Australian colonial art uncovered in Canada

By Liz T. Williams 18 October 2011
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Original artworks depicting 19th century colonial Australia have been found in a cupboard in Canada.

A RARE ALBUM OF drawings and paintings offering a vivid portrayal of 19th century New South Wales will soon make its way back home after its recent discovery in Canada.

The album features original drawings and watercolour paintings documenting landscapes, inhabitants and the natural world in and around the Newcastle settlement. Until it was found in the deceased estate of an elderly Ontario man, no-one was aware of its existence.

“When they were rummaging through the effects this album popped up. It was sitting in the back of a cupboard,” says Richard Neville, Mitchell librarian at the State Library of NSW. “It was an extraordinary thing.”

The State Library of New South Wales purchased the album from Gardner Galleries, a Canadian auction house, early Monday morning for $1.7 million. It’s unknown how the album made it to Canada, but it may have been passed down through family generations.

Artwork an important historical record

The album once belonged to Captain James Wallis, commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement from 1816-1818 and one of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s senior officers. Some of the most notable originals in the album include named portraits of several of the Awabakal people, who lived in the region.

“To have portraits of people who were named and dated to a particular location is really important,” says Richard. “For an indigenous audience, these are really prime historical records.”

The album contents also shed light on a long-standing debate about a series of engravings Captain Wallis had commissioned and presented to Governor Macquarie in the late 1810s. While the engravings were formally attributed to Captain Wallis, several were actually thought to have been the work of Joseph Lycett, a convict and artist who worked for Wallis during that time.

Until now, there was no firm evidence that the works had been misattributed. However, four of these works, though not signed, are all marked “Drawn by a Convict,” and are stylistically consistent with Lycett’s work.

Richard, who suspected some of the original engravings were not Captain Wallis’s work, says this confirmation provides an interesting insight into the power relationships between convicts and their captors.

“Poor old Joseph, I suppose, had no rights to say ‘you’ve taken my work and claimed it as your own,'” Richard says.

“North and South Head’s on Port Jackson”, by Joseph Lycett, 1818.

Evolution of Australian art revealed

John McPhee, a curator and editor of Joseph Lycett: Convict Artist, says this evidence will expand knowledge of Lycett’s work and provide new insights into how colonial art was produced in Australia.

“It proves for the first time what we had suspected – that the engravings were not by Wallis but were by Lycett,” John says. “Presumably it was part of the dislike of acknowledging some of the skills of some of the convicts.”
Both Richard and John believe the album has much to reveal. Because the album had not been opened for many years, the paintings are in good condition.

“They’re all as fresh as the day they were painted,” Richard says. Because of this, even fundamental questions – for example, what colonial watercolours actually looked like – are likely to find answers within the album’s pages.

“As we work through it, we’re going to find out lots of quite interesting stuff,” Richard says.

Once the album arrives at its new home in the Mitchell wing of the State Library of New South Wales by the end of the year,  it will be digitised and posted on the State Library of NSW website for public viewing. In the meantime, photos of the album are available on the Gardner Galleries website.