John Lewin: Australia’s first professional artist

By S. Varnham O'Regan and N. Penberthy 20 April 2012
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After two centuries, the first artist to call Australia’s frontier settlements home is recognised for his flair and contribution.

WHEN HE STEPPED off the boat in Sydney on 11 January 1800, John Lewin was about to wield his paintbrush as the first free-settler professional artist in a wild frontier land. He’d already missed his first boat to Australia, the Buffalo, which his wife Anna Maria had boarded 18 months earlier.

So, he took the long journey to Australia alone, and he began his life in a new land amid controversy, when Anna Maria was accused in court of misconduct with the Buffalo’s second mate – a charge which she was acquitted of. 

Nonetheless, once he was settled, Lewin painted some of the earliest and most valuable paintings of Australia’s fauna and flora, exhibiting a relaxed style at odds with the traditional European art, but well suited to the colonies.

Early Australian illustrated books

Lewin had chosen to relocate because he had been attempting to illustrate lifelike Australian animals from damaged and dried specimens in England – an almost impossible task. He became one of the first professional painters and certainly one of the first free-settler artists in Australia in the first half of the 19th century, painting the first image of a koala in 1803.

He later put together a number of books, the first of which was an illustrated volume on moths: Prodromus Entymology, Natural History of Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales. It was published in 1805 in London  and so English naturalists could record the details of the rare specimens illustrated. The lack of supplies in the colony eventually meant Lewin had to produce his own ink, and so he also became Australia’s first printmaker.

A watercolour of a faggot case moth in Prodromus Entymology perfectly “showcases [Lewin’s] capacity for strong design,” says Richard Neville, a curator at the NSW State Library in Sydney. “To have plants running across a sheet of paper like this now seems conventional and obvious, but when Lewin developed this style it was entirely new and unprecedented.”

In 1813 Lewin produced the first illustrated book to be published in the colony itself, Birds of New South Wales (1813) – copies of this book have in recent times sold at auction for up to $500,000.

Lewin: naturalist and painter

During the 19 years he spent in the Australian colonies, Lewin made commissioned works for every Australian Governor. He also accompanied early explorers on expedition, armed with a rifle for shooting birds and an insect net. His trips down the Hunter River and into the Blue Mountains of NSW gave him plenty of opportunities to find flora and fauna to illustrate.

His subjects reflect his interests in insects and birds, an interest that ran in his family. He was the son of ornithologist William Lewin, who had written a book, The Birds of Great Britain in 1789. John’s own son also followed in his footsteps, helping him produce some of his books, while Anna Maria helped create some of the artworks.

Unfortunately – stuck in what was then a faraway outpost – Lewin never gained the international notoriety of later Australian artists and died young at the age of  49. Nevertheless, his work is said to have graced the best rooms of Government House during Governor Macquarie’s years from 1810 to 1822.

The State Library of NSW is staging the world’s first comprehensive exhibition of over 150 original Lewin drawings and watercolours. Lewin: Wild Art is open until 27 May 2012. It will then be on show at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, from 26 July to 28 October 2012.