Australia in the 1790s

Early colonial artists

George Raper (1769–1797), a midshipman on the First Fleet, was a keen illustrator of the flora and fauna of the colony. Some of the specimens he illustrated are now extinct. In 1791 he completed a drawing of the flightless emu and its egg, which caused considerable scepticism in English society.

Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1826) accompanied Matthew Flinders as a professional natural history illustrator. He was one of six scientists selected by Sir Joseph Banks to accompany Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia. Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1778–1846), who travelled with a French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin, also illustrated the new-found flora and fauna.

Thomas Watling (1762–c1814) was the first professional artist in the colony. He arrived in 1792 as a convict having been sentenced to 14 years for forgery. As a convict, he was assigned to John White (1756?–1832), the surgeon-general and an amateur naturalist, who made use of his artistic skills. In 1796 Watling was given a conditional pardon and, in 1797, it was made absolute. During his time in the colony, he produced many landscapes, such as Sun Rising – Going out of Port Jackson Harbour, portraits of local Aboriginal people and natural history drawings such as Banksian Cockatoo. One of his major works to survive shows Sydney in 1794, a large oil painting that can be viewed in Sydney's Mitchell Library.

John Hunter (1737–1821) was a keen naturalist and artist. After arriving in the colony, he began sending specimens and illustrations of Australian animals to Sir Joseph Banks was in England. He sketched hundreds of birds, flowers and fish from around Port Jackson. Others who drew scenes of the early settlement include Augustus Theodore Alt, an engineer and surveyor, and Governor Philip Gidley King (1758–1808), who made a pen, ink and wash drawing entitled View of the Entrance of Port Jackson Looking Down the Harbour from Maskelyne's (now Dawes) Point. As well as natural history, there were some ethnographic portraits completed of Aboriginal people.

All of these artists provided a sense of the uniqueness of the country in their drawings, paintings and watercolours. They also provide a record of the early Sydney colony. From 1788 onward, art often captured a gradual shift from representing a European sense of light to an Australian one. Light in Australia is notably different to that in Europe, and early landscapes attempted to reflect this.

Early colonial artists_1790

A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.


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