The Art of First Fleet and other Early Australian Drawings

Bernard Smith, Alwyne Wheeler

Publicaton Date
May 1988
Standard Number
Yale University Press
288 pages

In 1788, the First Fleet landed in New South Wales, and European settlement in Australia began. Among those on board the eleven ships of the fleet were artists who recorded their impressions of the land, its indigenous people, its flora and fauna, and incidents or events which they considered significant.

This volume contains many little-known works of art from the voyage and from the early years of settlement, selected from more than 600 drawings and paintings of Australian subjects held in the British Museum (Natural History). Included among the drawings reproduced in this book are the first original depictions of Australian aborigines by European artists, the earliest drawings of certain plants, birds, mammals and fishes, and early renderings of the settlement.

Five chapters, written by distinguished authorities, supplement the illustrations. The ethnographical significance of the drawings is discussed by R. J. Lampert; the charts and views of Sydney are analysed by T. M. Perry; the drawings are placed in their relation to settlement by Alan Frost; and the natural history drawings are examined by J. H. Calaby. In the final chapter, Bernard Smith explains the art historical significance of the drawings, which represent the beginning of the history of art of European origin in Australia.

Three artists were involved in the production of most of the drawings. The work of the anonymous artist now known as the Port Jackson Painter reveals a keen eye for detail and design. The fine work of George Raper, midshipman on the Sirius, is of great documentary significance. Thomas Watling, an indicted forger, produced a large body of work, ranging across topography, views of the settlement, drawings of aborigines and their customs, and of plants, birds and other animals. Their work, reproduced in this book, is a comprehensive visual supplement to the history and scientific discoveries of the early settlement, and an important resource for all those interested in Australian art and Australian history.