The final resting place of Henry Holbrook, a young man of ‘most exemplary character’ as his obituary in the Adelaide Advertiser reported, lies in the shadow of a cypress tree. The address is:
Road 1 South,
West Terrace Cemetery,
The body had been returned by boat to his home city from where it had washed up near Cape Banks, close to the Victorian border. Holbrook was one of 89 victims when the SS Admella came to grief on Carpenter Rocks on 6 August 1859. Throngs attended his funeral on 30 November, an occasion for the local community to express its collective sympathy since, as the newspapers of the day pointed out, his remains were the only ones returned to Adelaide from the scene of the wreck, explaining the crowded funeral for one young man and the city’s ‘unusual interest … in this mournful solemnity’. I knelt down, peering in the eroding light, at the words engraved on Holbrook’s headstone.
No marble marks thy couch
—-of lonely sleep,
But living statues there are
—-seen to weep.
The lines are from Lord Byron’s ‘Epitaph on a Beloved Friend’, a poem from his early collection Hours of Idleness. The couplet was not uncommon on graves of the period, for ‘Byromania’, the cult of this most seductive literary celebrity, was still in vogue. Byron went on to write Don Juan and in the celebrated Canto II we can read a vivid description of shipwreck and the gruesome plight of the crew. Don Juan was the sole survivor; Henry Holbrook did not share his good fortune.
Holbrook boarded the Admella, a steamship bound for Melbourne, at Port Adelaide, on the morning of Friday 5 August 1859. A well-educated man of 25, he worked for a firm of wholesale druggists, and was travelling to London via Melbourne on commercial business. Conflicting reports surround the circumstances of Holbrook’s death. According to contemporary accounts, he was swept overboard by the heavy rolling of the ship when it rubbed up against the reef early on the morning of 6 August. Ian Mudie, in his account of the disaster, Wreck of the Admella, published in 1966, moved the timing of his death to the following Wednesday afternoon. According to the testimony of cabin boy George Ward, Holbrook, in a state of extreme exhaustion and discomfort, was swept out to sea by the ‘boiling surf and bounding spray’, as Byron expressed it in Don Juan, breaking over the stern deck, while he was trying to adjust his body and momentarily relaxed his hold. The swell carried him off; the crests of the waves like white roses blooming in his wake. He had been holding on for five days
While shipwrecks accounted for far fewer deaths at sea than disease and sickness, their grip on the popular imagination was strong. Ignorance of the technical capacity of ships increased passengers’ sense of vulnerability on long sea voyages. Despite this, the Admella, built in the shipyards of Glasgow only two years earlier, had a glowing reputation, especially owing to its coal-fired steam engines and screw-propeller. She was a fast, modern steamer. One local observer admired the ship on her voyage down the Gulf St Vincent the day before she split asunder: ‘the Admella was rapidly approaching us, with the early morning ray upon her hull and sails, white funnel, and her peculiarly fresh appearance. I had seldom seen a prettier object. The steamer, trim, buoyant, swift … the triumph of human intelligence.’
Carrying 87 passengers and 26 crew, with a cargo of copper, flour for the Victorian goldfields and three champion racehorses, the sleeping ship ran onto the submerged rocks at five in the morning. Seconds later the swell lifted her up, bringing her down hard on the reef. It is unclear why the steamer was driven off course, running so close to the coast; most probably due to strong currents or magnetic interference with the compasses. Two of the lifeboats that could have been used to ferry passengers to safety were damaged as the masts snapped and the funnel collapsed. Another was swamped and drifted loose. In the tumult, an attempt was made to salvage the boat, but without success. A brave volunteer, the young Danish sailor Soren Holm, managed to reach it. Holm made a sign to the crew on board to pull on the ropes that had been tied to his body and that in turn he attached to the boat. A knot made along its length loosened and he came adrift. The rescue boat, with his lifeless body on board, was washed up on shore days later.
With rollers crashing over the bulwarks in the dawn light and heavy winter fog, the engines stopped, the ship breaking up, the three lifeboats all lost, the scene suddenly turned wretched. Several attempts were made over the next few days to reach the beach and safety. Only Robert Knapman and John Leach made land. After hours at sea battling the currents and backwash, the two accomplished seamen, who had lashed themselves to a makeshift raft cut from the boom with a meat chopper, reached the shore near Cape Northumberland. They dragged themselves 30 kilometres through the night, arriving at the lighthouse manned by Ben Germein as morning broke, three days after the wreck.
The Admella disaster held a particular fascination in the colonies of Victoria and South Australia. An intercolonial steamer, it carried passengers between Adelaide and Melbourne. Those departing on the fatal voyage had ties to this region of Australia, through family, friends, business and acquaintances. Moreover, the devastating and protracted nature of the catastrophe supplied content for an uninterrupted stream of telegraph dispatches ‘borne on the flashing wire’, as George French Angas wrote in his Admella poem, feeding a sustained media frenzy in both cities.
The telegraph connecting Adelaide and Melbourne had been completed only a year earlier. For the first time messages could be exchanged between distant centres in the space of minutes. When a messenger on horseback arrived at Mount Gambier from the Cape Northumberland lighthouse with word of the Admella disaster, news was sent via telegraph to Adelaide and to Melbourne.
The impact was profound and immediate. The two morning Adelaide papers, the Advertiser and South Australian Register, brought out extraordinary editions the same day. Business-as-usual came to a standstill. Parliament was adjourned, auctions suspended, trading cancelled. For a week, all interest focused on the agonising events playing out on the broken shell of the Admella, still visible from the beaches facing the reef. Regular updates arrived through the week. Necessarily fragmented and often conflicting, telegraphic exchanges nevertheless mediated and united the colonial populace in a collective expression of loss and of sympathy. Like a nineteenth-century Twitter feed, telegrams were dispatched to the two cities day and night: ‘Fearful surf around the wreck’; ‘Some recognised’; ‘No more bodies found’; ‘We entertain no hope of saving the few survivors’; ‘More in a few minutes’. The public, in a state of lingering uncertainty ‘of alternate hope and fear’, hungry for each fresh detail regarding the mounting column of dead and the diminishing list of survivors, devoured the breaking news received at the telegraph exchange.
Over eight days the seamen and passengers on the steamer experienced hunger, thirst, constant exposure and extreme fatigue while clinging or tied to the battered stern, the only portion of the Admella remaining above the waterline. Many were thrown overboard into the churning seas with no hope of climbing back onto the wreckage; many became delirious, unable to resist the temptation of drinking seawater to drive away their thirst and, like in Don Juan:
leap’d overboard with dreadful yell,
As eager to anticipate their grave;
And the sea yawn’d around her like a hell
Others simply let go, slipping quietly into the welcoming white embrace of the ocean, unable to endure the deprivation and the suffering. Of the 113 passengers and crew, only 24 survived. All of the children on board and all of the women, save one, died on the reef. ‘The dead and dying side by side recline’, wrote James Shaw, ‘upon the splintering deck.’
The Sublime and colonial tastemakers
James Frederic Johnstone, who participated in the rescue attempts, gives us a dramatic image of his first glimpse of the survivors marooned on the wreck:
Huddled together, staring at us with pitiful looks … more like statues than human beings; their eyes fixed; their lips black, for want of water and their limbs bleached white and swollen through exposure to the relentless surf, which roared around like a hungry demon waiting for its prey.
He did more than watch. Johnstone almost shattered his hands trying to fire rockets across to the wreck while balanced, standing up in the Portland lifeboat in the rough seas.
In Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Admella, published from public donations to the Melbourne Admella Relief Fund Committee a few months after the tragedy, Samuel Mossman described the scene from the dunes opposite the reef on the final night before the rescue. He meditates on the moonlit backdrop and then assembles two popular images from the Romantic vocabulary—stormy seas and majestic mountains:
But beyond all in grandeur—approaching sublimity—was the appearance of the dreaded gigantic rollers, when their glittering snowy crests were lit by these lurid lights [the rockets]. Like the lightning’s sheen upon the avalanche, they darted fitfully over the surface, whilst the loud reverberating roll of the sea-cataracts upon the shore resounded like thunder among the Alps.
The Sublime was an essential element of the Romantic Weltanschauung, or world view, since it epitomised the spiritual and experiential aspects of Romanticism’s relationship to nature. The compelling image of the shipwreck was identified within the framework of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic aesthetics as an ideal subject for evoking the Sublime. Indeed, it became a distinguishing trope: the emotional drama combined with its potential as symbolic narrative contributed to the popularity of the image.
Edmund Burke, in his influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), defined the source of the Sublime as operating ‘in a manner analogous to terror’ and producing ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’. It is a mode of aesthetic experience that springs from ‘an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves’ that result in sacred awe and sympathy for the distress of others. The Sublime was generally considered the effect of greatness, prompting astonishment, reverence and, as Ruskin put it, ‘the elevation of mind’.
The author of an editorial published in the South Australian Register two months after the wreck comprehended the sublime nature of this event. The editorial lamented the absence of pictures depicting the Admella shipwreck in the current exhibition of the South Australian Society of Arts. Besides providing an opportunity to depict the Sublime, such a work could be conceived as a history painting, therefore launching it into the most respected academic category of art. ‘Our art is imitative—not creative,’ the critic wrote. ‘Our artists can give us landscapes, and portraits, and ideal types of aboriginal forms, but it seems that they do not feel competent to grapple with scenes that awaken the sterner and stormier passions of the soul.’ The complaint is directed at descriptive modes of representation and reflects Romantic attitudes of the day, encouraging creative expression over direct imitation.
The critic was proved wrong. Several days after the exhibition opened on 3 October 1859, James Hazel Adamson entered two paintings of the subject of the Admella, his work The Rescue of the Survivors of the Admella by the Portland Lifeboat winning first prize. The painting’s whereabouts are unknown, but from its descriptive title and contemporary articles in the press, we know it represents the morning of the rescue, the survivors saved and the steamer sinking in the distance. By rendering this particular moment, the artist celebrates the courageous efforts of the rescue mission, thus imparting a moral message concordant with its function as a history painting, while maintaining the romantic and emotional frisson evoked by the sinking vessel.
Adamson’s painting did, however, cause some controversy. Letters to the press questioned the work’s eligibility for the competition: the artist was no longer resident in Adelaide when it was painted (he moved to Melbourne in 1856), and the painting was received after the closing date for entries. The committee of the Society of Arts defended their decision, ‘as realising more completely the intention of the Society of Arts’ and, no doubt aided by popular sentiment, the work remained the winner.
In the months following the shipwreck, the South Australian Society of Arts also encouraged the production of works of art representing the event by suggesting a prize might be given, of ‘a sufficient sum of money’, for a painting of the wreck of the Admella:
a painting which, while it embodied truthfully the chief facts of the scene, should also render poetically some of those grief-inspiring episodes which invested the event with extraordinary interest. A picture is wanted adequate to the recollection of those profound sensations which during a week of agonizing suspense thrilled through the whole community. Is such a picture to be obtained? Have we an artist equal to the task?
The subject obviously typified the heroic and expressive possibilities in art—in the spirit of Salvator Rosa and Joseph Vernet—embraced by the Romantic tastes of the press and local societies of art.
Nothing more was heard of this proposal until James Shaw, artist and member of the Society of Arts, organised a Colonial Art Union in June–July 1860, in which a prize of ten guineas would ‘be given for the exhibition of the best painting of the Wreck of the Admella, by a resident artist’. A prize was also offered for the best poem, and submissions may have included poems celebrating the shipwreck written by artists George French Angas and James Shaw, poets Philip Barry, Ellie Debney née Turner and Caroline Carleton, who wrote the anthem ‘Song of Australia’. A few years later the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon also produced a narrative heavily inspired by the shipwreck.
A number of artists produced paintings of the catastrophe, some of which were exhibited in Shaw’s Art Union and in the next Society of Arts exhibition held in April 1861. They included Charles Hill, J.M. Needham and Shaw himself. Other contemporary impressions include sketches by James Fawthrop, who captained the Portland lifeboat in the rescue operation, and H.D. Melville, harbourmaster at Robe at the time of the disaster, as well as a lithograph of the wreck by Adelaide artist Heinrich Berger.
James Shaw and painting the Admella
Paintings of the shipwreck by Hill and Shaw are today in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Hill’s work, Wreck of the Admella, 1859, depicts the rescue efforts on the eighth day after the wreck. Boats lowered from the two ships Lady Bird and Ant in the background, as well as the lifeboat launched from the beach, are seen trying to approach the aft section where ‘the unfortunate beings’, seen by Captain Greig of the Lady Bird, were ‘perched like seals on a half-tide rock, moving to and fro, and evidently waving for help’.
The tragedy was still fresh in people’s minds, and these works of art petitioned viewers’ sympathy, reinforcing the subject’s expression of the Sublime. Burke had acknowledged the motivating force historical events had in producing a strong emotional response. In the section ‘Of the effects of tragedy’ in his Philosophical Enquiry, he wrote: ‘The nearer it approaches the reality, and the further it removes us from all idea of fiction, the more perfect is its power [to evoke the Sublime].’ The subject of the work of art becomes the source of the Sublime—not its manifestation; the Sublime is located not in the object itself, but in the viewer’s experience of the painting. The editorial quoted earlier demonstrates this commitment to a subject-oriented approach linked to spiritual endeavour: awakening ‘the stormier passions of the soul’.
From 1850, the year of his arrival in Adelaide, to 1861, when he devoted himself to his art, James Shaw was employed as a clerk in the Adelaide Post Office. He found himself at a communications epicentre, where news of the disaster reverberated like a seismic shudder across the colony. Eyewitnesses spoke of crowds gathering through the week on the Post Office portico, spilling out along King William Street, eager for reports of the survivors.
Shaw had painted the Admella in 1858 when the steamer, ‘trim, buoyant, swift’, began its run between Melbourne and Adelaide. With black smoke billowing from the funnel, the sleek vessel literally cuts through the choppy surf and gusty winds, while a sailing ship in the middle ground—creating a visual counterpoint—lists under the heavy weather, tacking bravely in the wind. In The Admella Wrecked, Cape Banks, 6th August 1859, painted a year later, tragedy has struck. Dawn breaks and we find the steamer pinned to the saw-tooth spine of Carpenter Rocks, so named by French explorer Nicolas Baudin in 1802 because of the jagged reef’s resemblance to a
In a spectacular 15 minutes the steamer had broken into three parts along the specially riveted bulkheads designed to prevent flooding of the holds. The fore and aft sections are visible at this stage, as well as the broken side paddle wheel, though by the following day the forepart would begin to break up and all those who remained at the bow—men, women and children—unable to escape to the stern, would perish. We see passengers, still in nightshirts, rushing to the rails, realising with horror the extent of their plight. In his poem ‘The Wreck of the Admella’ Shaw describes the very moment he captures in the painting:
The overcrowded foremast now no more
Supported by its overstrained stays gives way
Unable to sustain its living weight,
Gives way and headlong hurls its living load.
Seamen and passengers tumble into Byron’s ‘dim desolate deep’; the vessel rocks in its cradle, the sharks circle below.
In his Philosophical Enquiry, Burke codifies a number of sublime elements that can be described as formal in their application to art, including obscurity, vastness, light and dark, and suddenness. We can observe how Shaw has integrated such devices, using a low-key palette of dark tones set against the bristling white surf and spray, and prompting the bewildering impression of precipitousness as the mast cracks and splits, throwing off ‘its living load’. Mossman’s description of the heavens that morning could refer equally to Shaw’s expressive sky, where ‘ruby-tinted clouds floated in the intense blue sky, glowing with the beams of the rising sun’. The midship section is all but submerged, the bow and poop deck swamped, obscuring the ship and rendering it spatially unstable. This reduction of visibility conveys sublime tremors since, according to Burke, clarity and precision scare away the ghosts of our mind, while obscurity is ‘dark, uncertain, confused, terrible and sublime to the last degree’.
It is one of Shaw’s best paintings. Although our self-trained artist does not exhibit the technical brilliance we find in J.M.W. Turner’s fugitive seascapes, inspired by the horror of the events, Shaw has shed his signature ‘plodding sincerity’, as one critic has put it, and captures the violence of the pounding surf and the powerlessness of the figures. The artist has transformed the event into an expression of emotional and heroic power and in its strength and grandeur—the painting is distinctly larger in scale than most of his work—reflects constituent elements of the Sublime experience.
For the passengers the drama has but begun. The ship lurches away from the waking sun, predicting the dashed hopes of the passengers: unseeing ships will pass in the night and witnesses, soon gathering to look helplessly on from the beach, will be unable to reach those stranded on the inaccessible wreck. And we, spectators suspended above the carnage, see the glimmer of hope in a sun spreading its wings, yet, ‘in alternate hope and fear’ we see too the mountainous waves obscuring it from the disoriented passengers reaching the bulwarks and, in the foreground, the blackness of the deep rushing under our feet.
These compositional devices strengthened the status of the shipwreck as a popular motif of Romantic expression. They combine ‘the terrible uncertainty of the thing described’ (Burke) and a preoccupation with nature’s power and destructive force. Such devices allow the artist to re-create the overwhelming and whirling transformations of the sea, and to make accessible an image of terror: an image elevated to the limits of the Sublime. Romanticism is of course much more than a genealogy of the Sublime, but the obvious existence of and yearning for the Sublime in Australian marine painting confirm the transferral and rearticulation of Romantic ideas in their antipodean essence.
The Rescue (c. 1860), attributed to James Shaw, a much smaller painting also in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, is the most enigmatic work exploring the aftermath of the disaster. It re-creates a detail of the rescue operation when one of the lifeboats, most probably the salvaged Admella lifeboat captained by Ben Germein, the Cape Northumberland lighthouse keeper and the first person alerted to the accident, plunges through the surf. Filling the middle ground like curtains drawn across a stage, the rising, swelling sea distributes its power to the edges of the canvas. The coxswain’s outstretched arms and cap echo the profile of the uppermost wave as it reaches its crescendo. One of the rescue ships at the scene, its masts barely visible in the distance, remains enveloped in the mist and spray.
While the sailors struggle to keep the small boat upright, Germein, momentarily unmoved by the turbulence, gazes inscrutably at the man—could it be Soren Holm?—in the foreground, floating, dead, one arm still grasping a fragment of the steamer. Germein himself, suffering later in life from mental illness, would be found dead from suicide, discovered in a mangrove swamp close to the ocean he loved. The young sailor is floating face up, his features clearly distinguishable yet frozen, his soft brown, unseeing eyes wide open—fixed and vacant.
The coxswain steering the boat, perched directly above Germein, waves his arm, looking in the direction of the viewer, his look full of intent. What is he trying to tell us? That he will come back for us? Where are we stationed—with the survivors on the wreck? The floating sailor, almost so close we can lean over and touch him, is a symbolic reminder of a destiny we may have escaped for now, but not forever.
The painting is a poignant tour de force, our eyes drawn persistently to the boat, to the crest of the wave and to the floating body. How ironic is the title, since the young man on his back does not benefit from the rescue. Who is rescued in the painting? Ben Germein and his volunteer sailors on the small lifeboat managed to rescue three survivors from the wreck. Here, are they trying to steer the boat around and guide it down towards the wreck—towards us? Or is it just over the waves, hidden from our view? The melancholic painting raises more questions than it can answer.
Paintings made—like sailcloth—from plain-woven canvas are flotsam washed up on the beaches of history. They are reminders of the way artists imagined events and places and, in the case of the Admella, found inspiration in transcending loss. Painters such as Shaw, more often than not busy painting harbours and homesteads, rose to the challenge to produce history painting. In 1859 Adelaide had a population of 120,000, having doubled in just ten years. The colony was a youthful 23 years old—younger even than Henry Holbrook when he joined the cabin passenger list—and its inhabitants held their collective breath, hanging on every telegraph, until the narrative came to an end. Did a colonial consciousness find moral instruction in this desperate struggle for life? Are not creation myths born of struggle? Shaw and his fellow artists’ paintings of the Admella might be read as vehicles for allegorical intent as much as expressions of Romantic rhetoric.
Walking back along the dry gravel aisles separating the graves, I dwelt on Henry Holbrook’s misfortune, a fate shared by 88 men, women and children on the steamer. The lone lifebelt, sweeping out of the picture in the foreground of Shaw’s painting of the wreck, was of use to no-one. The sun was now pushing down on the horizon. Shadows spread across the headstones of Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery, dressing them in black. And the restless, shifting earth of this town made the vertical slabs of stone tilt like mourners stooping over the graves of loved ones, ‘living statues there seen to weep’.