Man Proposes, God Disposes

Erebus’ – Michael Palin, ‘Painting in the Shadows’ – Katherine Kovacic

It wasn’t Edwin Landseer’s painting ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’, described by the author of ‘Erebus’ as ‘gruesome’, which aimed to tug at the heartstrings, that got me. The artist’s take on the iconic ship’s ill-fated final voyage shows the remnants of its crew’s final stand against death – a flag and assorted debris being torn apart by polar bears. This portrayal did the job for C19th England still coming to terms with the loss of Franklin’s expedition. But for me the more moving images in the tome came from an art form still in its infancy. They showed the top brass of the two vessels that tried to force their way from ocean to ocean via Canada’s North West Passage, ‘Erebus’ and ‘The Terror’. The daguerreotypes of Sir John, James Fitzjames, Francis Crozier and the other brave/foolhardy souls were so poignant to this viewer. They are actual; not confected by an artist aiming to please. At one stage in the book Palin examines each of these early photographs and tells the reader what it demonstrates about each of the doomed sitters.


Of course the writer of ‘Erebus’ is best known for being a member of ‘Monty Python’. Some may even describe those other crews’ story, spending their final months trapped in the ice before seeking a way out, as Pythonesque in nature, if it all wasn’t so tragic. In the far Northern American wastes they were befuddled, failing to take the advice of the few native inhabitants they encountered, resulting in a nation in mourning. A determined woman, Franklin’s wife Jane, moved heaven and earth at first to find the men, then later to discover the whereabouts of their remains. She became a constant thorn in the government’s backside as they attempted to move on from the disaster.


In all this there are, of course, links to my own island; this one not in the hard ice of the far north, but a stepping stone to that vast frozen mass further south. The same two stalwart boats used, under a different command, Hobart as a base for explorations to Antarctica. In those tough, small, confined wind-powered transports a feat was achieved, unimaginable to contemporary minds – so a later exploratory excursion in the Northern Hemisphere, with the ‘Erebus’ to the fore, was to be almost certain of success, wasn’t it? The other synchronicity is that greeting the ship’s earlier commander, James Clark Ross, received when he arrived in the Derwent, both going to and coming from his attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole, was from none other than the governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Waiting for him were Franklin and his wife Jane. So the book contains impressions of my city from that time, as well as Palin’s own take on a burb that has come alive, thanks to the MONA effect. He was here to research this very readable tale of a boat built in the shadow of the Napoleonic War; a vessel that took its time to find its enduring place in history. It’s a history that doesn’t end till its rediscovery a mere five years ago.

After ‘Erebus’, I then turned to the next book from my pile of ‘to reads’, Katherine Kovacic’s ‘Painting in the Shadows’. Blow me down that a few chapters in I realised that the painting at this whodunnit’s core was none other than ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’. What are the odds? You wouldn’t read about it.


Kovacic’s first foray into the field of crime fiction, with an art slant, came with ‘The Portrait of Molly Dean’, an examination of an historical murder on the fringes of the local 1930’s art scene. It received favourable reviews, as did this her sophomore effort. Having a penchant for going across to the big island to check out art galleries I thought ‘Painting in the Shadows’ could be something I’d take to.

The Landseer work has arrived in Melbourne with a bit of a rep for bringing bad luck. That takes hold as soon as the masterpiece is about to be hung, quickly followed by a death in the gallery, a loosely disguised NGV. Our heroine, Alex Clayton, with her sidekick/semi-love interest John Porter, think there may be more to a story that the local plod have put down to accidental poisoning. So off they go to do some amateur sleuthing, as you do. What could one then throw into the mix to add an extra bit of spice? What else than a suspected Whiteley forgery. It’s hardly an original thought, but our dynamic duo think they’re on to possibly quite the scandal.


Really, I did struggle with this, although it is meant to be a light frothy page-turner. The snappy repartee between the two main protagonists just grated for me and although the although she knows her art, the writer’s desire to demonstrate that at every chance detracted from the flow, as did her constant opinions on every work name-dropped. I persevered till the end and as it approached, my interest perked, but it will not live long in my memory. I know there are others who disagree. Peter Craven, one of our nation’s best reviewers, describes ‘Painting in the Shadows’ as being akin to the works of Michael Innes, Peter Temple and Shane Maloney – so there you go. So, if those authors appeal then judge for yourself.


I do like the randomness of an unexpected coincidence – the one painting featuring in two disparate yarns back to back. Crikey.

Michael Palin’s website =

Katherine Kovacic’s website =

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