It was Tom Carment first mentioned Ludwig Becker to me. He’d just come back from Melbourne where he’d seen the works held in the Manuscript Room at the State Library of Victoria—the so-called Becker Sketchbook. Tom’s eyes behind his glasses were blue and wide with enthusiasm and emotion. He described exquisite, jewel-like water colours, vivid, radiant, even after all this time. He liked the scale of the works too, their ability to evoke a grandeur of space within a tiny compass. In that sense they mirrored his own paintings, which are small in size but large in other respects: ambition, scope, sensitivity, drama, intensity. Beauty. I was intrigued: I’m an admirer of Tom’s work and I trust his judgment where the work of others is concerned. Who was this Ludwig Becker? Where was he from? How could I see some paintings? Tom told me a few things about him. He was German. He was dead. There was a book. One thing did lodge in my mind: a connection with Burke and Wills, the famously doomed 19th century outback explorers. I didn’t know anything much about them either and, to tell the truth, wasn’t particularly interested. Another time, perhaps. This was years ago, in the early 1990s, when I rented a writing room under Tom’s kitchen in Womerah Lane, Darlinghurst. I lived a few doors up the laneway and, in the mornings, would walk down there, unlock my room and type away while a fine dust fell on the keyboard from above as Tom or his flatmate Shelley K walked back and forth across the floor above making their morning tea or coffee or breakfast. This was before Tom got together with Jan Idle, before their three children were born in that same house where they still live. The room was small, painted yellow inside, and perfectly suited my needs at the time. A Thai Buddhist had lived in it before me. He’d been a kitchen hand in a local restaurant but had no visa and one day got deported. His Australian friend, Robert Brain, had left behind a pair of louche white leather shoes that fitted me, that I wore, absurdly, when walking back and forth from writing room to flat to writing room. It was cool and dark, there was a dusty window onto a disused laundry area, a door I could close behind me, no telephone, no internet or email, almost no chance of being disturbed, with the prospect of casual conversation and company if I wanted them. I can’t now recall what rent I paid but it wasn’t much and I always felt generously treated there where I wrote my first two books.
I didn’t follow up the Becker lead and in time even forgot his name. And then, in a curious piece of serendipity, late in 2006 I came across it again. Browsing in the Ashfield library one day I picked up a newly-published book called The True Face of William Shakespeare. By Hildegard Hammerschimidt-Hummel, a professor of English Literature and Culture at the Universities of Marburg and Mainz. The book has a subtitle: The Poet’s Death Mask and Likenesses from Three Periods of His Life. It’s an exhaustive, even forensic, study of the half dozen supposed likenesses of William Shakespeare that have come down to us, seeking to determine if they are indeed portraits of the same man and if that man is the Shakespeare of the plays and poems. I was familiar with all of the portraits, and the funerary bust in the church at Stratford, but hadn’t heard before of the existence of a death mask. Anything of a biographical nature about Shakespeare interests me so I borrowed the book and brought it home to read. It was a bit of a slog actually, the meticulous, indeed stolid, argument the book constructs was hard to fix in the mind. I didn’t really engage with it until I came to the bit about the death mask, and the alleged portrait of the poet on his deathbed with which it is associated. To my astonishment I found that the man who’d rescued both portrait and death mask from the oblivion into which they had fallen was Ludwig Becker—the same man Tom had told me about, the one who had gone with Burke and Wills. Whose sketchbook was in a library in Melbourne. As I read this part of Ms Hammerschimidt-Hummel’s book I began to wonder: if Ludwig Becker was a connection between Shakespeare’s death mask and the Burke and Wills Expedition, what else might he not be? What was his story? The biographical details, such as they are, I found in a 1979 book that also reproduces, entire, the contents of the Becker Sketchbook. That too I borrowed, via interloan, from the Ashfield library. Later I bought a copy. It’s by Marjorie Tipping and is called Ludwig Becker: Artist & Naturalist with the Burke & Wills Expedition. The life story told in the introduction is quite detailed but raises more questions than it answers; and there are earlier and later versions of it by the same author that vary significantly in some of the detail; that was troubling. As for the images, they are fascinating and beautiful in the way Tom described and the book is scholarly and precise and includes a great deal of valuable documentation: Becker’s letters and reports from the Burke and Wills Expedition are all there, as well as other material written by him at the time. And all of Becker’s notes, which he was in the habit of writing in a tiny, elegant hand on the bottom of his equally tiny pictures, are transcribed. There is a great deal of ancillary information about the pictures too: where they were made, their media, what their subject matter consists of. It’s as complete an account as you could want of the part Becker played in the famous expedition. And yet …
Two things bothered me. One was that I couldn’t get a sense of the inwardness of the man. His life seemed to be made up entirely of external detail, in the same way that his paintings and drawings are firmly posited as objective descriptions of aspects of the real world. They too claim to be without inwardness. But are they? On closer examination, I thought I could detect a fantastical quality in some of them, a subtle and sparsely articulated tendency towards the gothic and the estranged. No-one is without preconceptions; no-one, no matter how hard they try, is capable of a purely objective account of the world, in words or paint or any other medium; just as no-one is without an interior life, howsoever private, reticent or hidden they may be. Which is not to say that that inwardness is accessible to another. The other thing I couldn’t get a handle on was the Burke and Wills imbroglio itself. There are many accounts and I set out to read those I could find. Some, like Alan Moorehead’s Coopers Creek (1963), are models of concision with a clearly articulated, though not indisputable, position on what happened and why. Others, like Tim Bonyhady’s Burke & Wills: From Melbourne to Myth (1991), by including everything run the risk of saying nothing. Which may be unfair: Bonyhady’s is a thorough account of extremely complex events and he has sought to tell the tale without inflecting it, the way Moorehead did, towards any particular position or point of view on the events. It’s more useful to me now as a reference book than it is as a narrative, though it does touch all points in the story. It soon became apparent that there was a third problem, the solving of which looked like it might be a key to the other two: I hadn’t been further west than Dubbo in twenty years; my one other big overland trip, Sydney to Adelaide driving a van for a rock ‘n’ roll band, even longer ago, had completely faded from memory. Too much speed, probably. It didn’t seem possible to understand either Becker or the Burke and Wills story without traversing the actual country in which it unfolded. I thought it over, and over. And over.
Then, while all of this was fresh in my mind, I had word from the publishers of my 2006 book Luca Antara, asking if I had any ideas for a non-fiction book? As it happened I thought I did. I wrote a two page proposal for a book about Ludwig Becker that would on the one hand retrace his steps and on the other seek to evoke passages from his earlier life in Europe and the Antipodes. In time, the proposal was accepted and with the advance so provided I was able to plan a trip from Melbourne along the route that Burke and Wills took, and in particular to follow the track of The Supply Party, which was to bring up to the depot at Coopers Creek food and equipment that Burke, in his haste, decided not to take with him. Ludwig Becker, the educated and highly skilled artist and naturalist, had died a fearful death on that doomed mission. His last days were spent in almost insensible invalidism while the men he was with were under siege from Aboriginal tribes trying to drive them away from a planned ceremonial gathering. I was hoping to find his grave on what is now a lonely stock route in south western Queensland. What follows, then, is an account of, and some digressions from, that trip into the heart of a country that still appears delusive, if not actually dangerous.