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Becker, Ludwig (1808–1861)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Ludwig Becker (1808-1861), by F. Schoenfeld and J. M. Ferguson, 1850s

Ludwig Becker (1808-1861), by F. Schoenfeld and J. M. Ferguson, 1850s

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001124072414

Ludwig Becker (1808?-1861), artist, explorer and naturalist, was born at Darmstadt, Germany, of a notable family. His brothers included a top-ranking soldier and a well-known landscape painter. A third brother was librarian and private secretary to Albert, Prince Consort, and later professor of chemistry at Berlin. In 1828 Becker engaged at Frankfurt on Main in lithographic work. He apparently qualified as a doctor of philosophy and for a time served as an officer in a rifle company. In the 1848 revolution he was at Mainz, but left hurriedly for, it is said, political reasons. After some time in Rio de Janeiro he arrived at Launceston on 10 March 1851. For many months he wandered in Van Diemen's Land paying his way by painting miniatures. Lady Denison, with whom he stayed for a time, wrote of him, 'he is a most amusing person, talks English badly, but very energetically — he is one of those universal geniuses who can do anything … a very good naturalist, geologist … draws and plays and sings, conjures and ventriloquises and imitates the notes of birds so accurately'.

While gold digging in Bendigo in 1852-54 Becker made meteorological observations and produced enough sketches for an exhibition in Melbourne in April 1854. He designed the prize medal for the Victorian Exhibition of 1854, its face showing the three main resources of the colony: mineral riches, pastoral pursuits and agriculture; its obverse showed the new Exhibition Building in William Street. He became a council member of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in 1856, and in 1859 of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, to which he contributed many scientific papers. He also illustrated works by fellow councillors, Dr Ferdinand Mueller and Dr Frederick McCoy. The potted biographies in his Men of Victoria (Melbourne, 1856) were colourful yet unbiased in judgment. He was also a leading member of the Melbourne German Club to which he lectured, and contributed articles to its journal. He corresponded with John Gould on the lyrebird, and was one of the first to try to raise a lyrebird chick. With the son of an Aboriginal chief he had exchanged a photo of some natives for a lyrebird egg and in 1855 he sent sketches of the egg to ornithologists in Germany and France.

Becker's scientific knowledge and artistic ability were invaluable qualifications for his selection as a member of the Victorian Exploring Expedition in 1860-61, organized by the Philosophical Institute which in 1860 became the Royal Society. As early as April 1856, eighteen months before the Exploration Committee was formed, Becker had suggested at a meeting of the institute that members consider the utility and practicability of introducing the camel and other useful animals into the Australian colonies. On the committee's recommendation the Victorian government imported the camels for the expedition at great cost. It set out from Melbourne on 20 August 1860 after Becker, as artist, naturalist and geologist on a salary of £300, had received lengthy instructions from Dr John Macadam, honorary secretary of the committee, which stipulated that, apart from the collection of specimens, he should keep a diary under specified headings and produce daily maps of the route and copious illustrations and sections. One of the most enthusiastic members of the expedition, Becker carried out these duties faithfully. He sent his first dispatches from Swan Hill and from Menindee sent a number of specimens, drawings, water-colour sketches and diaries; naturally he became dispirited when these were not even acknowledged.

The leader of the expedition, Robert O'Hara Burke, became impatient with the ageing Becker whom he had ordered to help in loading the camels. He wrote: 'You should have seen old B...'s face upon my announcing that all the officers would have to act as working men, and that we should only carry 30 lb. of luggage for each man … the first two days of it nearly choked poor B....., and I think he will not be able to stand it much longer'. While still at Menindee Becker became aware of the possible failure of the expedition. His letter to the committee about the delays should have alerted the committee to the dangers ahead, but he was ignored. In December Macadam unbelievingly reported that his dispatches had no special interest. Becker became lame, and although he had stated in his application to join the expedition that he was accustomed to bush life and its hardships, he could not withstand the exhaustive effects of scurvy and dysentery. He died and was buried at Bulloo eight miles (13 km) south of Cooper's Creek on 28 April 1861. He was unmarried.

On the news of his death his colleagues at the Royal Society mourned the loss, as stated by Mueller, of 'one of its first, most gifted and unassuming members'. Governor Barkly in his 1862 anniversary address to the Royal Society paid tribute to 'one of our earliest and most indefatigable contributors … the name of Ludwig Becker will … rank with those of Richard Cunningham, Edmund Kennedy and Ludwig Leichhardt and the rest of that noble band who have sacrificed their lives in the cause of science'.

Becker was a delightful personality, kindly, gentle and sensitive, although rather odd looking with his meerschaum pipe and large red beard. One of his last works before the expedition started was to design an exquisite plaster model for a seal which Charles Summers executed for the Royal Society. The La Trobe Library holds Becker's sketch-book, diaries and scientific observations made on the Burke and Wills expedition, as well as other paintings. A number of other sketches are in the Bendigo Gallery. The La Trobe Library holds a self-portrait in water-colours attributed to Becker.

Select Bibliography

  • W. T. Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life (Lond, 1870)
  • G. Mackaness, The Australian Journal of William Strutt, A.R.A., 1850-1862 (Syd, 1958)
  • A. M. Moorehead, Cooper's Creek (Lond, 1963)
  • President's address, Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 6 (1861-64)
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Victorian Botanists’, Victorian Naturalist, vol 25, no 7, Nov 1908, pp 101-77
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 9, part 3, 1923, pp 161-68
  • I. F. McLaren, ‘The Victorian Exploring Expedition and Relieving Expeditions, 1860-61: The Burke and Wills Tragedy’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 29, no 4, Nov 1959, pp 212-53
  • M. Tipping ‘Portrait of William Buckley, Attributed to Ludwig Becker’, La Trobe Library Journal, vol 1, no 1, Apr 1968, pp 8-12
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1854
  • Australische Monatzeitung, 1 Feb 1862
  • Burke and Wills papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • M. Tipping, Early Colonial Artists, Ludwig Becker and Nicholas Chevalier (Royal Historical Society of Victoria).

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Becker, Ludwig (1808–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/becker-ludwig-2961/text4309, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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