Delve into the secrets of ‘A busy corner of the Brisbane River’

 

George Wishart worked as a professional photographer and was taught painting by Isaac Walter Jenner, Brisbane’s foremost marine painter. He mainly painted scenes of Moreton Bay and the Brisbane River. When A busy corner of the Brisbane River 1897 was first exhibited at the Queensland International Exhibition in 1897, it was highly praised as ‘decidedly one of the attractions of the gallery’, with the reviewer commenting on the ‘brilliant and sunny’ depiction of Brisbane’s wharf-side activity.1

The painting records the commercial activity at the Eagle Street Wharves, now part of Brisbane’s Central Business District. Towards the background, Wishart has captured the Bunya pines in the old botanic reserve (later to become the City Botanic Gardens) established in 1828 to provide food for the early penal colony. Further back, the light strikes the cliffs at Kangaroo Point.

George Wishart, Australia 1872-1921 / A busy corner of the Brisbane River 1897 / Oil on canvas / Acquired before 1962 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

A photograph of the ‘A.W.S.N. Wharf and Thomas Browns Building’ 1989 shows the two galvanised iron covered warehouses that Wishart depicts. The line of windows set just below the roof-line in the distant building is particularly distinctive. Similarly, the photograph ‘Eagle Street Wharves’ 1888 is close to the character of the painting, other than the masted ship faces the opposite direction, the suggestion that Wishart based his works on photographs is reinforced.

Eagle Street Wharves (A.W.S.N. Wharf, 8 Thomas Browns Building), Brisbane, ca. 1898 / Image courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Sailing ships docked at Eagle Street Wharf, Brisbane, ca. 1888 / Image courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Sailing ships moored in the Brisbane River at Petrie Bight, overlooking the buildings at the Brisbane Wharves and the Kangaroo Point cliffs in 1875 / Image courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
A family in their garden on the cliffs at Kangaroo Point in 1878, with ships docked at the Brisbane Wharves across the river in the background / Image courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Go behind-the-scenes with Anne Carter, QAGOMA Conservator and watch as she delves into the secrets of A busy corner of the Brisbane River. The painting has undergone major conservation, and as a late 19th century painting, it has special conservation needs. These are mostly due to the difficulty of removing stubborn wax and varnish layers from thinly painted, sometimes solvent sensitive paint, in areas such as the rigging. The varnish had become yellowed and some of the in-painting which had been completed to reinstate or restore damaged areas had discoloured.

Delve into secrets REVEALED THROUGH art conservation

Infrared Reflectography of A busy corner of the Brisbane River 1897

Infrared images of the painting indicate that Wichart prepared a very careful under-drawing, we can see exquisite outlining of the large ships and their rigging, as well as free sketching of figures and cargo, and the horizon of the Kangaroo Point cliffs.

Also revealed are many small changes, for example, examination shows that the small boat in the foreground of the completed painting was an afterthought, as seen in the X-ray, the river continues through the boat design, and there is no sketch of it in the original composition.

A busy corner of the Brisbane River is of considerable interest and importance as paintings which represent the commercial activity on the Brisbane River are extremely rare.

You can now view the restored painting in the Australian Art Collection at the Queensland Art Gallery.

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Endnote
1 The Queenslander, 15 May 1897, p.15.

Feature image detail: George Wishart’s A busy corner of the Brisbane River 1897

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