Resource 3: Watercolour artwork – Conrad Marten’s Forest, Cunningham's Gap (1856)

Martens, C. (1856). Forest, Cunningham's Gap [Watercolour]. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from

This watercolour by the Australian colonial artist Conrad Martens, depicts one of his trips through Cunningham’s Gap. This route, involving steep inclines and renowned to be hazardous, was taken by many early European settlers as it was the most direct track between Brisbane and Darling Downs. This watercolour depicts a scene which was very common to early colonialists, while also giving valuable insights into the perceptions these people held about the Australian bush.

This artwork can be a valuable resource for teachers. In particular, it can be seen to have strong links with the specified HSIE outcome for this unit of work: “CCS2.1- Describes events and actions related to the British Colonisation of Australia and assesses changes and consequences.” (Board of Studies NSW, 2006, p. 23) Students can use this as a resource to ‘reconstuct’ the past, giving insight into aspects of early colonial life such as transport, clothes and the landscape. It should be recognised that in Forest, Cunningham's Gap (1856) the subjects are depicted from the perspective of a well-off, early European male settler. This perspective strongly influenced the subjects that the artist chose to portray and how he chose to render them including the media and techniques he employed and the lens through which he depicted the subject matter (Callow, 1999, p. 2). In this way the artist’s culturally learned thoughts and feelings are ingrained into the artwork. This is described by Pauly as a “cultural narrative” (2003, p. 266). In Forest, Cunningham's Gap (1856), Marten’s culturally learned ideas are seen clearly in his portrayal of the bush. It is presented from a perspective that was common in early European settler society as an untamed, rugged, alien landscape over which white settlers had to assert control. In this artwork the view of the bush as harsh and unfamiliar is portrayed through the large, imposing trees of the forest and the darkness around these, suggesting the unknown. Conversely, the European settler on his horse is centred and framed by the trees, on a path that has been imposed on the landscape and both are bathed in a gentle light, capturing the adversarial nature of the relationship that white settlers had with the Australian bush. In contrast, an Indigenous artist, drawing on his cultural learning, to render this scene may have painted the bush as more inviting, and placed less emphasis on the path that the European settlers constructed.

In teaching the topic of colonial Australia, teachers should ensure that students are exposed to and examine artworks which show different perspectives of colonial Australia, including those of Indigenous Australians (Callow, 1999, p. 2). Many teachers do not do this either by accident, by not considering differing perspectives themselves, or deliberately to avoid the discourses (or “interpretive paradoxes”) that are inherent in ‘reconstructing’ history from multiple texts with different perspectives (VanSledright, 2002, p. 1091). This resource, when used in conjunction with other historical texts, can provide a valuable resource in helping students to “[select] and [use] various sources for reconstructing the past” (Board of Studies NSW, 2006, p. 23).

This resource can also be beneficial in enabling students to achieve literacy outcomes, particularly in terms of visual grammar. In this unit of work, the teacher uses this painting to stimulate students to talk about their different interpretations of visual texts, and how people are portrayed in these images. It is vital that students develop skills in interpreting visual texts and analysing them for meaning as they are among the most pervasive modes of communication in Australian society (Pauly, 2003, p. 264). The English K-6: Outcomes and Indicators recognises the significance of visual images and highlights the strong links that “reading” visual texts has with reading written literature, as both involve “decoding and interpreting texts” (Board of Studies NSW, 2007, p. 8). This recognises the fact that children need opportunities to learn the codes used in images including aspects such as the use of colour, light, framing and social distance. Strong examples of these can be seen in Forest, Cunningham's Gap (1856).

By using Forest, Cunningham's Gap (1856) teachers can provide students with valuable opportunities to decode and interpret a high-quality visual text and, from this, explore elements of colonial life and perceptions.

- By Jeremy Hart

Board of Studies NSW. (2006). HSIE K-6 Syllabus. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

Board of Studies NSW. (2007). English K-6: Outcomes and indicators. Sydney: Author.
Callow, J. (1999). Reading the visual: An introduction. In J. Callow (Ed.), Image Matters - Visual Texts in the Classroom (pp. 1-13). Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association.

Martens, C. (1856). Forest, Cunningham's Gap [Watercolour]. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from

Pauly, N. (2003). Interpreting visual culture as cultural narratives in teacher education. Studies in Art Education, 44(3), 264-284.

VanSledright, B. (2002). Confronting history’s interpretive paradox while teaching fifth graders to investigate the past. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 1089-1115.