• Henry Short<strong> / </strong>England/Australia VIC1807–65 / <em>Fruit and flowers</em> 1859 / Oil on canvas / 89 x 119cm / Purchased 1997. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery


Fruit and flowers 1859

Theme: History and Culture
Not currently on display

About the artwork

This work is a lavish allegorical painting overflowing with succulent fruit and flowers. Masses of flowers spill over the edge of an ornate vase onto a marble surface that also contains fruit arrangements. The flowers and fruits featured include a great variety of species, many of them introduced into the colony from the Old World. Henry Short did, however, also work Australian subject matter into his pictures in recognition of the cultural need of new settlers to inhabit, control and define their new environment, which was very different from ‘home’.

About the artist

Henry Short was born in London in 1807. In 1852 he arrived in Melbourne with his wife and family during the great wave of migration associated with the discovery of gold in the 1850s. He began exhibiting in 1854, and throughout the 1850s he achieved a substantial reputation in Victoria primarily as a painter of still life in the grand manner. There was no public gallery in Melbourne at this time, but like other artists, Short consistently exhibited in Fine Art Society shows, in studio exhibitions and through art unions. The still life was his preferred subject matter. Short’s reputation in this genre was assisted by his emphasis on the bountiful nature of life in Australia where flowers and fruits (even English varieties) grew all year round.


Short painted still life in the Dutch manner, which used realistic representations of highly prized flowers and fruits, many of them traditional Christian symbols, to create an allegory of the tension between abundance and mortality. At the time when Short painted Fruit and flowers, Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species was challenging traditional ways of thinking, and the natural world was being investigated by scientists and artists accordingly. Fruit and flowers, in which the wide variety of species from different parts of the world are all flourishing, can be seen as a metaphor for a distinct sense of colonial optimism for a less restrictive society where one’s origins did not necessarily dictate social position. The collision of the Old and New Worlds is further symbolised by the jug at the rear, which is decorated with cherubs reminiscent of the antique, but capped with the figure of ‘the noble savage’, commonly used in Victorian times to illustrate the processes of natural selection.

Questions/For Discussion

  1. What can you see in the painting? How does the artist capture your attention? Still life concepts were explored by the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. Research this era and the symbolism of the imagery used.

For the Classroom

  1. Make a colourful arrangement of fruit, vegetables and/or flowers. Look closely at the objects, draw the arrangement focusing on line, colour, shape, light and shadow. For the background, think about how you can use shading to make sure everyone viewing your still life sees the fruit or vegetables first. Using any media, create an artwork that explores the concept of food as a symbol in still life. Consider how you could represent opposing ideas in one artwork, for example: bitter / sweet, healthy / unhealthy, good / evil, fresh / rotten, young / old. Experiment with the way other objects, like old china or glassware, can help convey your meaning. Your artwork could comment on specific concepts, such as consumerism, gluttony or waste.