In the rich artistic record of the Australian gold rushes, Emil Todt’s The gold diggers stands as a rare, early, three dimensional work, heroizing a new national "type" and celebrating the topical notion of mateship. The sculpture was long thought to be Todt’s only surviving work, a memento of a fleeting visit to the Australian goldfields by a mysterious artist-fortune-seeker. But details of Todt’s time in Australia have emerged in recent years and we now have a much clearer, if still fragmentary, picture of his long and interesting life.
The gold diggers
38.8 x 23.9 x 15.6
Gift of Mrs Leonard Terry 1884
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Emil Hermann Todt was born in Berlin in 1810 or 1811. He studied sculpture under Ludwig Wichmann, c. 1830-36, and exhibited a herm bust and a statue of nymphs in Berlin. A suggested involvement in the revolutionary turmoil of 1848 may have led to his decision to leave Prussia, and he sailed for South Australia as a member of the Berlin Emigration Society on board the Princess Louise, arriving in Port Adelaide on 7 August 1849. The Society was largely comprised of professional men, businessmen and skilled artisans, and has been called “the single most important group of German intellectuals to come to Adelaide”. Many of its members, most notably the botanist and Adelaide Botanic Gardens Director, Richard Schomburgk, musician Gustav Esselbach and artist, Alexander Schramm, went on to play important roles in the scientific and cultural life of South Australia. Todt, however, like some of his fellow Princess Louise passengers, was lured to the Victorian gold fields after hearing of the first discoveries of 1851, and is recorded there by William Strutt, in his memoirs, as Sadt (sic), a delightful German sculptor.
By 1854, Todt had returned to his art and settled in Melbourne. The Argus caught up with him there: “A German sculptor, of the name of Todt, has long been resident amongst us, and is now, for the first time here, about to devote himself to the cultivation of his art. Mr Todt has just favoured us with an inspection of a work upon which he is at present engaged, which indicated nothing short of genius of a high order. It consists of a couple of diggers, in their ordinary working dress, and the figures are not only natural and beautifully modelled, but the whole piece is interesting and truthful in the highest degree. The group, when completed, will be placed, we believe, in the approaching Local Exhibition, and we are certain that it will meet with great attention and general approval.
The gold diggers belongs to a specialised category of portraiture, the double portrait with one figure standing and the other seated. This portrait type is more common in male/female portraiture, especially in photography, but the male variation has a certain lineage in ninteenth-century Australian art. An immediate precursor is the diggers vignette, with its standing and kneeling figures, that flanks William Strutt’s lithographed View of Gold Point, Ballarat c1852, and a near contemporary is Charles Summer’s great Burke and Wills monument of 1862. In The gold diggers, Todt shows the thoroughness of his classical training in Berlin and his mastery of the sculptural convention of quotation. His standing digger borrows his pose from Polykleitos’ Diomedes, and his seated companion from Michelangelo’s Giuliano de Medici. But Todt’s subject was a very contemporary one, and he clad his heroic figures in the garments of the gold digger, paying particular attention to the standing digger’s souwester and his friend’s legging, with their minutely detailed buttons.
The gold diggers was, indeed, exhibited at the Victorian Exhibition of 1854, and its success there was followed by a number of commissions, most notably a Madonna and Child for the Roman Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne. By 1856 the Journal of Australasia spoke of Todt and Eugene von Guerard as the leading artists in Melbourne. His position as pre-eminent sculptor was, however, soon challenged by the well-connected Charles Summers, who arrived in 1853 and from the early 1860s scooped up most of the major commissions, including that for the Burke and Wills monument. By that time, Todt was working as a modeller for the Board of Lands and Works, making sets of coloured, life-sized fruits and vegetables for display at the London and Dublin International Exhibitions of 1862 and 1865. His relief maps of the Colony of Victoria were also exhibited at the latter exhibition, and his portrait of Victorian Premier Richard Heals, probably dates from this time.
In 1884 the final part of Todt’s last major work – the illustration of Ferdinand von Mueller’s Eucalyptographia – was published. Working under the direction of von Mueller, Todt was the principal artist and provided over seventy of the lithographic illustrations of the book. Von Mueller acknowledged him by naming a species after him, Eucalyptus todtiana, and paid tribute to him in the text accompanying the plate.
Emil Todt died in Melbourne at the age of 90 on 10 July 1900. The gold diggers is his major work. The sculpture possesses a resonance and monumentality beyond its diminutive size, and stands as one of the masterpieces of ninteenth-century Australian sculpture.
By Terence Lane
From Gold and Civilisation, National Museum of Australia 2001. Published by Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd and the National Museum of Australia.