Knut Geelmuyden Bull

Painter, drawing master and professional photographer, was born in Bergen, Norway, on 10 September 1811, son of the pharmacist Johan Storm Bull and Anna Dorothea Borse, née Geelmuyden. Said to have had his first art training in Copenhagen, it is not known with whom. From November 1833 to May 1834 and again in 1838 Bull was a student of J.C. Dahl in Dresden, Germany. Several of his early oil portraits are in collections in Norway, including Christopher Malthe, Town Clerk (1830, Bymuseum, Oslo) and likenesses of members of his family (1833, Historisk Museum, Bergen, on loan to Lysøen, Lysekloster, Norway). A few early landscapes, most showing the influence of Dahl, are also known, e.g. Waterfall at Tvinde (1835, oil, Bergen Billedgalleri).

Bull visited London in 1845 but had been there only five weeks when he was tried at the Central Criminal Court on 15 December for ‘Feloniously making part of a Foreign Note for 100 Dollars’. Erroneously stated to be 31 years old, he reached Norfolk Island by the John Calvin on 21 September 1846 under sentence of 14 years’ transportation. His conduct on the voyage out was reported as exemplary. Bull’s watercolour painting Aboard the John Calvin depicts convicts and crew on deck and may have been done for the ship’s surgeon, Henry Kelsall . Kelsall owned two oil paintings of the The Wreck of the Waterloo , one now attributed to William Huggins (ML) and one by Bull dated 1846, which was probably painted on board the John Calvin concocted from a description given by Kelsall, who had survived the wreck in 1842. Bull’s version, later given to Kelsall, remained in the family until May 2000 when auctioned at Sotheby’s Melbourne (lot 56: see long description – $60,000).

In June 1847 Bull was transferred to Van Diemen’s Land and sent to the Saltwater River probation station. In May 1849 he came to Hobart Town and the following year was inland, teaching at Mrs Rogers’s seminary at Bagdad; The Wreck of the George III (1850, oil, p.c. NZ) may have been painted there. On 8 December 1850 Bull absconded to Melbourne from Hobart Town. His recapture was reported in the Hobarton Guardian of 22 January 1851:

A respectable looking man, who gave the name of Thomas Evans, but whose real name is Canute Bull (a Dane) was on Thursday committed to gaol for the purpose of being forwarded to Van Diemen’s Land (from Port Phillip) by the first opportunity, as a runaway prisoner of the Crown. A person named Simpson, Chief Constable at the Hopkins, proved that he had known the prisoner, who was an artist by profession, both at Hobart and Norfolk Island, at which time he was a prisoner of the Crown and was still so, having been transported for a period of fourteen years. For the defence a certificate of freedom was produced in the name of Thomas Evans, but it had evidently been altered, and was altogether such a suspicious looking document that the Justice paid no attention to it.

It was fully two months before Bull was tried. Then, because he had been so long in custody, he was sentenced only to 20 days’ solitary confinement. The Hobarton Guardian of 29 March 1851 commented: ‘It is a fortunate circumstance for Mr. Bull that he is not an Irish State Prisoner’.

Several of Bull’s somewhat wooden oil portraits of Tasmanians are known, the earliest apparently being of Phillis Boyd, wife of the chief clerk in the Police Office (c.1848, p.c.). Others include Mrs Coverdale, wife of the district surgeon at Richmond (1852, VDL Folk Museum, Hobart), and Portrait of Henry Chapman , a local architect and builder (1854, TMAG). He is far better known for his Tasmanian landscapes, which he seems to have begun painting only after April 1851 when assigned to another oil landscape painter, Rev. J.G. Medland , who lived at Boa Vista, Hobart. Indeed, it is possible that Bull painted no Tasmanian landscapes until he was again working professionally. The unsigned Mount Wellington, Tasmania(n.d., TMAG), attributed to Bull, is suspiciously similar to Medland’s pencil sketch The First Convict Station in the Penal Colony of Tasmania. Mount Direction in the Distance (c.1848, TMAG), while a pair of unsigned oil paintings of Boa Vista and its surrounding landscape, attributed to Bull when auctioned in London in July 1982, could also be Medland’s work.

On 16 March 1852, Bull received his ticket of leave. On 14 April he applied for permission to marry Mary Anne Bryen, free. Approval was granted, the banns were called and the wedding celebrated by Medland in Holy Trinity Church on 14 May 1852. Bull signed his Christian name ‘Knud’ on the register (though often called ‘Knut’ in official records). On 1 November 1853, he received his conditional pardon. The baptism register of St George’s Church, Battery Point, records the christening of the Bulls’ three eldest sons: Edward Knud (b. 15 August 1852), Henry Ole Borneman (b. 19 March 1854) and Johan Storm (b. 16 March 1856).

Having gained (restricted) freedom, Bull embarked on a period of intense artistic activity over the next three to four years. In 1854 he gave drawing lessons at the Hobart Town Mechanics Institute and at Trinity School House. He was drawing master at Alexander Cairnduff’s Hobart Town Academy in 1855, and William Moore claims that he also taught drawing during the 1850s at the academy run by William Slade Smith . He advertised his willingness to take ‘Daguerrian Portraits’ in the Tasmanian Daily News during April 1856, although no surviving daguerreotypes have been identified. He made his name with views of Hobart Town painted between 1853 and 1856, especially City of Hobart Town (c.1854, oil, TMAG). With the complementary Hobart Town and Mt Nelson (c.1854, oil, TMAG), this was shown at the 1855 Paris Universal Exhibition. Bull made two oil copies of City , which he advertised in the Hobart Town Courier of 14 September 1855, stating that he would dispose of them by a lottery of 50 tickets at £2 each. He valued the larger copy at £150. City of Hobart Town was also published as a tinted lithograph by E. Walker in 1855; in 1859 53 of the prints supplemented with statistical details of the colony and framed in muskwood and Huon pine were sent to London to encourage emigration to Tasmania.

All but two of the paintings and prints attributed to Bull which local residents lent to the 1896 Old Hobart Exhibition were views of Hobart – and both exceptions ( Sunnyside from the Domain 1848, lent by Miss A.L. Chapman, and New Town , lent by H.W. Knight) may now be more convincingly attributed to Medland. Unsigned oil landscapes like The Rossbank Observatory, Hobart (1850s, DG) are also of uncertain authorship. One signed oil by Bull that is not of Hobart is Near Oatlands, Tasmania, with Table Mountain in the Distance (1855, AGSA). Unmistakably and uniquely his are the (signed) Tasmanian oil landscapes of melodramatic (Nordic?) mood and vivid colour. Entrance to the River Derwent from the Springs, Mount Wellington (1856, TMAG), in particular, with its hot reds, purples and browns and large brooding bird in the foreground, conveys a menace absent in any other representation of the Tasmanian landscape before or since.

According to his death certificate, Bull left Tasmania in about 1856 and settled in New South Wales. He was advertising as an artist of 474 George Street, Sydney, in 1863 and listed as an artist of 14 Hunter Street in Sands Sydney Directory 1867-69. He may also have worked in South Australia – a view of Adelaide at sunset dated 1859 (p.c.) has been attributed to him – and he certainly seems to have visited Victoria. The Ballarat architect Henry Caselli (father of Elizabeth Caselli ) lent an oil painting titled Summer Evening on Lake Wendouree, Ballarat by ‘Knud Bull, Academies of Copenhagen and Dresden’ to the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition, while the Mitchell Library holds Old Ellswick , a signed watercolour of the 1860s. Bull’s Sydney pupils included his younger son Alfred and Gladstone Eyre, who both became professional painters.

Under contract to Walter Renny Bull painted a large – 40 × 20 foot (12 × 6 m) – transparency for the Sydney Customs House at Circular Quay to celebrate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in January 1868. It represented ‘the landing of Captain Cook, and his taking possession of the country in the name of the King in 1770’. As well as the proclamation and its attendant festivities, Bull’s picture showed ‘the progress of architecture in the colony’ from the first wharf to the present Circular Quay, from the ‘wretched shanty’ erected by Governor Phillip to the extant palatial Government House, and from old St Philip’s Church to St Andrew’s Cathedral. In short, it seems to have been an ambitious history painting on a grand scale. A local critic commented: ‘Too much praise cannot be bestowed on the artist for the manner in which the piece is painted’.

Otherwise Bull’s artistic productivity seems to have waned on the mainland; few works are known. Two attributed oil views of Sydney Harbour (p.c.) possibly date from the 1870s. A loosely attributed, unsigned oil portrait of James Nicholls (1880, AGSA) would be his last known work, if by him. After contracting typhoid fever, Bull died at Alfred’s residence, 177 Devonshire Street, Sydney, on 22 December 1889. He was buried in the Church of England section of Rookwood Cemetery.

Written By:

Stilwell, G. T.
Kerr, Joan
Hansen, Irene