two hours before the public was admitted to the building.
It is hard to imagine that anyone listening in Parliament was unaware of the self interest behind John Goulson's comments. The rest of the Art Galleries budget of £1000 was to be spent on purchasing paintings for the Gallery. On this issue John Goulson made clear he thought the Gallery should include the 'disposal in England of the copyright of any original picture' as without this 'the picture became then useless for one of its principal objects' (that is being copied).48
One of the first reviews of John Wesley's work in the Argus contains, in modern terminology, backhanded compliments – 'three copies by this young artist, which, considering the slight means he has had of acquiring art-education, are singularly meritorious'.49 Damning the work with faint praise, this article confirms it is unlikely Burtt had any formal art training before he arrived in Victoria.
The Argus correspondent continues – 'Mr Burtt would no doubt do well, like the rest of his co disciples at the gallery, to be a little less ambitious for the present and postpone the use of colour until he has more command of line . . .'50
In light of the correspondents comments it is interesting to see that soon afterwards the Argus reports that John Wesley was teaching 'Linear drawing and perspective' at the Artisans School of Design, held every Friday night in Lygon Street.51 Other teachers at the school included 'figure drawing Mr T. [Thomas] Clark; landscape, M. Buvelot . . . and elementary drawing, Mr. Burtt'.52 Money for the school was provided by the Technological Commission, the forerunner of Technical Education in Victoria and another of John Goulsons' professional interests.

John Wesley and Art Unions

In 1870 the Argus reported 'Mr J W Burtt, one of those gentlemen who occupy themselves in copying the pictures at the public gallery, being about to proceed to Europe for the purpose of prosecuting his artistic studies, is anxious to clear his studio by means of an art union'.53
The Argus reported the first prize in this Art Union was a reproduction of Edward Tshaggency's 'Sheep in Repose'. Again the Argus correspondent leaves readers to carefully read between the lines:
under the circumstances we abstain from criticism, but we may be permitted to say that, little esteem as we have in general for works of this class, whoever is lucky
enough to win the copy to which we now direct attention will have one which few beginners could equal, and which is free from many of the defects to be found in reproductions by more experienced hands. The washed and combed appearance which the Belgian artist has given to his moutons is rigorously adopted by Mr. Burtt, and in many other respects it will be found that he has given some of the blemishes as well as some of the merits of the original.54

Melbourne Punch (24 September 1874, p. 382) lampoons Art Union prizes under the heading 'Lottery Prizes'.

A small carte de visite in the Library collection shows a photograph of the Tschaggney painting, crudely hand tinted in lurid colours. Annotated on the back is 'copy of the Sheep in repose in the public library . . . 26 members at 5/-', indicating odds of the art union.55
Art unions were essentially a raffle, where patrons 'subscribed' a sum of money with the possibility of winning the picture. Punch lampooned the practice in a cartoon, indicating the public was not at all taken in by the process.56
John Wesley had been busy, 25 pictures were to be sold in the forthcoming art
union. This covered a 'variety of subjects in figure and landscape',57 and presumably includes every painting he had exhibited in the last few years. John Wesley advertised his art unions in the Argus from 1870 to 1873. At times he was close to engaging in sharp practices, or being downright underhanded. His 1873 art union was advertised as 'Burtt's Melbourne Art Union',58 almost a direct copy of the name adopted by a group of Victorian artists when they formed an art union in December 1872. An art union, it goes without saying, offering original works by its artists.
John Wesley's tactics certainly annoyed the writer Marcus Clarke. In 1873 Clarke noticed the artist was offering photographic copies of the 'the favourite and valuable picture. . . "The Dancing Girl" as the prizes for lots '151 to 200' in his art union. Clarke, writing as the Secretary to the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, warned the public that they were being taken for a ride as 'no photograph of this picture has been taken . . . and I should be glad to learn . . . how Mr Burtt came to make so strange an error in his advertisement'.59 John Wesley was, of course, offering photographs of his own painted copy of the popular picture by Edwin Long.
Clarke was understandably annoyed as he embroiled in a public spat on this issue. The Trustees had been under pressure to provide photographic copies for some time. In 1874 these were finally available, after some problems with some 'unsatisfactory' photographs.60 One of the first pictures offered for sale was A question of propriety known colloquially as 'The Dancing Girl'.
Throughout the 1870s, John Wesley continued to be listed at various studio addresses in Collins Street, Melbourne. In 1876 he made a brief splash in Brisbane, setting up 'a studio in the Queensland Insurance Company's Chambers in Queen-street'.61 The correspondent for the Brisbane Courier describes Mr Burtt as 'a gentleman well and favourably known in his profession in Melbourne'. In the studio were paintings easily identifiable as those previously shown at Melbourne exhibitions, including 'A fine copy of that gem of the Melbourne gallery – "A question of Propriety" . . .'62 John Wesley was only 'on holiday in Queensland', and probably returned to Melbourne soon afterwards.
John Wesley had contributed three works to the First Exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Art in 1870. He was listed as a member of the Academy, and 'J. G. Burtt, MLA' is noted as 'A Subscriber'.63 However, after this first rush to join Melbourne arts organisations, John Wesley is not listed as a member of either the Academy or of Victorian Artists Society for the rest of his life.
This is hardly surprising. John Wesley's correspondence with the Academy indicates that he thought joining was merely gained by paying the subscription. When requested to send a specimen of his work to the Academy, he had the temerity to suggest if the Academy had the desire to see, and judge, 'a specimen of his ability', they 'will be good enough to arrange for its transmission' as the painting he wished to send 'being nearly 6ft × 5ft'.64
There is less information on John Wesley's artistic career during the 1880s. Though 'J W Burtt Artist' is listed at several Collins Street addresses throughout this decade, it is hard to imagine he made a living from his painting.65 Public notices of his work are sparse through out the 1880s. In 1885 the German choral society, the Turn Verein commissioned a portrait of their president, Her W Weibaden, from him.66 He exhibited work, Suburban Melbourne, at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886.67
In the late 1870s the Burtt family moved to 'De Beauvoir Villa' in Brunswick Street North Fitzroy.68 John Wesley lists this as his private address. It is most probable that he had a 'day job' to provide a basic income. In the 1860s he had been working as a 'civil servant',69 and later he was employed as a clerk by Allen Brothers, leather merchants, in Collingwood.

The Batman Painting

In December 1892 the Melbourne society paper Table Talk included a short notice on a 'collection of paintings by Mr Westley (sic) Burtt' now on view in a Gallery at 263 Collins Street. Table Talk notes that the 'principal picture' in this exhibition was:
a large canvas representing Batman completing his treaty with the aborigines by which he acquired for about £40 worth of "trade" nearly the whole of the land between the Merri Creek, at Northcote, and the Barwon, at Geelong. The painting represents Batman in the act of receiving possession of the territory from the aboriginal chief Jika, who is handing him a clod of earth, while Batman extends the deed of gift for the chief's signature. Aborigines stand about, and Batman's assistants are represented as busy handing out the "trade." The picture is a very interesting representation of a famous historical event.70
This notice in Table Talk is the first description I can find of the painting as we know it. It is impossible to know from this distance in time if this is the same painting John Wesley exhibited as First Victorian Land Syndicate in the Tasmanian Court of the Centennial exhibition held in Melbourne during 1888.71 No review of the Exhibition mentions this work, and as the Table Talk article makes clear, the Batman painting was such a large curiosity as to be unmissable. Without further evidence, it is impossible to know if the two works are one and the same. Perhaps the painting exhibited in 1888 was a preparatory work. First Victorian Land Syndicate is the title used in early Library records to describe the lithographed key. And this wording reappears on the wooden plaque, which presumably hung below the 'Batman' painting when it was exhibited.72
The issue is further confused by a 1935 newspaper review of the Library Exhibition noting the painting depicting 'the scene on the banks of the Merri Creek with Batman and his party mingling with the aborigines . . . was painted for the Centennial Exhibition of 1888 by J W Burtt'.73
The Batman painting it is clear was the largest, and to some extent most original, work John Wesley created. The painting was his magnum opus, and his intention was to produce a serious 'history painting'.

John Batman and his Treaty

So what attracted John Wesley to the 'Batman legend'? Bain Attwood Possession Batman's Treaty and the Matter of History, gives a comprehensive overview of the development of this creation myth for Melbourne.74 In this story John Batman is given the status of heroic founder of early Melbourne, and his 'treaty' with the local Aboriginal peoples a legitimate method by which the settlers gained possession of the land.
As Attwood outlines, the story of John Batman as the founder of Melbourne gained momentum during the 1880s. The story received popular attention with public events such as the unveiling of a memorial to Batman in Old Melbourne Cemetery in June 1882.75 Soon afterwards John Batman's diary, and the Batman Deed were purchased by the Public Library after some years of negotiation.76 Once the documents were in the Library collection, they were exhibited and became an item of public curiosity and interest.
In constructing this painting John Wesley bought entirely into the myth of Batman as a heroic figure and the 'treaty' with Victorian Aboriginals as a legitimate take over of their land. By so doing, he was expressing popular opinion of his time.
As John Goulson had been prone to claim personal involvement with major political events, it seems John Wesley was equally adept at embellishing stories to his advantage. To authenticate the painting John Wesley produced a pamphlet with testimonials from living witnesses. Later he claimed to have spent 'six months at native camps painting aborigines until satisfied . . . he had caught their character and expression'.77
It seems most likely that John Wesley printed the pamphlet when the painting was first exhibited in 1892. On the front page John Wesley's address is given as 'Empire Chambers, Collins Street West'. 1892 is the only year when the artist is listed at this address.78 Burtt's studio was on the second floor, in a building largely empty of tenants due to the 1890s financial recession. The following year he was also gone.
The eye-witness statements from early settlers attest to the 'excellent likeness' of John Batman in the painting. However, Robert Russell, then over 80 years of age and a gifted artist himself, qualifies his endorsement. 'I have no hesitation in saying that, independent of the artistic merit of the work, it is remarkable for the truthful character of the landscape. . . .'
The 'Early History of Victoria', included in the pamphlet was drawn from popular texts of the time. This included John Bonwick's Port Phillip Settlement (1884) and no doubt his biography of John Batman. Bonwick was, like the Burtts, a follower of nonconformist Christianity and 'part of an autodidiact culture that was nurtured by the Christian evangelical revival'.79 Bonwick presented Batman as a heroic figure, clean living and altering aspects of his story considerably. For example, in the Bonwick version Batman's father is a missionary rather than a convict who had been transported to New South Wales.
It is hard to know where John Wesley would have housed such a large work after displaying it in 1892. The vast size of the work, it being 12 feet long and 6 feet high (almost 3 by 2 metres), make it unlikely to have been housed at the family home in Fitzroy, and John Wesley had no permanent studio address during this decade.
In the late 1890s the painting reputedly hung in the Executive Chamber of the Treasury building.80 Possibly this was done through the influence of the former parliamentarian John Goulson. Alternatively the subject matter of the painting may have been considered sympathetic with the function of the room, it being where the Governor of Victoria came to sign parliamentary papers each week.
The Victorian government certainly did not purchase the work, and it was for sale when John Wesley exhibited three works at the Australian Natives Association 1907 exhibition.81 The ANA was a friendly society promoting the development of Australian nationalism. The society fairs, held between 1905 and 1926, showcased Australian manufactured goods.82 The aim of the ANA exhibition was to 'overcome the existing prejudice against Colonial Productions'.83
The exhibition included a fine arts court, containing a display of works by members of the Victorian Artists' Society. Burtt's three paintings were exhibited independently. All have Victorian focus. In addition to Batman's Treaty with Victorian Native Chiefs, at Merri Creek near Melbourne- the birth of the State of Victoria- on 6th June, 1835, Burtt displayed a Victorian Landscape (Homestead and Settlement on the Buffalo River, Buffalo Ranges) and a Portrait of the Hon Wm Clarke Haines, the first Premier of Victoria under local constitutional Government. Haines had died of tuberculosis in 186484 and it seems almost inconceivable that the portrait was completed from life, though John Wesley may have met Haines in his father's social circle.

Disputed Ownership of the Painting

Our most comprehensive knowledge of the paintings history comes from newspaper reporting of court cases in 1911, when there was a dispute over who owned the picture.85
At the close of the ANA exhibition, John Wesley sold the painting to an estate agent, W. G. King for £50. King hung the painting in his St Kilda office for some years before trying to sell it at auction in 1910. Despite a fulsome description of the painting in the auction notice, not a bid was received for the work.86 Deciding to cut his losses, King sold the picture for £10 but must have become aware of a better financial opportunity as he bought it back for £20 and then sold it to an 'unknown buyer' for a profit at £27 10/-.
The new owners were Mr Robert Allen, of Allen Brothers leather merchants Collingwood, and a Mr W. Blackden Worsley, grandson of H. F. Worsley, a Victorian painter. As Robert Allen stated in court 'Mr Burrt was a clerk in his employ at the time, and Mr Worsley, who was Burrt's friend, interested him in Burrt's behalf.' (Burtt is misspelt as Burrt throughout this newspaper article.)87

Batman's Treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835

Oil on canvas by John Wesley Burtt, c. 1892.

Allen, at Worsley's suggestion, lent the painting back to John Wesley to display in his studio, now at St Kilda. But when the artist fell behind with the rent his landlord, Mr M. F. Scurrah, seized the painting. The newspaper reportage suggests John Wesley, described as 'an elderly gentleman', had claimed the painting was his to assure his landlord of his financial viability,88 or perhaps even to claim money from Scurrah, for damage to the painting. At first the magistrate ruled that the painting should remain with the landlord, Mr Sucrrah, but on appeal, it was returned to the joint owners Messrs Allen and Worsley.
After this embarrassing episode, Allen and Worsley no doubt wondered what to do with the painting. Eventually Worsley organised for the work to hang in Northcote Town Hall, sitting on top of Ruckers Hill and overlooking the place where the treaty is supposed to have been signed

Burtt's Batman Treaty Painting at the Library

In 1932 the Trustees of the Public library organised a display, with the Royal Victorian Historical Society, to mark the opening of the new McAllan wing. Someone must have informed the Trustees of the painting hanging at Northcote Town Hall depicting John Batman in the process of making his 'treaty'. A lithograph with a diagram of the painting had been in the State library collection for some years and staff in the Historical Section must have been intrigued to find there was a matching painting just up the road.89 The painting was borrowed for the exhibition, and remained on loan to the Library after it closed. Formally the painting remained the property of Mr Worsley and Mr Edward Allen. But they, and the Northcote Town clerk, were all content for the painting to remain on display in the Historical Collection.90
Library staff were already planning a display to mark 100 years of (white) settlement in Victoria. Known as the Centenary Historical Loan Exhibition, it was held in the McAllan Gallery during 1934. The exhibition aimed to 'portray the history of the State by means of documents and manuscripts, engravings paintings and other original sources.'91
The painting was displayed in the Centennary Exhibition along with material relating to John Batman and the Port Phillip Association. The souvenir guide stated 'Of unusual interest is a large painting by J. W. Burtt (lent by Mr B. Worsley and Mr E. Allen of Surrey Hills) depicting Batman, holding a copy of his deed, treating with the natives on the banks of the Merri Creek'.92
Much of this historical material borrowed for the Centenary Exhibition was then formally donated. Some items remained 'on loan' and in the Libraries care until the outbreak of the Second World War. At this point the Trustees had a formal campaign to contact donors and return material, or at least to establish its legal status. Mr Worsley was one of the many owners content for the Library to continue formal custodianship.
He replied: 'neither Mr Allen nor I think we can improve upon the careful custody of yourself and the National Gallery for the picture in the event of war coming here'.93And here in the Library collection the painting remained.

John Wesley Burtt as an Artist

John Wesley lived on until 1917. It is not known if he returned to employment with the Allen family, but he continued to live nearby in a boarding house in Napier Street Fitzroy, identifying himself as 'artist' to the end.94 His death certificate contains a number of errors, such as his age and the misspelling of Burtt as Burt. He was, however, identified as the son of 'John Goulson Burt member of parliament'. An honour not awarded John Goulson himself when he had died in Kew Asylum. He left no estate for probate.
John Wesley gave his profession as an artist for over 40 years. After examining his career it is clear he was a minor figure in the history of Victorian painting, much as his father had been in the political sphere. He appears to have had limited artistic talent, and there is scant evidence he developed these skills to any great degree. Indeed early reviews of his work could equally well apply to the Batman painting, which we now know was one of his last works.95
His father's public profile must have provided contacts and opportunity for the young artist. I doubt the Argus would have devoted column inches to his work if he had not been the son of a politician. Nor would Melbourne Punch have singled out John Wesley's paintings in its satire 'Review of Exhibition of the Victorian Academy',
Who can contemplate that noble series of portraits of distinguished public men, from the facile brush of Mr Burtt, without being impressed with a due sense of his unsurpassable artistic talents?
We confess that we are deeply imbued with a sense of this gentleman's transcendent abilities: and, as a painter of wooden lay figures and stuck pigs, we prognosticate for him a long and prosperous career.96


Now I have a clearer understanding of the biographical details and careers of John Wesley Burtt, and his father John Goulson Burtt, the genesis and creation of the Batman painting is most assuredly the 1880s or 90s rather than the 1860s or 70s.
In 1870 John Wesley Burtt was a young man of less than 30 years, with little formal artistic training. More importantly the subject of the painting, with John Batman as a heroic founder of Melbourne through his 'treaty' with the local Aboriginal people, is a construct of the late 19th Century.
Painters choosing to depict John Batman in the mid 19th Century painted the dramatic scene where escaped convict William Buckley arrived, with his Aboriginal companions, at Batman's camp on Indented Head in 1835. The Library has two pictures on this subject, one by Frederick Woodhouse painted in 1861, and the other by Henricus van den Houten in 1878.97
This was an equally fanciful subject to the one John Wesley depicted, as Batman was not in camp when Buckley arrived. It was John Helder Wedge who provides the eyewitness account of the meeting.98As historian Bain Attwood notes images of Batman and his 'treaty' are prevalent after the 1880s. The use of John Batman's idealised image, and the catch phrase 'This will be the place for a village' reached their apex during the 1930s.99
When a series of articles on 'Stories behind Victoria's Centenary' was published in the Argus during 1934-35, John Wesley Burtts's painting was reproduced alongside an article titled 'How Batman Bought Melbourne'.100After this, in typical Australian fashion, the pendulum swung against Batman, and he disappeared from public art. Now out of fashion it is unlikely this painting would have survived, had it not been part of the Library collection.
Currently this remains the sole painting by which we can judge the work of John Wesley Burtt. Sometimes I wonder if the 'Australian School' landscape, or 'Portrait of an unknown Colonial man' displayed in weekly sales at auction houses could be other works by this artist. But without further evidence this remains idle speculation.
When the painting was auctioned in 1910, the advertisement announced the sale of a 'Splendid historical oil painting by J. W. Burtt representing "Batman's treaty with the Aborigines" at Merri creek, 6th June 1835.' Described as 'a great scene', the painting was 'nobly delineated by the Artist' and 'Worthy of a Place in Any of Our National Art Galleries'.101 A place it has now achieved, being formally accessioned into the collection in 1992. For many years there was no space large enough to hang the work, and it was away in storage. Following the refurbishment of the Library in the late 20th century the painting has again been placed on public display giving John Wesley Burtt the status and audience that he sought for much of his life.


Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria. H92.196.


Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria. H2335.


Personal communication from Pamela Bell, valuer for the Cultural Gift program.


Report from Maxwell Hall, Art Conservator, to the Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, 4 March 1982.


J. W. Burtt, New Historical Painting - Batman's Treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835. Melbourne: Alex McKinley & Co. Not dated. Two copies of the pamphlet are currently known. Both are in the National library of Australia. One copy is in the J. A. Ferguson collection, F13167, and the other in the Petherick Collection, Petherick Pamphlet 2689. Both copies have had the date of publication erased. The Petherick copy is further altered, to have Empire removed from Burtt's address of 'Empire Chambers, Collins st. West, Melbourne'. In addition there are two notes, in different handwriting, on this copy. On the cover at the top of the page 'Picture framed & in Petherick Library'. And on page 3 'For Sale To be seen at Mr Wise's rooms 317 Collins street, Melbourne. Price £250 Guineas'.


Joan Kerr, ed, The Dictionary of Australian Artists, Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992. pp. 119-120.


Bain Attwood with Helen Doyle, Possession: Batman's treaty and the matter of history. Carlton, Victoria: Miegunyah Press, 2009.


Kathleen Thomson and Geoffrey Serle, A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1851-1900. Canberra: Australian national University Press, 1972. Alternatively see:


This connection was also made by historian Susan Priestley, when the Royal Historical society donated the plaque to the library in 2005.


See to access English Civil registration indexes and records, and the 1851 England Census records.


Peter Whitfiled, London: a life in maps, London: The British Library, 2006. pp. 126-129.


Public Record Office of Victoria, Index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria. John Goulson Burtt aged 43 arrived at Melbourne in April 1853 on the Strathfieldsaye.


'Melbourne Zinc Works, J G Burtt's new premises in Russell Street'. Advertisement in the Argus 21 June 1856, p. 6. The Argus Shipping Intelligence – importations of 60 boxes of tin plates, 16 cases galvanised iron and other goods by J G Burtt, 29 October 1856 p. 4.


Public Record Office Victoria, Index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria 1852-1923, lists the Burtt Family arriving on The Eagle in April 1858. This gives the names and ages of the family as John G Burtt aged 48, Mary Anne (48), Frederick (16), Mary A (11), William (11) and Edwin (9).


John Tanner, Tanner's Melbourne Directory for 1859. Melbourne: John Tanner, [1859?].


See Butler and Brooke's National Directory of Victoria for 1866-67. Melbourne : Butler & Brooke, 1866.


Stuart Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia, Port Melbourne, Vic: Cambridge University Press, 2009. p. 80.


Table Talk, 'Anecdotal photograph: Mr. J. G. Burtt', 12 June 1896, pp. 3-4.


For background information on the Chartists see David Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.


For example, see The English Chartist Circular and Temperance Record for England and Wales: London: J. Cleave, 1841-1844.


Calvin K. H. Ma, The Church in the Heart of Melbourne: an historical sketch of Swanston Street Church of Christ, 1855-1995. Melbourne: Swanston Street Church of Christ, 1995.


Argus, 'Carlton band of Hope', 1 September 1859, p. 6.


For a history of the Victorian Land League see: Victorian Convention, Resolutions, Proceedings and Documents of the Victorian Convention: assembled in Melbourne, July 15 to August 6, 1857 Melbourne: Published for the Council of the Convention by J. J. Walsh, 1857. Joseph Toscano, The Victorian Land Convention, Parkville, Vic: Anarchist Media Institute, 2007. Also Macintyre 2009, pp. 86-97.


Argus, 20 January 1857, p. 5.


Table Talk, 12 June 1896.


Thompson and Serle. Interviewed by Talk Talk in 1896 Burtt still regarded being opposed by one of his fellow temperance members an affront.


For discussion of early Victorian politics see Raymond Wright, A People's Counsel: a history of the parliament of Victoria. South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press, 1992.


See Melbourne Punch, 30 May 1872, p. 170 and 'Slated Already, or the return of the third batch', 23 April 1874, p. 163.


Tocsin, 'The late Mr J. G.Burtt: Reformer and Politician', 16 May 1901, p. 8; Australian Christian, 23 May 1901, p. 220; Argus, 22 April 1901 p. 5; and Australian Ironmonger 1901 p. 302.


Victoria Parliament Parliamentary Debates [Hansard]: Legislative Council and Legislative Assembley, Melbourne: Government Printer, 1870, p. 468; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 1870, p. 5.; Argus 9 December 1870, p. 5.


Argus, Letter to the editor from John P. Fawkner, 'The Threatened demonstration on Behalf of the Assembly', 10 February 1866, p. 6; Argus, Letter to the Editor, 'Mr Burtt', 10 January 1868, p. 5.


Melbourne Punch, 31 August 1871, p. 65.


Argus, Letter to the Editor 'Wanted – a third man for Collingwood', 17 January 1868, p. 6; Argus, 'City of Fitzroy Election' 30 April 1879, p. 8; Melbourne Punch 7 March 1872, p. 73.


Table Talk, 12 June 1896.


Mary Anne Burtt 'beloved wife of J.G. Burtt (formerly M.L.A. for North Melbourne)' died 15 May 1892, Argus 18 May 1892 p. 1. Her daughter, also Mary Anne, had married John Frederick Dunning in 1875. Dunning was an estate agent and auctioneer who ran a business from various addressed in Collins Street or Russell Street until his death in 1899. The Dunnings lived in King William Street, Fitzroy. Their own house has been demolished, but the Dunning family name lives on in Fitzroy, for example the terrace in Gore Street named 'Malvina' after his mother. Mary Anne Dunning died in 1923 at St Kilda.


Edwin, 'clerk in the Victorian Railways Audit Office' died in 1868 (Argus 13 November 1868, p. 8). Frederick Gouldson died 'at the residence of his father, Kensington, after a protracted illness' in 1873 (Argus 8 May 1873, p. 4). William, who had moved to Sydney and operated a Jewellery store in George Street, died in 1885 (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1885, p. 1). His father and eldest brother travelled to Sydney at this time (Argus 20 April 1885, p. 5), presumably for the funeral or his burial in Waverly Cemetery. The other brothers were buried with their mother in the Melbourne General Cemetery (see: Victorian Cemetery Records, Melbourne: State Library of Victoria 1959, record no. 4869 to 4874). Some family dynamics may be inferred from the will and probate record for Frederick. In his will he left his entire estate to his mother, 'for her use and benefit and free from the control of her husband.'(VPRS 7591 File no. 10/758) During the probate as 'Taking of any oath is according to my religion unlawful' Mrs Burtt unable to swear in Court. Frederick's estate was worth 262. It is interesting to speculate that it was these funds which allowed the family to move soon afterwards from Kensington to North Fitzroy.


Table Talk, 12 June 1896.


Register of Patients (VA 2840) Kew. (VPRS 7680 Unit 7 1 Dec 1895-19 March 1905) J. G. Burtt was admitted to Kew on 29th December 1900 by his daughter Mary Anne Dunning. He died there on 21 April 1901, and his death certificate contains little information.


Will of John Goulson Burtt (VPRS 28 File no. 92/284). Probate was not granted until 1904.


Will of Mary Anne Dunning (VPRS 28 File no. 190/440).


Sands & McDougall's, Melbourne and Suburban Directory, Melbourne: Sands & McDougall, 1860.


Kerr, ed, Dictionary of Artists.


Argus, 31 July 1869, p. 5. No catalogue of the Sandhurst Fine Arts Exhibition of 1869 has been identified.


Argus, 1 April 1871, p. 7.


In the State Library Picture Collection (H17277) there is a colonial portrait of Sir Charles Darling KCB. It was donated to the Art Gallery in 1890 by Sir W.A.C. a'Beckett. The artist has not been identified, and Library staff have speculated this portrait is the one exhibited by John Wesley in 1870. I think this is unlikely. The artist, and his father, were both alive when the portrait was donated to the Gallery, and I am sure John Wesley would have sought acknowledgement from the gallery if this had been his own painting.


Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria. Schedule K, A List of the Pictures Copied in the National Gallery during the year 1871, p. 43.


Victoria Parliament Parliamentary debates [Hansard]: Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, Melbourne: Government Printer, 4 March 1869, p. 137.


Argus, 5 March 1869, p. 6.


Argus, 27 August 1869, p. 4.




Advertisement in the Argus 30 September 1869, p. 3.


Progress reports on the Artisans School can be found in Argus on 25 Oct 1869, pp. 4-5, On the 18 December 1869, p. 4, and 17 January 1870, p. 4.


Argus, 19 April 1870, p. 4.




Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria. H2009.49/7.


Melbourne Punch, 'Lottery prizes' 24 September 1874, p. 382.


See for example his advertisement in Argus 2 March 1871, p. 8.


The "Melbourne Art Union' was announced in the Argus on 23 December 1872 p. 4. Burtts' art union advertisement appears in the Argus 25 March 1873, p. 8.


Argus, Letter to the Editor from Marcus Clarke, 'The Dancing Girl in the Public Gallery', 15 July 1873, p. 6.


For a discussion on this issue see Trustees Report of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery for 1873-74, p. 2. For background information on the disagreement between photographer Charles Nettleton and Marcus Clarke see; Argus, 1 September 1873 p. 6 and 6 September 1873 p. 6. And for the review of the final photographic series Argus 13 February 1875, p. 6.


Brisbane Courier, 9 September 1876, p. 5.




First Exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Art Melbourne W. H. Williams, 1870. Page 4 lists John Wesley Burtt as a member and J. G. Burtt, M.L.A. as a subscriber.


MS 7593. Victorian Artist's Society, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria. Letter from John W. Burtt to the Academy, 28 February 1870.


See Sands & McDougall's Melbourne and Suburban Directory, Melbourne: Sands & McDougall, for 1870 onwards.


Argus, 28 April 1888, p. 13; and the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April 1888 p. 14. 'The German Turn Verein to-night presented the president Herr W. Weisbaden, with his portrait in oil, by J. Westley (sic) Burtt, as a mark of honour for his services to the society. . . Baron Von Mueller made the presentation.'


Colonial and Indian Exhibition, Official Catalogue, London: William Clowes and Sons, 1886.


Rate books for Fitzroy, held by PROV with copies in the Local History collection at Carlton library. Sands and MacDougall directories from 1875 to 1890.


See Supplement to the Argus 27 November 1867, for a description of the Illuminations in the city for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1867. Includes a description of premises of John Young and Son, silversmiths and jewellers, Stephen street- ' an allegorical design, painted by J. W. Burtt, of the civil service, representing the Arts, with a view of the Bay and Port Phillip Heads in the Centre . . .'.


Table Talk, 23 December 1892, p. 3.


Centennial International Exhibition, Official Record Catalogue of Exhibitions, Tasmanian Court. Class 2, Various Paintings etc, Cat no. 22. Burtt, J.W. First Victorian Land Syndicate. p. 565.


Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria. In 2005 the Royal Historical Society of Victoria donated this wooden plaque to the State Library of Victoria. It contains almost identical text to the lithograph key. H2006.136.


'Batman Centenary: Loan Historical Exhibition, Argus 6 June 1935, p. 10.


Bain Attwood. See Chapters 4, 'Creating a Legend' and 5, 'Remembering Batman'.


Attwood, p. 144.


Shane Carmody, 'John Batman's Place in the Village', La Trobe Journal, no. 80, Spring 2007, pp. 85 - 101.


Letter from Mr Blackden Worsley to the Chief Librarian, Public Library and National Gallery of Art, 28 September 1932.


Sands and Mcdougall directories for 1890 to 1896.


Attwood, p. 107 and p. 117.


Both Table Talk in (12 June) 1896 and the letter from Mr Blackden Worsley to the Chief Librarian on 28 September 1932, mention the painting hanging in the Treasury Building during 1896-1897. I have been unable to find any corroborating evidence in records from the Victorian Parliament or the Governor General at the PROV.


Exhibition of Australian Manufactures and Products, Promoted by the Metropolitan Committee of the Australian Natives Association, Exhibition Building, Melbourne: January 16th to February 23rd, 1907: souvenir catalogue. Melbourne: H. Hearne & Co, 1907. The 'Paintings exhibited by J.W. Burtt' are listed on p. 119.


Andrew Brown-May, et al, The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Vic: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Exhibition of Australian Manufactures and Products, p. 7.


For details of Haines life see ADB :


For reports on the case in the St Kilda Court see 'An Australian Picture : Ownership in Dispute', Argus 25 January 1911, p. 15, or 'Who owner the Picture?: a curious case', Age 25 January 1911, p. 12. For reports on the appeal see 'Batman and the Natives : Claim for a painting' The Argus 16 February 1911, p. 9, or 'Adventures of a picture: Batman's Treaty with the Aborigines", Age 16 February 1911, p. 10. See also Edward A. Petherick, 'Bibliography of Victoria', Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol II, no. 4, December 1912, p. 180. Petherick includes a potted history of the exhibition and dispute over the painting.


Auction notice in Argus 11 February 1910, p. 2.


Age, 25 January 1911, p. 12.




Letter from the Chief Librarian of the Public Library to Mr B. Worsley of Union Road Surrey Hills, 29 April 1932.


Correspondence between the Chief Librarian of the Public Library and the Town clerk's Office, City of Northcote, April 1932.


Trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Guide to the Victorian Historical Exhibition, Melbourne: Fraser & Jenkinson Pty Ltd, 1934.




Letter from Mr Blackden Worsley to Ernest Pitt, Chief Librarian 18 December 1941.


John Wesley Burtt died on 6 August 1917, Reference no. 1392. However, he is still listed on the 1919 Electoral roll for the Melbourne electorate of Batman (no irony intended).


For critique of John Wesley's early paintings see the Argus, 27 August 1869, p. 4; or the review of the First exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Arts in the Argus 1 December 1870, p. 7.


Melbourne Punch, 26 January 1871, p. 28. It was to this satirical piece that forced John Wesley to defend his portraits of Sir Charles Darling and Sir James McCulloch in the Argus 1 April 1871, p. 7.


Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria. Frederick Woodhouse, The First Settlers Discover Buckley, oil on canvas, 1861. (H26103) and H.L. van den Houten, Batman's First Meeting with Buckley, oil on canvas, 1878. (H13794).


MS 10768, Australian Manuscript Collection, SLV John Helder Wedge, Field Book. 1835-1836.


Attwood, pp. 229-232.


Argus 'Stories Behind Victoria's Centenary: How Batman bought Melbourne, 6 December, 1934, p. 3. The caption below the reproduction of Burtt's painting says 'The picture was painted about 1889 by J.W. Burtt on the spot (then well known) where the treaty took place.'


Auction notice in the Argus. 11 February 1910, p. 2.