The carvings on the Ross Bridge in the center of Tasmania are a masterpiece of artwork.
The artist responsible for all these carvings was Daniel Herbert, a convict transported to what was then Van Dieman’s Land for life for the crime of highway robbery. From 1833 to 1836, Herbert, without any previous experience, carved the extraordinary mythological Celtic imagery on the Ross Bridge. For this he won his freedom and lived the rest of his life in a house he built in what became known as Tasmania.
My Uncle Norman Laird’s collaboration with author Leslie Greener to publish research and photos in a coffee table size book, “Ross Bridge: The Sculpture of Daniel Herbert,” (Published 1970). Norman Laird, was an artist, film-maker, poet and political activist who had a particular fascination with the work of Daniel Herbert the convict artist. I became acquainted with the creativity of artist convict Daniel Herbert in 1991, with an introduction to it by my Aunt Hazel Laird in Tasmania who gave me a set of Norman’s original photographs of the bridge.
These photographs have served as inspiration for much of my recent work. It is ironic that I left Tasmania, to come to New York, a city full of art, imagery and inspiration, only to find my richest source once again in the place of my childhood. The imagery of the Ross Bridge, both vegetal and mythical is all over my work. It repeats and transforms in scale and in context as I paint it into my narrative.
Daniel Herbert was born in England in 1797, caught, arrested and transported directly to Van Dieman’s Land for the crime of highway robbery as a young man. He perhaps had two years of stonemasonry apprenticeship as a boy. There is also no evidence that he had any interest in Celtic art and history, but considering the artworks he created on the bridge, it is hard to understand how he didn’t. The artwork is full of Celtic mythology mixed in with certain plant motives that could have resulted from witnessing the landscape and vegetation in Tasmania.
This work that Daniel Herbert achieved was fascinating to my Uncle Norman. The Ross Bridge is a landmark in central Tasmania and it’s at a crossroad in the middle of this island.
The bridge in total has 186 stone panels, all original, all carved out of Tasmanian sandstone and secured on to the arches of the bridge. There were three arches on the bridge so there are six sides embracing the six panels. Each panel is roughly the same size, some panels are more abstract than others, leading one to assume that he was reacting to his surroundings because the abstractions looked closely related to plant forms. There are a significant number of images on the panels of the bridge that relate directly to Celtic mythology.
Herbert didn’t write about his life even though he lived until 1868, which is a relatively long life in a colony. His work on the bridge added to his related carved works that were created in or near the area of Ross are well known. In 1836, once the bridge was completed and he had finished all the carvings, he won his freedom from the chain gang. And one shouldn’t forget that he was on chain gang for this six full years. He had an assistant James Colbeck helping him carve the work but it was primarily his task, his need to finish this with the idea he would be freed at completion.
When Norman discovered the bridge he had a need to study it. Out of this need and love of the artwork, particularly the artwork on the exterior of the bridge, he spent ten years researching the materials the bridge was made of, the artist’s life, the artist impulse to create this, his life, his crime that led him to this point. Norman set upon a project to protect the stone carvings on the outside of the bridge with a mind to making moulds of all 186 panels to preserve them with the latex molds.
The faces that Daniel Herbert were all people he was acquainted with, people he befriended, fellow prisoners and people who were patrons.
Daniel Herbert did marry after he won his freedom and he did procure land in the area of Ross which he farmed until he died in 1868. He had children, and to my knowledge he has living descendants. Based on an article in the newspaper “Mercury”, his granddaughter Mrs. Thomas, lived in Tasmania and had children. She was elderly in 1973. But she had memories of Daniel and Mary, her grandparents, but only so much as family storytelling gave her information. Her knowledge was the kind that families hand down generation to generation about Daniel Herbert.
With the collection of materials that I took back to my studio in Brooklyn, New York City, the idea was already percolating. That I might somehow through this amazing research, develop artworks based on the imagery Norman had discovered in Daniel Herbert’s work. I was no doubt inspired by Norman Laird’s life and artwork. I was also inspired by my Aunt Hazels’ life, especially over the years from that 1991 meeting when she wrote to me regularly from Tasmania.
What emerged in my studio is a set of original multi-media art works. These drawings, paintings, 3-D objects in particular comprise the main body of my work in the last 20 years.