Hopes dashed … Malcolm Connelly and the Namatjira ghost gums, now burnt, which were thought to be dying until recent rains and conservation efforts halted their decline. Photo: Glenn Campbell
TWO majestic ghost gums that were iconic images in Albert Namatjira's landscape paintings have burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances, just weeks before they were due to be placed on the heritage register.
The smouldering remains of the gums, 16 kilometres west of Alice Springs on historic Larapinta Drive, were discovered on Thursday by Malcolm Connolly, a senior heritage officer, during a routine inspection following inquiries by Fairfax Media.
"I was shocked to find those imposing gums on their sides smouldering. I would say they had only been burning for 24 hours," he said. Connolly had gone to the site to check on the gums, which were to feature in an article about their pending heritage listing and conservation.
Vivid colours ... Albert Namatjira's work from Larapinta. Photo: Supplied
They had been photographed only weeks before by Fairfax Media's Glenn Campbell.
Mr Connolly said he had been deeply involved with traditional owners and the Central Land Council to save the trees from dieback and protect them from tourist intrusion. They were regarded as a deeply significant landmark, synonymous with Namatjira's depiction of the desert country around Hermmansburg and ghost gums as living spirits.
Susan McCulloch, author of The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art, said destruction of the gums that appeared in so many of Namatjira's most well-known works was "appalling and a tragic act of cultural vandalism". They are seen in one of his most famous watercolours, Twin Ghosts.
Artist Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) and Ghost Gums
Indigenous Australian artist Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) is arguably Australia's best known Aboriginal painter. He is known for watercolours of desert landscapes rather than the symbolic style of traditional Aboriginal art. His paintings also depict Ghost Gums that were to be listed as heritage sites in Alice Springs, but these trees have now been burnt down. Photo: Alan Lambert
Ms McCulloch said the trees no doubt had great significance for Aranda people and their destruction would be deeply felt. "Albert Namatjira's views of river-bedded gaps and detailed paintings of gorges sing with a luminous colouration, especially the intimate views of Palm Valley, his mother's country."
A spokesman for the Northern Territory Department of Lands, Planning and the Environment said police had been notified as it was not clear how the trees came to be burnt down. "We cannot say whether the fire was intentional as no eyewitnesses have come forward," he said.
However, an independent source told Fairfax Media the fire appeared to have been deliberately lit. "There had been no bushfires anywhere near the spot, and no sign of a camp. The trees appeared to have been deliberately targeted.
Painter ... Albert Namatjira in 1958. Photo: Supplied
"When you look at how the fire was isolated to the area immediately around the gums and the fact this is not the weather for lighting camp fires or burn off, it looks highly suspicious."
Traditional owners of the region were not available for comment on Thursday because of "sorry business" at the nearby community of Hermannsburg. The Central Lands Council will also investigate the blaze.
Mr Connolly said there had been plans to collect seeds from the gums so they could be cultivated, adding that the Northern Territory was the only place in Australia where trees could be heritage-listed.
Albert Namatjira is one of Australia's best-known artists, his vivid watercolours bringing his deep familiarity with the desert into the lounge rooms of middle Australia, particularly the lands around the West MacDonnell Ranges, for which he was a traditional custodian.
Rather than paint the desert as the dead heart, which painters such as Sidney Nolan did, Namatjira presented it as luminous with engaging individual qualities; he enabled the viewer to see the centre as a multi-faceted region of Australia.
Namatjira died in 1959 at the age of 57, three months after serving time in jail for giving alcohol to members of his community. His conviction was widely criticised at the time as being racially discriminatory.
Ms McCulloch said Namatjira and his art had remained of fundamental significance in the development of modern Australian art. "It inspired an entire school of watercolourists at his home community of Hermannsburg."