Images of Nature: The Art of the First Fleet

– Review by Capt. Suzan Wallace MFA

1787 “Two Naval Ships, the HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, three store ships and six convict transports set sail from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay,” ‘the First Fleet’ as defined by colonial Australian historians. The brief but poignant introduction by Lisa Di Tommaso, the assistant Librarian of the Natural History Museum in London, sets the stage for a series of images that portray the earliest encounters between European commerce and Australian aboriginal natives.

The collection exhibiting this summer in London highlights the illustrated works from three categorized sources: the works of George Raper, a midshipman on board HMS Sirius, the works of Thomas Whatling, a landscape artist turned convict for forgery, and works by unidentified artists who went by the name “Port Jackson Painter.” Given that the voyage or colony had no designated official artist, the collection’s unique depictions are a testament to the various artists, their unique character, and how they came to be in Port Jackson, Australia, in the late 1700s.

Di Tommaso is clear to state that the Dutch had discovered this new land and called it New Holland in the 1600s, thus inspiring the well documented voyages of Captain James Cook and his Endeavour in 1770. Although the Cook voyage was mounted by naturalist Joseph Banks for scientific discovery and visual documentation, “The Art of the First Fleet” collection directly reflects upon the more common perspective of a sailor’s diary, sketches of the artistic colonists and the incarcerated. It is this perspective that brings such dramatic appeal.

The remarkable drawings and watercolours were truly inspired by an incredibly strange landscape and the uniquely Australian wildlife they encountered. Painting and sketching gave purpose to these artists, marking their significance among other expeditionary science illustrators of their day.

“The Art of the First Fleet” serves as not only an historical account of early Australia in images, but expands the study of early scientific illustration methods in voyaging discovery.

A video about the First Fleet: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSvvh6LoTM4

First Fleet art collection online: tinyurl.com/7ckmdza

Resource Type: 
Image: