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Death of a Workman In A Streeton Painting

From the website Australians At Work.
Video clip synopsis – Streeton's eyewitness account of the death of a workman during the blasting of a railway tunnel at Lapstone in the NSW Blue Mountains. It becomes the inspiration for his painting "Fire's on, Lapstone Tunnel".
Year of production - 1984
Duration - 2min 36sec
Tags - art, artists, identity, mining, natural resources, painting, see all tags


Death of a Workman In A Streeton Painting

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About the Video Clip


Death of a Workman In A Streeton Painting is an excerpt from the film Fire’s On, Lapstone Tunnel, part of The Australian Eye Series : Australian Impressionists 1888-1896 (66 mins), produced in 1984.

Fire’s On, Lapstone Tunnel: The death of a workman during blasting of the railway tunnel at Lapstone in the NSW Blue Mountains in 1891 was Arthur Streeton’s inspiration for this painting. Streeton’s vivid description of the accident in a letter to his artist friend Tom Roberts is included in the commentary.

The Australian Eye Series: Based on the principle that the more one knows about a work of art the better one can appreciate it, this series makes a detailed examination of many of Australia’s most outstanding paintings. Besides scrutinising one key work in close detail, each film reveals, wherever possible, the artist’s drawings and studies for that work, and shows other related works. Many little known paintings from private collections have been included. Living artists have been recorded, talking about their techniques and the ideas behind their paintings. The letters and journals of earlier artists are drawn on, as well as the views of critics of the day. Every film was made in consultation with a leading expert on the artist, and scripts were discussed with the Education Department of NSW prior to production. The series consultant was Daniel Thomas, Curator of Australian Art at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra.

The Australian Eye Series was produced by The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales in collaboration with Film Australia.

Curriculum Focus



Exploring and responding
At Level 6 students observe, research and critically discuss a range of contemporary, traditional, stylistic, historical and cultural examples of arts works in the disciplines and forma in which they are working. They describe and discuss ways that their own and others’ arts works communicate and challenge ideas and meaning.

This video clip is also relevant to Geography (Level 6)
Geographical knowledge and understanding
At Level 6, students explain the operation of a major natural system and its interaction with human activities.

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information


Arthur Streeton was one of the 'Heidelberg School’ of Australian artists of the 1880s who popularised the painting of romantic yet realistic images of the Australian bush, and the open air, in an 'impressionist’ style that acknowledged and emphasised the Australian light and colour.

Streeton commented on this painting in a letter to a friend:

“This morning, hot, windy, and warm, as I travel down the line, and the mirage sizzling and jiggering over the railway track. I arrive at my cutting, 'the fatal cutting’, and inwardly rejoice at the prosperous warmth all glowing before me as I descend and re-ascend the opposite side up to my shady, shelving sandstone rock, perched up high. I wipe the wholesome moisture from my pale brow, and having partaken at my billy (like a somewhat lengthy and affectionate kiss), I look up and down at my subject: is it worth painting? Why, of course, damn it all! That is providing I’m capable of translating my impression to the canvas.

All is serene as I work and peg away retiring under the rock a bit when they light any shots, then, 'Up with that b____ wagon, Bill.’ 11.30: The fish train struggles over the hill and round to Glenbrook. 12 o’clock: The next shift comes toddling down the hot track with their billies, and I commence to discuss my lunch and tea (of which I consume over a quart every lunch), and now I hear 'Fire, fire’s on’, from the gang close by; rest my billy on the rock, take out my pipe and listen for the shots, with my eye watching the bright red-gum yonder. BOOM! and then rumbling of rock, the navvy under the rock with me, and watching says, 'Man killed’. He runs down the sheltered side, and cries, 'Man killed!’. Another takes it up, and now it has run through the camp. More shots and crashing rock, and we peep over; he lies all hidden bar his legs – and now men, nippers and 2 women hurry down, a woman with a bottle and rags. All the shots are gone but one and all wait and dare not go near. Then someone says the last hole was not lit, and they raise the rock and lift him on to the stretcher, fold his arms over his chest, and slowly six of them carry him past me. Oh, how full of dread is the grey, mysterious expression of death — 'tis like a whirlpool for the eyes. Blown to death twenty yards from me and, as a navvy said, it was an “'orrible sight”. By Jove! a passing corpse does chain your eyes, and indeed all your senses, just as strongly as love.”

Classroom Activities

  1. The video clip:
    1. Watch the video clip with no sound. What does the video clip show?
    2. Watch again with the sound. How does the filmmaker explore the painting?
      Does this control of what you see and hear, help you to explore the painting, or force you to have a certain impression and reaction?
  2. What dominates the painting—nature or the human tragedy? Explain why you think the artist has done this.
  3. Imagine that this painting was being brought to your community as part of a display on the development of Australian identity. Many of the people who view it will not know anything about it. Prepare a text guide to go with the painting. You have a maximum of 150 words to cover all the elements that you think are important.