Stories from the Royal Society of Tasmania Art Collection
8. Knut Bull, born Knud Bull (1811-1889)
Article prepared by the RST Honorary Curator, Dr Anita Hansen, for the October 2022 RST Newsletter
Because Van Diemen’s Land began as a penal colony, it is not surprising that a number of our early artists were convicts ¬– unfortunately occasionally putting their artistic talents to forgery. One of the convict artists featured in the Royal Society of Tasmania’s Art Collection is Knud Bull (although he is known as Knut Bull in our records). There is only one of his artworks in the collection – and sadly it is very poor condition with a large tear across most of the work and some foxing. This can be repaired – and it will be worth doing this in the future. It shows a stunning view of early Hobart.
In The Convict Artists Jocelyn Hackford-Jones describes this drawing by Bull delightfully when she writes:
“His skill as a draughtsman is evident in the rendering of detail like the ship’s rigging, or the finely-drawn buildings further back. The commanding presence of Mount Wellington adds an aura of grandeur to the scene which is broken only by the attention to minutiae such as the lively seagulls being bounced along on the waves or fluttering just over them, and the play of light on the rippling water.”
Knud Bull was born in Bergen, Norway on 10 September 1811 to a large and talented family – his brother became a well-known violinist. His first art training was in Copenhagen, Denmark, although it is not known with whom. From November 1833 to May 1834 and again in 1838 Bull was a student of JC Dahl in Dresden, Germany. This is no small matter for Dahl (1788–1857), a Danish-Norwegian artist is considered the first great romantic painter in Norway, and, by some, one of the greatest European artists of all time. He was the first Norwegian artist to acquire genuine fame and cultural renown abroad. As one critic has put it, ‘JC Dahl occupies a central position in Norwegian artistic life of the first half of the 19th century’. Such a pity then that Knud Bull put his obvious talent and training to forgery.
In 1845 Bull visited London, but had been there for only five weeks when he was tried at the Central Criminal Court on 15 December for ‘Feloniously making part of a Foreign Note for 100 Dollars’ and sentenced to transportation for 14 years. He reached Norfolk Island on the John Calvin on 21 September 1846. Nine months later he was sent to the penal settlement at Saltwater River, Van Diemen’s Land, and from there, in May 1849 he was sent to Hobart Town. By the next year was teaching at Mrs Rogers’s seminary at Bagdad in central Tasmania.
Bull seems to have often found himself in trouble with the law. On 8 December 1850, Bull fled to Melbourne from Hobart. His recapture caused quite a stir and was reported in a number of newspapers, both in Melbourne and locally. The Hobarton Guardian of 22 January 1851 wrote:
A respectable looking man, who gave the name of Thomas Evans, but whose real name is Canute Bull (a Dane) was on Thursday committed to gaol for the purpose of being forwarded to Van Diemen’s Land (from Port Phillip) by the first opportunity, as a runaway prisoner of the Crown. A person named Simpson, Chief Constable at the Hopkins, proved that he had known the prisoner, who was an artist by profession, both at Hobart and Norfolk Island, at which time he was a prisoner of the Crown and was still so, having been transported for a period of fourteen years. For the defence a certificate of freedom was produced in the name of Thomas Evans, but it had evidently been altered, and was altogether such a suspicious looking document that the Justice paid no attention to it.
It seems Bull was a better painter than forger!
While the Launceston Examiner wrote:
Absconder to Melbourne
Another prisoner of the crown, named Canute Bull, was charged with absconding from the service of Mr. Guest, of Collins Street, Hobart Town, on the 8th December last and with remaining illegally at large until apprehended in Melbourne, Victoria, on the 7th January of the present year. This man was represented as a portrait and landscape painter of great merit, and would shortly have been eligible for a conditional pardon.
It was fully two months before Bull was tried. Then, because he had been so long in custody, he was sentenced only to 20 days’ solitary confinement.
Jocelyn Hackford-Jones notes, ‘It is puzzling that Bull should have contemplated escape knowing that he would shortly be eligible for a conditional pardon and given also his exemplary conduct on the John Calvin during the voyage out … By April 1851 he was working for another artist, the Reverend J. G. Medland at Boa Vista, and the following month he married a freewoman Mary Anne Bryen. In March 1853 he received a ticket of leave which was followed by a conditional pardon in November 1853.
After the Convict Days
Bull spent several years in Hobart from 1849 and was finally released from custody during 1853.
There were few painters in Australia at the time, and Bull was the only professional landscape painter in Hobart. During the 1850s he was a teacher at the William Slade Smith Academy, and also painted local landscapes, and is noted for his scenes of early colonial Hobart as well as for his portraits. Bull is regarded as a pioneer of Australian landscape painting and is represented in several major galleries in Tasmania and mainland Australia. The Art Gallery of South Australia has a number of Bull’s works in their collection. Their publication Australian Colonial Art 1800–1900 notes, ‘This period [1840s] saw the arrival of another interesting artist, Knut Bull, who was sent to Norfolk Island … He painted a few intimate portraits in the Biedermeier manner … Bull also executed landscapes in the German Romantic tradition which would dominate much Australian landscape painting from the 1850s to the 1870s’.
Knut Bull left Tasmania in 1857 and settled in New South Wales.
City of Hobart Town
City of Hobart Town was published as a tinted lithograph by E. Walker in 1855; in 1859 53 of the prints supplemented with statistical details of the colony and framed in muskwood and Huon pine were sent to London to encourage emigration to Tasmania.
On 7 May 1856 at a meeting of the Royal Society of Tasmania, Dr Agnew submitted that Mr K Bull who made for the Paris Exhibition an oil painting of Hobart Town having incurred liabilities by getting the same lithographed in England which he is unable to meet has some claims on the Society’s consideration. It was resolved that the Secretary be authorised to purchase from Mr Bull one or two of the lithographs.
The information for this article has been gleaned from a number of sources: The Royal Society of Tasmania’s minutes, The Convict Artists Jocelyn Hackford-Jones, the Directory of Australian Artists Online, the National Library of Australia, A Companion to Tasmanian History, Australian Colonial Art 1800–1900, and early Tasmanian newspapers.
A number of the articles I read during my research mention that Knud Bull was a photographer, but I could not find any images. I would be interested in finding out more about this if anyone has any information about Bull’s photography.