The Artists

Walter Withers


Born England 1854, Arrived Australia 1883, Died 1914

oil on canvas laid down on plywood
35.2 x 55.6cm
Acc. 1:0693
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Cowes is approximately 137 kilometres south of Melbourne, and is situated approximately at the centre of the northern shore of Phillip Island. It is directly south and about four kilometres across Western Port from Sandy Point on the mainland.

It was originally called Mussel Rocks and was renamed Cowes by Commander Henry Cox in 1865 during his survey of Western Port aboard 'H.M.V.S. Victoria', because it reminded him of Cowes, on the Isle of Wight.

Western Port was discovered by George Bass in January 1798, and he named it, because of its 'relative situation to every other known harbour on the coast'.

Phillip Island, which is the largest of three islands off the Australian coast that bear this name, lies across the entrance to Western Port. Of the other two smaller islands, one lies in the Pacific Ocean near Norfolk Island, while the other lies off the north eastern shore of Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania. The south coast of Phillip Island faces Bass Strait, while the north coast faces Western Port.

George Bass discovered Phillip Island in 1798. He described it as 'a high cape like a snapper's head'. Lieutenant James Grant in 1801 in the 'Lady Nelson' also noted the resemblance of the cape to a snapper's head, hence the early name for the island 'Snapper Island'. For a short period it was called Grant Island, after Lieutenant James Grant, and later it was named 'Phillip Island' after Governor Phillip. Baudin's name, 'Ile de Anglais' - 'Isle of the English', did not survive.

The local Aboriginal name for snapper was 'woolamai', hence the name Cape Woolamai for the far south east of the island.

Phillip Island is about 10100 hectares in size. It is 21 kilometres by 10 kilometres in extreme length and width, with 96 kilometres of diverse coastline, which includes 46 kilometres of sandy beaches. Phillip Island is connected to the mainland at the eastern end of the island by a bridge linking Newhaven, which was originally known as Woody Point, to San Remo.

Cowes is approximately 16 kilometres from San Remo, and at the time Walter Withers painted this work, there was no connecting bridge from the mainland to the island.

The first bridge linking Newhaven to San Remo was opened on 29 November 1940, and the 'new bridge', now in use, was opened in 1969. The new bridge is 530 metres long, with a centre span of 167 metres and has a minimum distance under the bridge of 12.2 metres. Before a bridge was built, much of the access to Phillip Island was via Stony Point, through Cowes, and the Cowes jetty.

The Cowes jetty was built in 1870, however before it was built, passengers to Cowes were ferried ashore onto its sandy beach in small boats. It is recorded that 'Indian-style they lit a smoke signal when they wished for transport in either direction'.

In this work, Walter Withers provides us with a view of the Cowes jetty, from the waterline from the head of the jetty towards the shore. On the rise above the jetty is the Isle of Wight Hotel, situated on the corner of The Esplanade and Phillip Island Road. The garden to the left above the beach is now known as the War Memorial Garden.

Francis Bauer, chef to Governor Barkly, was granted a licence for the Isle of Wight Hotel at Cowes in 1870, the same year the jetty was built. The hotel, originally a two-roomed wattle and daub house overlooking the jetty, grew until 1925, when it catered for up to one hundred guests.

As early as 1889, a newspaper correspondent wrote enthusiastically about the Isle of Wight Hotel, claiming it to be the best hotel he had found in Australia. He wrote, 'A Swiss-style house with peaked gables and Norfolk Island pines protecting its romantic front garden. The ferns, flowers and shady arbours were complimented by a most professionally arranged vegetable garden that supplied the kitchen. Rain water was collected in large tanks for personal use, bore water for other purposes.

Monsieur Bauer set up a separate laundry and a farm to produce poultry, pork and dairy products for the hotel and also, doubtless, to make good use of table scraps. He built a boat house beside Green Lake and hired boats to visiting fishermen.

Looking "more like a count than a chef", in his black velvet coat, he personally met his guests as they arrived on the jetty. Sometimes a different, surprising welcome met them at the hotel - not from a friendly dog, but from a friendly tame seal, Jack, which flip-flopped down the main staircase, sometimes creating panic in those that did not know him. He also provided entertainment for watchers on the jetty.'

In 1925, a fire, in less than an hour, gutted the old hotel, except for the wattle and daub walls of the original two-roomed residence. The hotel was rebuilt, and at its peak had a staff of sixty looking after up to 150 guests.

In 1963, another famous landmark, the exclusive guest house 'Erehwon' was burnt to the ground. It was situated on the corner of The Esplanade and Steele Street, to the left of this painting. To the right of the jetty, as viewed in this work, is the rocky outcrop called Mussel Rocks, while the Point to the left of this painting is called Erehwon Point.

Erehwon Point was so named after the title of Samuel Butler's utopian novel of 1872. The word 'Erehwon' is the reverse spelling of 'no where', although some locals suggest that it is the reverse of 'now here'.

In the painting of Cowes jetty by J.A. Turner, the trolley tracks on the jetty are depicted, with a man pushing a small trolley along the jetty. Walter Withers probably painted this work around 1910. He often visited Phillip Island staying with his friend, Edmund Edmonds Smith, after catching a train to Stony Point and then about an 8 kilometre ferry ride to Cowes. In his later years, Withers also used to take with him his daughter Margery, and send postcards of 'Lovers Walk' - the walk along the small sea wall above the Cowes beach - to his family in Eltham.

Ferries also travelled from Stony Point to French Island. The earliest of these ferries was 'Eva', a wood-burning, sail assisted paddle-steamer, however, after the train line from Hastings to Stony Point was opened in 1889, the 'S.S. Genista' became the regular ferry between 1889 and 1930, and the one on which Walter Withers would have travelled. The Cowes jetty had a major refit in 1945-46, and today is recorded as having a length of 127 metres, and a head of 100 metres.

Other artworks of the Cowes jetty produced from a similar viewpoint of the waterfront include an 1880 drawing by Charles Turner, an 1889 drawing by J. Macfarlane and the work 'The Jetty at Cowes, Phillip Island', 1890 by James A. Turner which was offered for auction by Christie's Australia. Australian and International Paintings. Melbourne 23 & 24 November 1999, Lot no.64.

A more detailed entry on the life and works of Walter Withers can be located under the 'Artists of the Heidelberg School' on this Internet site.

Andrew Mackenzie

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