William Strutt

Born 1825, Teignmouth, United Kingdom
Died 1915, Wadhurst, United Kingdom

Museum of Contemporary Art

Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851, 1864
oil on canvas
Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria

In 1851, after the large-scale displacement of the peoples of the Kulin Nation interrupted Indigenous fire management practices, the Black Thursday bushfire burnt five million hectares of Victorian bush, grass and farmland. In a departure from the sunlit depictions of settler-life which defined the colonial aesthetic, William Strutt’s memorialisation of the inferno captures the existential terror of what was a significant setback for the colony.

An unintentional testament to the detrimental consequences of failing to respect Indigenous knowledge and agriculture, Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851 depicts wildlife trampled by an onslaught of fleeing settlers and stockmen. Spilling across a slim canvas, their escape is literally and symbolically narrow. Terrified faces capture the anxiety of utter destruction which has informed colonial Australia since its inception.

This legacy remained unsurpassed until 2019 when the Black Summer bushfires decimated over 24.3 million hectares mere months before COVID-19 spread across the globe. Shadowed by a familiar unease, Australia once again found itself in the grip of catastrophe with nowhere to run.

William Strutt (1825-1915) was an English artist who came to Australia in 1850. He sketched and painted historical events and colonial life, including exploration, the gold rush, bushranging and the cultures of the First Nations peoples of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. He returned to England in 1862 and painted Australian subjects from his sketches. 

Read more about the 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, by purchasing the catalogue here.