Early Australian painting found in a Canadian cupboard

Renata Gortan The Daily Telegraph October 14, 2011

A rare collection of colonial Australian artwork revealing secrets of settlement was discovered in the back of a cupboard in Canada.

The artworks depict Sydney and regional NSW, portraits of Aborigines and natural history illustrations that were made in Newcastle in 1818.

The State Library of NSW is hoping to buy the collection when it goes to auction in Canada on Sunday. Mitchell librarian Richard Neville said the works were discovered by an auction house assigned to clear out a deceased estate.

"It seems its came down through the family that created it, Captain James Wallis, and (the owner was) probably one of his descendants," Mr Neville explained.

Wallis was the commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement from June 1816 to December 1818 and Mr Neville said the artworks illustrated an interesting period of Australian history.

"It's a prime document about the settlement of Australia," he said.

"It's related to other material about settlement in our country, such as the Macquarie Collector's Chest; a wooden box with paintings of Newcastle on the side.

"We have the chest ... we want (the album), it was commissioned by the same guy."

The discovery of the album sheds light over authorship of works attributed to Wallis, but which historians have long suspected of being the work of convict artist Joseph Lycett.

"There's always been a slight suspicion he wasn't the artist," Mr Neville said.

"On this album, on the original drawings, Wallis has written 'drawn by a convict'. By a process of deduction, you know the only artist in Newcastle at that time was Lycett."

Library bids to return rare pictorial treasure

Steve Meacham Sydney Morning Herald October 14, 2011

Rare paintings of Macquarie-era Aborigines are among a newly-discovered treasure trove of Australian pictorial history, which goes under the auctioneer's hammer in Canada on Sunday.

The album, which was previously-unknown, belonged to one of Governor Lachlan Macquarie's senior officers, Captain James Wallis, and was unearthed at the back of a cupboard after the death of an elderly Ontario man, who didn't have any descendants.

Now the State Library of NSW has taken the unusual step of flagging its intention to bid at the auction, hoping to ward off private collectors of Australiana, such as the media mogul, Kerry Stokes. Bidding is expected to start at about $1 million.

"We're very keen to get it," Mitchell librarian Richard Neville said. "This remarkable album is without a doubt the most significant pictorial artefact to have been made in colonial NSW during the 1810s."

Captain Wallis was commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement from 1816 to 1818.

He commissioned the library's priceless Macquarie Chest, which he presented to the governor. He also commissioned 12 engravings of Sydney, Newcastle and Hawkesbury views. The copy he gave to Macquarie is also in the library.

But when Captain Wallis returned to London he had another set of the engravings made by a commercial printer for publication.

"This album is that copy," Mr Neville said. "But pasted into it are the original drawings for the [engraving] plates, plus other original drawings which date from exactly the same time as the Macquarie Chest.

"It is a prime piece of Australian visual history. But what makes it even more unusual is that it has original watercolours of Aboriginal people who are named. That is very rare."

Around 30 watercolours have never been seen before, mostly of Awabakal people from the Newcastle area who Wallis met during his time in charge of the penal colony for repeat offenders.

In one letter in the library's collection, Captain Wallis describes his pleasure being in Newcastle on a hunting and fishing trip with a local indigenous leader called Burigon, whose portrait appears for the first time in this album.

The discovery has also cleared up one mystery. The commandant was an amateur artist and the engraving plates claim to be taken from "drawings by Captain James Wallis".

But recent detective work has pointed to the convict artist Joseph Lycett being responsible.

"This album confirms that," Mr Neville said. "Wallis has actually written on the original watercolours, which are apparently as fresh as the day they were painted, 'drawn by a convict'."

Another Lycett illustration in the library's collection shows his signature viewable only under a magnifying glass.

"He knew the gentlemen of the colony weren't beyond stealing credit for his work," Mr Neville said.

Proceeds from Sunday's auction, by Gardner Galleries, London, Ontario, will go to charity.