John Glover & his “hideous fidelity to Nature”


This is an artist’s painting of his own house and garden. Any idea of where it might be?

The artist was John Glover who was born near Leicester in 1767 but, despite the very English blue sky and  cotton wool clouds, does it look  like Leicestershire?


If it helps I think there are pink roses in the foreground, red hollyhocks in the centre and yellow mulleins  on either side but you might stand a better chance of guessing if you look at the another detail of the same painting. Still not sure? Better read on to find out!

I first saw that painting many years ago when I was lucky enough to visit Tasmania.  The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart happened to have  a special exhibition about John Glover, a painter of the early colonial era but   I’d never heard of him and almost didn’t bother going to see it. I’m glad I did because it was an eye-opener then and indeed, as I’ve got to know more about him, several times  since as well.

Ullswater, early morning c1824. This was said by the Times to “faithfully represent the scenery of nature… in many instances carried to a degree of perfection which almost deceives the senses of the spectator”

Glover’s career is very much one of two distinct halves.   For most of his life he lived and worked in England very much in the picturesque style. Those paintings were mainly landscapes, and have a very “English” quality about them, but the last nearly twenty years of his life were spent in Tasmania and his work there, despite the English style planting and architecture  of his own house,  couldn’t have been anywhere else but Australia.

These later paintings give an insight into the Tasmania of his day, but obviously very much seen from the viewpoint of a colonial settler, albeit an enlightened one. Recent scholarship has, however, suggested they reveal a lot more than just the changes to the environment and landscape that were taking place, but something of  the mindset of the early colonists towards their new country and its indigenous people.

Little is known of John Glover’s  early life except that he was born into a farming family at Houghton on the Hill near Leicester and in  1786 he was appointed writing-master at the free school in Appleby on the other side of the county. Whilst there he began to paint professionally and also travel to London to see   exhibitions and take some  lessons from two of the leading water-colourists of the day William Payne and  John ‘Warwick’ Smith.

Four years after marrying Sarah Young in 1790  the couple moved to Lichfield where he set up business  teaching painting and drawing.

From here he went on  long sketching tours to the remoter parts of Britain including the Lake District, the Peak District, and the Welsh  and Scottish mountains.  His work began to attract attention including from Anna Seward, known as the Swan of Lichfield a leading literary figure of her day who first nicknamed  him “our Lichfield Claude.”

From 1799  Glover began to exhibit views from those  tours at the Royal Academy, before in 1805 moving  to London to further his career, and taking  a house on Montague Square in the fashionable new suburb of Marylebone.  Success continued to follow him and in 1807 he became president of  the Society of Painters in Water Colours.  which had been set up because the Royal Academy, the pre-eminent artists’ group, did not take watercolour painting seriously.

Like Anne Rushout of last week’s post he painted Snowden from Capel Curig

Watercolour was a relatively new medium which appealed to the middle class because of its portability, ease of handling on location, and suitability for smaller hanging spaces, and the Society’s first exhibition attracted 12,000 visitors over its 6 week run with  attendance doubling over the next 2 years.  Ackermann’s Repository noted that “from this period, every person of taste became interested in …this department of art..and in two or three years the art attained the highest summit of excellence.”

In 1821, The European Magazine noted that “as a landscape painter he stands in the first rank of British artists”. This was certainly the case if earnings were anything to do with it. Only Turner made more money than Glover out of landscapes.

He drew and painted ceaselessly, leaving over 100 sketchbooks  and his work shows a wide  mix of styles and techniques. There are detailed portrayals of scenery such at the painting of Ullswater,  the sketch of the Greta or this study of a gorge…

… together with other more  atmospheric images where he tried to capture the atmosphere of a place   in the  style of Claude or Poussin…

… or imitate the work of others  including William Gilpin [as below].  There are a large number of surviving works and although some are very distinctive it’s easy to see how critics could call his work blandly monotonous  and talk of his  ‘annual manufactory‘.

At the same time he became more ambitious and   began to work on a large-scale in oils.  After Napoleon was exiled to Elba he travelled to Paris in 1814 where he attracted much attention by going to the Louvre and sitting in front of paintings by Claude and Poussin and and working on a large scale oil painting which was awarded a medal by Louis XVIII.  Napoleon’s return meant that both Louis and Glover fled from Paris so the medal did not reach him, but to his great surprise I’m sure, Napoleon honoured the award and had it sent to him.    The ODNB says of of these early oils paintings “They are too often indifferently executed,  and texturally thin.”

That was a view shared by many of his contemporaries and he was accused of trying to set himself up as The English Claude – a title bestowed rather satirically by Constable.   Since Glover also enjoyed painting farm animals which had become popular subjects because of the Agricultural Revolution he was also mocked for exhibiting paintings and making the gallery look like Smithfield Market.

Everything changed in 1817 when he resigned from the Society, did a quick tour of Italy and then moved to  a farm in Patterdale in the Lake District, although he kept his house on Montague Square, and indeed opened his own gallery on Old Bond Street where he organised  a series of one-man shows.  But tastes change and by the late 1820s his popularity, with that of watercolours more generally,  began to wane.  Nevertheless he had made sufficient money to be very comfortably off and so could ride the decline.  

By then three of his younger sons had  emigrated to Tasmania – or Van Diemen’s Land as it was known then – attracted no doubt by the offer of free grants of land  to start farms.  In September 1830,  aged 63, and  of “gross proportions” he and his wife decided to follow them, and they set sail for the other side of the world.

They were not going to an old established imperial outpost. Not only was Van Diemen’s Land remote but it was still struggling to find its feet.  The first English settlers had only  arrived in 1803, and although a penal settlement had already been established in 1822 for criminals transported from Britain, the island  was not set up as a separate colony until just 5 years before the Glovers arrived.

The journey was fraught and they did not reach Launceston in northern Tasmania until mid-February and Hobart in the south until April Fools day 1831.  By August the Glovers were established in a town house joining in the social life of this still small settlement where he was seen as a celebrity from home.  He also started gardening, leaving a note on the back of this painting: ‘The Geraniums, Roses, etc. will give some idea how magnificent the garden may be had here”.

He did not arrive empty handed. He had bought at least  £7000 with him as well as a collection of English shrubs [and presumably seeds too] along with  English song-birds. He told the authorities that he expected to make £1000 a year from his paintings, in part, presumably, from sending works back to London.

The Glovers invested some of their money in buying two farms near Hobart, and the following spring, 1832,  were allocated a grant of 2560 acres (1036 ha) at Mills Plains on the northern slope of Ben Lomond 145km north of Hobart.  A house was quickly [and badly] built and named Patterdale, after the village in  Westmorland where he had once lived.

His sons, with the help of assigned convicts,  developed the property which eventually comprised more than 7000 acres (2833 ha).  It has recently been restored and 4000 hectares around the house is now heritage listed, while  Glover Country is being promoted for tourism. [There is an Australian Broadcasting Company  video about it] Attempts to restore the garden have had to be adapted, however, since some of the plants that Glover grew are now classified as invasive weeds and so banned.

At this point Glover could easily have sat back and enjoyed his retirement  and his garden but despite his size and his two club feet,  he started  actively exploring neighbouring parts of the  island, large tracts of which were still unknown to Europeans.  He began to paint again, not just the properties of his farming neighbours  but these new landscapes he had discovered, and sending his work back to his son-in-law in London. 68 paintings ‘descriptive of the Scenery and Customs of Van Diemen’s Land’ went on exhibition and sale in Old Bond Street in 1835, including 38 of the landscapes around Patterdale.

The reason for this busyness can seen in his letters and his family’s journals. He was energised from the moment of his arrival by what he had seen. All ideas of an ordered Romantic landscape like home vanished when he set eyes on Tasmania.  Now, painting entirely for himself and with no particular regard to critical opinion Glover seems to have revelled in his remote location.    His landscapes became much more sharply observed and you sense a genuine love of his  new home, its topography, flora and fauna and  its people. By painting precisely what he saw  rather than adapt it to suit accepted artistic sensibility, he shocked people with one  senior local official complaining that his paintings were  “designed with hideous fidelity to Nature.”

But he also noticed one similarity with England. Writing about one  of his paintings of Patterdale   he said it “gives a good idea of the thickly wooded part of the Country: it is possible, almost everywhere, to drive a carriage as easily as in a park in England.”  This similarity was not accidental.

Although many of Glover’s Tasmanian painting appear to reveal  “untouched” landscapes   that is exactly what they are not. Tasmania’s landscape had long been altered by indigenous people who managed the land  by small-scale burning operations, particularly to create habitat for kangaroos which they hunted.     Furthermore the trees, particularly the eucalyptus,  which beguiled Europeans were  kept and valued by the  Aboriginals –  who used the bark for building  and canoes. [This idea is explored in much greater depth in Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth]. What this management regime did in the lowland areas was to create much more open country which the Europeans immediately saw as useful for pasture.  They also, like those who saw Glover’s pictures back in Britain, immediately equated what they saw with the “traditional” English country estate. Almost Capability Brown down under.   As Michael Rosenthal pointed out  in British Landscape Painting [1982]: “in England Arcadia has to be made; in Australia it is found.”

You can tell how profound this feeling was  by looking at just one example.   Amongst the earliest settlers were the Archers a family who were not from Ambridge but Hertfordshire.  They clearly had aspirations and  set up a farm near Launceston and named it Panshanger, after Earl Cowper’s estate near Hertford, where Humphry Repton had planned the landscape with clumps and single trees. The Tasmanian Panshanger’s landscape was very similar except that it had been created  by the indigenous people.

The Archers  built a grand house overlooking it and had it painted. As you can see apart from the mountains in the background it could have been England.

As Julia Lum says in her article “Fire-Stick Picturesque:Landscape Art and Early Colonial Tasmania”, “This landscape offered up the indivisible values of aesthetic and economic capital.”

Such landscapes were however created  and maintained at a heavy cost and Glover had arrived at an appalling time in Tasmania’s history. The indigenous people had resisted the British invasion and the rapid spread of settlers and  livestock throughout their traditional  hunting grounds.  It led to years of violence, attempts at partitioning of the island,  and then the clearance, death or forced resettlement of the remaining population. It took just one generation to cause what  has been widely recognised as what Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore called “the only true genocide in English colonial history”.  [For more information about this see The Black War  and for the perspective of the indigenous people see  Tasmania’s Timeline 

When Glover  arrived while there were still some aboriginal people free, including some of the Palawa people whose land he now lived on.  They feature in what some might think were romanticised ways in some of his  early paintings which still seem to show pre-European landscapes.  Their inclusion startled, intrigued and fascinated his audience of the time. Subsequent scholars of his work have given various theories as to his intentions in doing so – these have included  symbolism, allegories of their impending doom etc,  idealised notions of the ‘noble savage’, or merely simple curiosity.

Importantly Glover seems to have been at least sympathetic to their plight.  He wrote for example,  in a letter to the person who commissioned the painting above that he would ‘shew the Natives at a Corrobary, under the wild woods of the country—to give an idea of the manner they enjoyed themselves before being disturbed by the White People’. Elsewhere he noted that one seldom sees such gaiety in a Ball Room, as amongst these untaught Savages‘.

Ben Lomond from Mr Talbot’s property — four Men catching Opossums.                                                  This painting sold at Christies in 2013 for £1.75 million

 Glover was a sensitive and accurate observer who  captured the island’s distinctive flora and fauna as well as its landscape and people with great precision and skill, and by doing so helped create the new colonies identity.  His use of the bright clear sunlight giving wide expanses of sunlit landscape  as well as varied qualities of shade under the blue sky, and his use of a very subtle palette of “Australian colours” – the ochres, olives, misty greys and bright blues were unique almost to the end of the century before being more widely adopted.

A corroboree of natives in Mills Plains

Glover ceased painting in the last years of his life as blindness set in, and he died at Patterdale  on 9 December 1849 and was buried in the grounds of the nearby chapel at Deddington which he probably designed.

Deddington Chapel (1842)


While Glover had enormous fame in his day, memory of his art rapidly faded after his emigration and death. He was as isolated as an artist as he was geographically. His work was however not widely  influential on later Australian painters because apart from those sent to London few of his works left the island. For most of the twentieth century he was considered merely a colonial curiosity and indeed none of his work was acquired by  an Australian state art gallery outside of Tasmania until 1951 (over one hundred years after his death.)

Yet As Michael Rosenthal concluded in a Guardian article about Glover in 2004 “Somehow the accidents of history presented him, at 63, with a terrain and subject matter from which he could both paint landscapes of meaning and create works profoundly significant in domestic and colonial histories.”

As a result his importance has been recognised and he is now hailed as the father of Australian landscape painting. Now it is avidly collected – one of his 106 sketchbooks was bought in June 2021 for £80,000 and will be returning to Australia – while his paintings are reaching record prices.   The John Glover Society was founded  in 2001 to honour and promote Glover’s memory and his contribution to Australian art, and has not only installed a life-sized statue of him but also established  the annual Glover Prize, for landscape painting.

There used to be very little easily available about Glover.  If you can find it then The Art of John Glover  by John McPhee, is a good place to start. But more recent appreciation of his work and its significance is changing that. For discussion of his colonial paintings see Julia Lum’s article “Fire-Stick Picturesque: Landscape Art and Early Colonial Tasmania in British Art Studies, Nov 2018 but available to read/download on-line.  The 2003 exhibition catalogue is now very expensive but  the educational pack that accompanied it  is available free on-line.



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