There is a tradition of English people unimpressed by the Mountains on aesthetic grounds. One of the first was Barron Field, judge of the supreme court of New South Wales, who crossed in 1822. He was upset by our native trees and shrubs, which he called ‘unpicturesque’.
In those days, educated people spent a great deal of time talking about the ‘picturesque’ to show they appreciated art. If they were religious, they would also proclaim about the 'romantic', and even the ‘sublime’, to show an awareness of God’s creation. These stock reactions were withheld by many of the educated visitors of the nineteenth century.
Of New South Wales generally Barron Field opined, ‘there is not a single scene in it of which a painter could make a landscape, without greatly disguising the true character of the trees. They have no lateral boughs, and cast no masses of shade … no tree, to my taste, can be beautiful that is not deciduous. What can a painter do with cold olive-green? There is a dry harshness about the perennial leaf, that does not savour of humanity in my eyes. There is no flesh and blood in it: it is not of us, and is nothing to us.’
Field also thought the landscape unsuited to the stories he valued: ‘[W]ithout January, in my mind, there can be no May. All the dearest allegories of human life are bound up in the infant and slender green of spring, the dark redundance of summer, and the sere and yellow leaf of autumn. These are as essential to the poet as emblems, as they are to the painter as picturesque objects; and the common consent and immemorial custom of European poetry have made the change of seasons, and its effect upon vegetation, a part, as it were, of our very nature.’
Field spent his first night at Spring Wood, and his second just past today’s Katoomba. There he found ‘The timber now became more dwarf ... We found the pass very alpine and difficult, rocky, stony, flowery.’ He continued to reach for familiar comparisons to describe his experience: ‘The views were very grand. The night was stormy, but little rainy – all in the sublime. “The power of the hills was on me,” as Wordsworth says.’
But most of the landscape continued to disappoint. He reflected that ‘A little more than thirty years ago, this land was inhabited by savages only …’ Blackheath he found ‘a wretched misnomer. Not to mention its awful contrast to that beautiful place of that name in England, heath it has none. Black it may be when the shrubs are burnt, as they often are.’ Like many travellers, then and later, Barron Field found the Mountains little more than a physical annoyance.
But help was at hand. ‘Mount York … redeems the journey … for it leads you to the first green valley. The earliest burst of Christian transalpine country, as seen from the beginning of this mountain, is very beautiful. The sight of grass again is lovely. … it affords the first view of the promised land of Australia, after the wilderness of the Blue Mountains.’ To the small settlement in Hartley Vale (then called the Vale of Clwydd) he gave one of his highest accolades: it was ‘very picturesque’.
Making the same journey fourteen years later, Charles Darwin was more engaged with the geology of the Mountains, but shared Fields’ views on their aesthetics. Because the trees were evergreen, as in South America and South Africa, ‘The inhabitants of this hemisphere and of the intertropical regions, thus lose perhaps one of the most glorious, though to our eyes common, spectacles in the world – the first bursting into full foliage of the leafless tree.’ He added, ‘Nowhere is there an appearance of verdure, but rather of arid sterility.’
It is easy to dismiss Field’s and Darwin’s approach, so greatly does it seek to diminish the experience of living in Australia. And yet, the country through which they were riding has been clothed by subsequent settlers in precisely the deciduous vegetation they yearned for. And it is visited by millions of people each year, at least partly to enjoy that aspect. Today, many of us do find the Mountains to be picturesque, sublime - even if in a different way to the Victorians - and even romantic.