Alfred William Eustace

Born: 1820 Berkshire, UK

Died: 1907  Chiltern, Victoria, Australia

A painter, taxidermist, musician and shepherd, Eustace began his working life as gamekeeper for the Earl of Craven at Ashdown Park, Berkshire, like his father. In 1847 Alfred married Sarah Anne Collins; they had two sons and four daughters. After arriving at Melbourne in the Ballangeich on 20 August 1851, Eustace was employed by his brother-in-law’s brother, Jason Withers, as a shepherd on the El Dorado and Ullina squatting runs at Black Dog Creek near Chiltern, Victoria. There he always carried a small box of oils or watercolours in his swag so that from his camp he could experiment with colour and techniques in his painting. Said to have been self-taught, he must have had some previous art training as his endeavours to capture the spirit and moods of the Australian bush were in a most competent European academic style.

His oil painting of the 1856 Woolshed gold rush is one of only two known pictures of this significant field (Burke Memorial Museum). He also recorded the arrival of the first Murray River steamboat to reach Albury. These paintings, together with others of important goldmines and town views he executed, are of great value to the history of North-East Victoria.

Canvas and board not being readily available, Eustace turned to using the large eucalyptus leaves that grew in the district up to 15 cm wide by 10 cm long. In a later letter to the editor of the Argus , he wrote that he first substituted flat leaves for canvas when tending sheep in the Ovens district during the goldrush of 1851-52. A report in the Sydney press in 1863 described several of his works in this medium:

They are painted on the leaves of a description of eucalyptus, unknown in this part of Australia, but which we are told is common in many parts of the south-western interior. The leaves are nearly circular and are a little more than three inches [7.6 cm] in diameter. The scenes depicted on them are all descriptive of Australian bush life, and are apparently in watercolour, highly varnished … The leaves before being painted have evidently been carefully dried and flattened, so that the surface is as smooth and even as card board. With the exception that the colours, from the brightness of the varnish, are somewhat “loud”, the effect produced is of the very highest order.

In adopting the Australian bush as his central theme and in using gum leaves Eustace earned himself the title ‘Bush Artist’, although during the 1850s and 1860s he worked as a house decorator and signwriter at Albury, NSW. He taught music, played the cornet, violin and guitar and supplied the music for early Albury dances. He wrote poetry and practised taxidermy as well as painting. Most of his best works are signed and they often contain two or more birds on the wing against the sky. He also painted oils on board, canvas, card and tin.

In January 1857 the Argus reprinted an extract from the Albury Border Post discussing four paintings by Eustace: Roper’s Point , Camping Out , A Group of Australian Trees and The First Glimpse of Albury. In 1863 Eustace held an art union at Field’s Horse and Jockey Inn at Albury to dispose of a number of his oil paintings. A large painting of the Reid’s Creek Falls near Beechworth, a scene on the Murray River Flats with the river in flood, a landscape on a sheep-run, and a roadside public house with travellers camping nearby were among the prizes. Other large oils on canvas survive, but it was his gum leaves that brought him fame. In 1866 he showed a number of oil paintings on gum leaves at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. (His oil painting of a Murray River landscape was shown at the same time by the Beechworth bank manager A.K. Shepherd.)

Albert and Caroline le Souëf lent two of Eustace’s gum leaves decorated with Australian scenes to the 1869 Melbourne Public Library Exhibition. At both the 1872 Victorian Intercolonial and the 1873 London International exhibitions George Bancroft showed ‘a case containing a stuffed opossum, with bush sketches in oil on gum leaves, painted by Mr Eustace, a shepherd near Albury’. His treatment of sky and clouds brought praise from critics of his day. The Melbourne Age reported in 1876: ‘Eustace’s celebrated paintings on gum-leaves are again attracting attention … Mr. Eustace is an elegant artist … he seems without effort to catch the colour and spirit of Australian scenery’. Six of his oil on gumleaf landscapes of the Albury district were sent to the 1886 London Colonial and Indian Exhibition.

Eustace held another art union at Ballarat in 1884 to exhibit nine of his paintings. In 1893 he held a solo exhibition of gumleaf paintings at Stevens’s Gallery, Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. That year Queen Victoria, through the Secretary of State for the Colonies, thanked him for the ‘interesting paintings with which Her Majesty has been much pleased’. By 1896 he was receiving orders for gumleaf paintings from nearly all the capitals of Europe, and examples of his work were acknowledged by the Emperor Frederick of Germany and the Tsar of Russia as well as by the Governors of NSW and Victoria.

The renowned ‘Bush Artist’ died on 29 May 1907 and was buried in Chiltern New Cemetery.

Text by Robert W. P Ashley 1992.

Alfred Eustace is represented in various State and regional public collections.