Ongoing Moments: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department respond to a photograph of their choice. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]
.“Gold Diggers Receiving Letter from Home” (circa 1860), attrib.William Strutt. Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 72.3 cm.
Psst, can you feel his longing for a return? Half turned, I almost whispered my sole thought to an arbitrary passing visitor amid the air-conditioned and peopled Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was 24th September 2014, a winter Wednesday of the weeklong intra-session break during my exchange semester in Sydney. In search of words for the feeling, I stared at and remained still before this particular painting in the room of 19th Century Australian Art. I took a photograph of this painting. There was a peculiar aura emanating from it that made it stand out from its contemporaries on the same wall and captivated my gaze.
“[A] really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.” —Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 849.
The painting “Gold Diggers Receiving a Letter from Home,” attributed to the English artist William Strutt, depicts an expressive moment that invites narrative interpretations. During the Australian Gold Rushes, diggers like those in the painting departed from their family, in hopes of uncovering gold deposits and returning home with wealth. Yet, in the gorges of which they had no memories and where no one knew their names, these diggers could only cling to their recollections of home. Home became a selection of memories, some facets faded away whilst some were reinforced. Between the two men, the letter and the dimly lit room in the painting, I was particularly drawn to the vision of the digger who held the letter. If you follow the direction of his gaze, as I did when I was at the gallery, you can see that he is no longer reading the letter. Instead, he must have at least half finished reading the note and then looked up. What is he staring at in that case? The vision of the letter receiver anchored, no longer on the script within the frame, but the remembered images of home, of the absent one. The room dims further; the consoling pat of his comrade feels softer, everything in the room but the idea of home becomes irrelevant. Was he comforted, uncertain, or pensive, upon receiving the letter? Is he conjuring up everyday vignettes about his loved ones, with or without him? I believe each new thought of home would evoke different and particular aspects of feelings in the letter receiver’s mind, as happened to me when I received messages from my parents and friends.
The happiness of travelling alone is always accompanied by memories of home. Home holds surpassing beauty, seen from afar. The distance casts a mist of dreamlike beauty over home. Then, to explore the world is at the same time to reacquaint us with ourselves. When coming across an impressive moment, I take photographs to reimagine it, both the moment and the experience of that moment. Every now and then, particular and novel shards of my remembrance will come to mind. I used to think that the exchange was like a stool for me to stand on and get a glimpse of the kaleidoscopic world through a high window. Yet, looking at this photograph of this painting, I see that it is also like the world is looking at me through the window, while I am the nature, constantly changing.
William Ng is a fourth-year student at the Department of English and the Department of Education. [Click here to read all entries by William.]