Nicholas CAIRE, Giant tree at Neerim, forty feet girth Enlarge 1 /1

Nicholas CAIRE

Guernsey, United Kingdom 1837 – Australia 1918

  • Australia from 1858

Giant tree at Neerim, forty feet girth c.1889 prtd c.1900s Place made: Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photograph

Dimensions: printed image 15.0 h x 20.2 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1983
Accession No: NGA 83.3083

The men shown here measuring the diameter of a giant eucalypt were not loggers or tree-lovers. They were attempting to determine whether Australian trees were bigger than the famed 400-foot giant redwoods of California. It was mostly national pride surrounding the Australian Centennial of European settlement which motivated scientists and photographers in the 1880s to seek out the remaining giant trees in the more remote areas of Victoria. The Americans claimed that their redwoods were the greatest because of their combined height and girth. In the dense Australian bush, it was easier to measure the girth than the height and presented a much more dramatic image for a photograph.

The general public followed the giant tree debate in the papers and also purchased photographs of them and other idyllic bush scenes. By the late 19th century, the Australian population mostly lived and worked in the cities. They became day-trippers and used the new railway networks to take their recreation in the bush. Nicholas Caire, one of the most active photographers to seek out and record the giant trees, travelled over a number of years on the new rail line to Neerim town reserve. 

Australia’s giant trees were widely depicted in colonial art as mighty symbols of the pre-settlement and pioneer era. Caire, whilst accepting the desirability of logging and urban development, was also one of those who argued for the preservation of examples for future generations. Most of the awesome giant trees were felled or burnt in his lifetime. Now they are preserved only in photographs.

Anne O’Hehir

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002