European Vision and the South Pacific by Bernard Smith

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It is not often that one is asked to review a book of the calibre of Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific. First published in 1960, and ready for re-publication in 2022, the book holds new delights for those who missed it on its first appearance and will delight anew those who read the book fifty years ago and forgotten just how fine a piece of scholarship it is.

Bernard Smith lived well into his nineties. His was a life of service, predominantly within tertiary institutions in Melbourne and Sydney. He published many books of good quality, the most outstanding of which were Place, Taste and Tradition: a study of Australian art since 1788, still regarded as a key text in Australian art history, and the newly revived European Vision and the South Pacific. A memoirist of considerable note, he was also the president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1977-80.

In the publication we are considering, Smith begins with an essay that identifies two schools of eighteenth century thought. The Royal Academy, commenting on Nature, claimed that natural things were to be rendered by the artist, “not with her imperfections clinging to her but in her perfect forms” (3) as defined by a close study of the masterpieces of the ancients and their Renaissance disciples. The Pacific in particular stimulated European thought concerning the world of nature as a whole, the object of philosophical speculation vs the object of imitation and expression.

Smith begins with an appraisal of the eighteenth century in general terms. This period witnessed the superiority by which Art began to take over from science at this time, the evidence to be found in botanical and zoological illustrations. An important feature of a new species was the description of its habitat. Landscapes likewise, came to be painted in terms by which the rocks, plants, animals, peoples and atmospheric conditions characterised the type of landscape painted. N.B. the work of Banks and William Hodges.

In 1767, the year that Hamilton was making use of drawings to help observe Vesuvius, it is reported that Banks was using drawing and engraving for the promotion of botanical studies. “It was at this time that the use of art in the service of science emerged as one of the central interests of one of the most renowned illustrators of the day [Georg Dionysius Ehret, 1708-1770]” (3).

Bernard Smith now offers a more specific treatment of elements that require discussion as the years unfold. His thesis follows a chronological treatment that is wide, yet specific, and the reader has to be prepared to jump through the centuries to follow a discussion on a particular topic. He notes that the noble savage is always closely related to his natural setting for he was a personification of the eighteenth-century belief in the nobility and simplicity of nature which, when rightly understood revealed God to man (27). By the nineteenth century, the noble savage was never entirely eradicated from human thought. A genuine interest in the primitive arts of the Pacific developed in an interest in curiosities (97) whereas Keate argued that, “the value of the Pacific Islander consisted no longer in his being an exemplar of natural virtue, but in his being a picture of man ‘in a variety of lights’ that were particularly well suited for philosophical speculation” (107). Opinion was not unanimous.  The French in particular were hostile. The art of native peoples was not to be left to the haphazard collecting of earlier voyages (La Perouse), while the engraving by Nicholas Ozanne reflects La Perouse’s hostility and makes a notable departure from the pictorial convention of the noble savage (114). Again, the French were hesitant in their hatred. “Savages were endowed with the virtues that good French republicans aspired to. Simple in his needs and desires, self-disciplined, courageous and with a great capacity for endurance the savage become a symbol of revolutionary freedom and ideal perfectibility” (120), For Chateaubriand the image of Tahiti as le mirage oceanien still lingered but in that mirage, as supremely beautiful as it was, death was the only reality (124).

Smith’s book provides a complete discussion of the issue of botanical artistry. Bower’s drawings reveal a complete mastery of the problems of vegetable draftsmanship. He saw the beauty of a plant and its scientific structure (155). The early years of the new century found many artists travelling and working in various parts of the world. The effect of Cook’s voyages on the imagination was considerable (167) From 1730 onwards, Smith shows that natural scenery was judged increasingly according to picturesque standards. In so doing, he raises the meaning of picturesque beauty.

Theories of such beauty did not attract unanimity of definition. Uvedale Price, Payne Knight, Repton came close to agreement with – “that kind of beauty which would look well in a picture”. In 1794 Price claimed that picturesque beauty is a category distinct from both the sublime and the beautiful and distinguished by roughness, sudden variation and irregularity. Jane Austen, Hazlett, Coleridge follow Price considering it to be a quality of the appearance of some things rather than a painterly mode of perception.

The completion of the road through the Blue Mountains matches the appearance of local mountain scenery in the diaries of travellers. However, Smith notes that explorers such as Wentworth and Field could enthuse over gentle curves and blue distances of savannah land but never enthused over mountain scenery. Two prevailing attitudes to Australian nature, at times closely blended. First, the belief that the natural productions of Australia were novel creations, and the characteristic features of Australian nature were contrariety and eccentricity. Second, Australian scenery was visually monotonous and induced feelings of melancholy. Neither of these views seem appropriate today.

European Vision and the South Pacific carries a huge reputation. It is well deserved.

European Vision and the South Pacific


By Bernard Smith

MUP (The Miegunyah Press)

ISBN: 978-0-522-87689-5

$49.99; 370 pp


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