By Terry Ingram, on 23-Apr-2018

Australian colonial art is enjoying a remarkably improved turn of fortune. Collectors and historians, including those in leading museums which show contemporary art, are going traditional and that, in the most riveting instance, means “back to Bock.”

It conceivably means inspiration from the new is decreasing again, and the trend is back to the old.

One leading UK public art gallery this year turned to an early Australian colonial artist to devote a major program of talks, walks and an exhibition.

At the heart of an exhibition of works by convict artist, Thomas Bock in Birmingham, UK, are his extraordinary series of portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Shown above, Mithina (Mathinna), an 1842, watercolour in the collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

The museum is Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, an internationally acclaimed contemporary gallery, in the (once) industrial West Midlands. The artist with which it did so, was Tasmania's Thomas Bock (1790-1855) who was sent to the colony of Van Diemen's Land in 1823 on a convict ship.
Bock trained as an engraver and miniature painter but was sentenced to 14 years in the colonies for "administering concoctions of certain herbs … with the intent to cause miscarriage".
The trial took place in Bock's native Birmingham where he was born. Birmingham was the city with streets of small back to back houses where many other crimes might well have been hatched. A street of these houses is now well maintained by Britain's National Trust.
His transportation was a win-win situation for Tasmania where he painted many of the leading citizens. Many of the portraits are still in existence and have left us with considerable valued information about the colony's earliest settlers.
The record auction price for a Bock is $32,000 paid for Manalargenna, Chief of the East Coast of Van Diemen's Land a watercolour painted in 1837. This was a snip for colonial portraiture as much of the oeuvre consists of old grizzlies. But watercolours as a whole tend to be a lower priced medium because they have to be kept out of the light much of the time
Apart from Bock - and not arriving in a convict ship - the other Brummie artists tended to be a more respectable variety. They were principally Albert Henry Fullwood (1863-1930) whose top auction price is $80,000 for The Hawksbury in 1986, and Walter Withers at $350,000 for Panning for Gold in 2012.
Interest in Bock tends to be concentrated in one state, Tasmania, where he spent the rest of his life. The major dealer interest in Bock has come from a Tasmania collector, also in the medical arena and lately an involuntary guest of Her Majesty the Queen. Perhaps after leaving jail, a number will be freed for auction, a bonus of incarceration.
But attributions to Bock can be tricky and prices surprising in both directions. In 1987 Sotheby's sold a portrait, Frederick Garling, that was attributed to Thomas Bock for $110,000, compared with the estimate of $18,000 - $22,000.
The exhibition at the Ikon Gallery, called simply Thomas Bock ran from 6 December 2017 to 11 March 2018, and curators pointed out that the Aboriginal sitters' demeanor conveying both pride and despair, suggested that Bock, being marginalised himself, closely identified with them and sought to convey the tragedies suffered by the indigenous people through the British settlement in Australia.
The exhibition was held in Birmingham because the Birmingham City Art Gallery has a remarkably intimate sketchbook which is highly evocative of the zeitgeist of which Bock formed a part.
Several British newspapers including the Financial Times and The Guardian have devoted considerable space to the exhibition and the reviews show  great empathy towards convict Australia, conceding that the system which took people  there was mean and dehumanizing.
At the heart of the exhibition are Bock's extraordinary series of portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, now in the British Museum. The Ikon Gallery's exhibition also included several nude life drawings as well as daguerreotypes by Bock - tiny photographic images on silver plate, mounted and glazed in cases - depicting people he would otherwise have drawn or painted, and demonstrating his openness to new techniques.
The exhibition, which is on its way to Australia for an exhibition at the Tamanian Museum and Art Gallery in August this year, was accompanied at the Ikon by an exhibition devoted to the work of the contemporary artist Edmund Clark, based on a residency at Europe's only therapeutic prison, HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire.

About The Author

Terry Ingram inaugurated the weekly Saleroom column for the Australian Financial Review in 1969 and continued writing it for nearly 40 years, contributing over 7,000 articles. His scoops include the Whitlam Government's purchase of Blue Poles in 1973 and repeated fake scandals (from contemporary art to antique silver) and auction finds. He has closely followed the international art, collectors and antique markets to this day. Terry has also written two books on the subjects