Part biography, history and travel narrative yet surpassing all in sum, Martin Edmond’s story of the Burke and Wills expedition is told through the life and death of its scientist, naturalist, collector and artist, Ludwig Becker.
Reflective and atmospheric, Edmonds’ descriptive work fleshes out the human side of Becker and the expedition and teases out the tragedy at the heart of what I previously thought of as a rather dry story, told to death.
Snippets, anecdotes and quotes taken from Becker’s notes illuminate the atmosphere and humanity (both good and bad) Edmonds picked from the story’s bones. Edmond makes Becker real and immediate, so much so that by the end I really don’t want to hear the rest; for it’s not a particularly happy story.
Nevertheless I am compelled to go on.
Now it has taken a place in my mental collection of haunting representations and stories: alongside Sidney Nolan and Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly; Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Joan Lindsay and Perer Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Past and present blend as the narrative alternates between Burke & Wills’ expedition and that of the author following, albeit much more safely, in their footsteps years later.
The land he is seeing draws the author’s thoughts repeatedly back into the story of the doomed expedition, and one of Edmond’s major achievements is to give you a sense of not only what the land looks like today and how it looked 150 years ago, but 50 000 years ago before he, Ludwig, Burke or Wills ever walked upon it.
A finely worked sense of ominous inevitability grows in the reader as we hear the now-familiar details of the party’s demise.
Discord grows between the dwindling numbers of men in the party. Gradually, and necessarily, they discard the camels, trackers, people, other supplies and hundreds of litres of rum which were catalogued with such pride at the journey’s beginning.
Becker is eventually required not for his artistic services but for the extra pair of hands that may make the difference between life and death. He is forced to leave behind the careful records, the tasks and equipment that constituted both his life’s work and his purpose for being on the expedition.
Edmonds draws a vivid, heartbreaking picture of Becker: ill, injured, bullied by the sadistic Burke and forced to make his observations and artworks at night. His love of his work, and unshaking commitment to it, is fully realised as we are shown the completeness of his exhaustion yet his absolute determination to continue with his mission as long as he is able to pick up a pencil.
The uniqueness of this book is its marriage of the human story with art history; Edmonds clearly has a deep respect for Becker’s artwork. I was as affected as he by the uniqueness of the work, which Edmond describes as in the tradition of miniaturing and portraiture – mixing scientific precision and detail, yet illuminating its subjects with whimsical, the fantastic and the grotesque.
In this crucial aspect the book is let down by its publication in trade paperback with a few measly reproductions in the centre, so small that the reader is forced to read the words and use the pictures as a sort of imaginative aid to help fill in details and colours described and vitally important to the story thematically, yet invisible in the versions shown.
I would love the opportunity to buy this in a coffee-table, hardcover format, with full-page glossy reproductions and more illustrations taken from Becker’s notes, already so painstakingly sourced by Edmond.
As Edmond’s background to this process recounts, he says to the librarians who want to know why he wants to access Becker’s jealously guarded sketchbook and poorly lit paintings that there is no substitute for seeing the originals. And why block access to art the public doesn’t know or care about anyway?
Therefore, it is a shame the scale and pathos of these rare reproductions weren’t given justice, though I recognise the market for such a book would be almost negligible.
To give the art community access to a book that rests firmly in the Australian history section would achieve Edmond’s goal far better – to give Becker his rightful place and recognition in art as well as history. As it is, the book is forced to be less than it was originally capable of, much like Becker at the close of his journey.
Yet this cannot undermine the subtle, scholarly elegance with which Edmond has written his elegy; it will certainly remain in my consciousness, as will Edmond himself.