« “Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980” de Richard White » – Olivia Stock


Richard White wrote Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980 in 1981. In his book, he examines how Australian national identities were shaped in the past and how they continue to evolve through time. The title he chose for the book reflects his belief that a national identity does not exist but is invented. He exposes three main points in the making of a national identity. The first one concerns the European influence on Australia. The second one concerns the importance of the intelligentsia in the creation of an identity, and the last one concerns the presence of the economic power of the ruling class who has the possibility to influence and choose a particular identity.



1. Cover of the Book

   In his book, White talks about events which helped define a particular identity at a given time. For instance, the myth of the ‘Coming Man’ which excluded women and gave a very ‘manly’ identity to Australia started to appear at the end of the 19th century. [1] Or, for instance, when the Australian way of life was created. Numerous campaigns and ads were built around this concept. During the 70s, the idea of Australia as a tolerant and multiculturalist nation began to develop and during the 80s, Australia put forward its great resources and started to sell them to the rest of the world.

White puts forward that it has always been difficult to find and define an identity for Australia. Australia used to be a convict land and when the Utilitarianism of Ruskin arrived in Australia, culture in general existed only for its moral purpose. What the artists of the Heidelberg school claimed, was the acceptation of art for its own sake. They demanded the professionalization of the intelligentsia “distinguishing the professional artists and the amateurs who established the colonial cultural institutions”. [2] Art for them needed to be more than “leisure and pleasure”. [3]


   In the chapter Bohemians and the Bush, White takes a closer look at the conflict which took place in the 1890s between the two different generations of artists. The Australian-born Bohemian generation wanted to break away from the English influence that had been going on in Australia. They wanted to give their country a new image, “create a distinctively national culture”, one that would represent them.[4] For them, the image of Australia created by the Europeans was “biased and blurred”[5] whereas theirs was “clear and pure”. [6]  They turned to France and Bohemia to oppose the older Victorian values.

The idea of Art for Art’s sake praised by the Bohemians came from England and was revolutionary at the time. Europe remained an important source of inspiration for Australians and in particular, France with impressionism. The artists were able to show a different and new side of Australia, using different artistic techniques. What White highlights in his book and this chapter in particular is that identity changes with the group of influence.[7] He examined how the generation of the Sydney Bulletin in the 1890s was inspired by France and thought of it as an alternative to the old Victorian values. For Alexis Bergantz, to understand the approach of the Bohemians, the links between France and Britain need to be taken into account. [8] The history between the two countries has always been very strong and France and England have influenced each other for centuries. “France remained indeed a significant and constant barometer throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through which ideas about taste and refinement could be framed, and against which British class differences could be articulated”. [9]


   For some authors and historians, the 1890s were simply an episode of a long process in the creation of identity. The Bohemians that White presents in this chapter as artists who changed the vision of Australia are only a small part of a longer and bigger process. Catriona Elder in her book Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity supports Richard Whites’ argument by saying that a ‘real’ Australia does not exist. [10] White said “A national identity is an invention. There is no point asking whether one version of this essential Australia is truer than any other because they are all intellectual constructs, neat, tidy, comprehensible, and necessarily false.” [11]

In her book, Elder gives importance to the narratives in the creation of an identity. For her, identity is very subjective and cannot properly be traced as it comes from many different influences. Even if she shares White’s point of view on the subjectivity of identity, for her, modern historians give too much importance to the Bohemians. She supports the fact that change throughout the 19th century came from all sorts of sources. “National narratives are produced, whether in media texts, landscapes, public holidays, museums, the sporting field, on the streets or in everyday backyards”. [12] Just like Graeme Turner in National Fictions when he identified the importance of literature and movies in Australian narratives, she suggests that there is not only one way to be Australian. [13]

For a long time, the identity of the typical Australian has only been for white men, as it was the case with the Bohemian generation. But nowadays, this particular identity does not apply anymore as women used to be completely excluded. White noted that “at a time when women were making advances in politics and education, they were largely excluded from the newly professional artistic community of the 1890s.” [14] The Bohemian movement is known for its male artists such as Streeton, McCubbin and Conder. They are today known for having painted Australia in a new way and for having developed a particular style. But the implication of women is never mentioned in this process.

Streeton, Arthur, Cremorne pastoral, 1895, Art Gallery NSW, Sydney.


   Kay Schaffer agrees with Richard White in saying that artists have defined and influenced the creation of a new identity and a new nation but not only. For her, academics have had an important role as well and have given a new way of thinking and looking at historical events and documents. This mix of sources has created and defined a national culture. Just like Kay Schaffer, Patrick Buckridge in his review on Inventing Australia said that White is too descriptive in his chapter Bohemians and the Bush and gives too many historical details and no real explanation. Just like Elder and Schaffer, Buckridge finds the importance given by White to the intelligentsia too big, and no analysis is given on the role they played in the shaping of a national identity. For the author, this book does not contain a “clear object of investigation”.[15]

On the other hand, for Eric Ross, this book cannot be overlooked. He shares White’s idea by saying that it is essential to have a good amount of historical knowledge of the country in order to understand where people come from and to what extent a desire of creating a particular identity is fundamental in order to feel as part of a community and create a sense of patriotism. For him, White does not give too much of his personal opinions in order to give the reader a liberty of interpretation. He even recommends the book to Canadians and Americans who are constantly struggling to find a proper identity.


   Richard White was not the only historian to try to explain the process of creation of identity. In 1958, Russel Ward wrote The Australian Legend, and was one of the first authors to try and define what the “Australian national culture” meant. [16] He talks about how Australia’s history as a colony shaped so many different identities. Later on, in 1978, Graeme Davison defined the bush myth as paintings and literature describing and representing life and landscapes and attributed it to the 19th century artists in his work Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context for the Australian Legend. Richard White was inspired by those two books and attributed the bush myth to the 19th century artists who wanted to adopt the Bohemian lifestyle and explains how this movement has combined “radical politics and modernization.”[17]

In Inventing Australia, White explains Australia’s history through the shaping of different identities. As a former colony, Australia had a hard time taking its independence from English and European influences. The Bohemians being the first Australian-born generation tried to change Australia’s image to make it unique. But this new identity did not last as it was too specific, concerning only white males. For White, identity is a pure invention created for people to feel as part of a community and in the past Aborigines, migrants and women have always been left out. Nowadays, Australians are aware that a real and just identity cannot exist until people understand the past of their country as a former colony and embrace its multiculturalism.

Olivia Stock, Master 2 Anglais





[1] White, Richard. Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980. (Sydney : Allen & Unwin Australia, 1981).

[2] Ibid., p. 88.

[3] Ibid., p. 89.

[4]  Ibid., p. 85.

[5]  Ibid., p. 86.

[6] Ibid.

[7]  Rowley, Susan Elizabeth. “Gender and nation formation in late nineteenth century.” PhD diss., University of Wollongong, 1993.

[8] Bergantz, Alexis, “National History and Migrant History after the Transnational Turn: the French in Australia and the Articulation of Frenchness.” openeditions.org (June 2017)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Harper Melissa, “Reinventing Australia” review of Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity by Catriona Elder. Australian Humanities Review, 2007.

[11] White, Inventing Australia. 

[12] Harper, “Reinventing Australia”.

[13] Rowley, Susan Elizabeth. “Gender and nation”.

[14] White, Inventing Australia. 

[15] Buckridge Patrick, review of Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 by Richard White. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 1982.

[16] Rowley “Gender and nation,”

[17] Ibid.




Bergantz, Alexis. “National History and Migrant History after the Transnational Turn: the French in Australia and the Articulation of Frenchness.” journals.openeditions.org (June 2017).

Buckridge, Patrick. Review of Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 by Richard White. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 1982.

Cousins, Sara. “Contemporary Australia.” Monash University National Centre for Australian Studies, 2005.

Harper, Melissa. “Reinventing Australia” review of Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity by Catriona Elder. Australian Humanities Review, no. 45, 2007.

Piccini, Jon. “Myth and Myth-Making in Australian History.” Academia.edu (2016).

Ross, Eric. Review of Inventing Australia, Images and Identity 1680-1980 by Richard White. Journal of Historical Geography, vol 10, 1984.

Rowley, Susan Elizabeth. “Gender and nation formation in late nineteenth century.” PhD diss., University of Wollongong, 1993.

Rowse, Tim. Review of The uses of arts: constructing Australian identities by Lisanne Gibson. University of Queensland Press, 2001.

Turner Graeme. “Australian Inventions” review of Inventing Australia, Images and Identity 1680-1980 by Richard White. Australian Journal of Cultural Studies 1, no. 1, 1983.

White, Richard. Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980. Sydney : Allen & Unwin Australia, 1981. Print.

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