Scrapbook of landscapes and portraits of Aboriginal people returned to Australia

State Library of NSW 16 February 2012

NSW Arts Minister George Souris will unveil an extraordinary piece of Newcastle's colonial history in a special event at Newcastle Art Gallery on Monday 20 February.

A previously unknown album of drawings from 1818, including landscapes and portraits of Aboriginal people from the Newcastle region, recently purchased by the State Library of NSW, will be displayed at Newcastle Art Gallery from 20 to 26 February.

"This remarkable album is a vital piece of colonial history for Newcastle and Australia, and I commend the State Library of NSW for securing it for the nation after it was discovered in the back of a cupboard in Canada last year," says Minister Souris.

"The album has a strong link to the people of Newcastle and the local Indigenous communities, so it is wonderful that local residents have been given the first opportunity to view it at the Newcastle Art Gallery."

The unveiling of prized Australian treasure

Nola Hawken
Aunty Nola Hawken
Awabakal Elder
at the unveiling

Valuable art returns to Australia

Daily Telegraph 17th October, 2011
A collection of historic Australian paintings discovered at the back of a dusty cupboard on the other side of the world will be returning home.

The album of 35 watercolours and drawings dating from 1818 - said to be a highly significant archive illustrating Australia's colonial past - has been sold to the NSW State Library for almost $A2 million.

It was discovered recently in a cupboard at a deceased estate in Ontario, Canada, and sold at auction to the State Library for $CAD1.8 million ($1.72 million).

"We're absolutely thrilled to be bringing it home to Australia where it belongs," the state library's Richard Neville said in a statement.

The album will be kept in the Mitchell Library collection in Sydney, though it will be several months before it arrives in Australia.

The works were compiled by Captain James Wallis, who served as commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement between June 1816 and December 1818.

Though some of the pieces bear Wallis's name, it is thought most were actually created by convict artist Joseph Lycett, with whom the commandant struck a friendship.

Lycett, from Staffordshire, England, was convicted of forgery and transported to Australia aboard the General Hewitt in 1811.

During a period in Sydney he was convicted again, this time for flooding the streets with fake five shilling coins, and banished to Newcastle in 1815.

The State Library's album contains rare watercolours of the Awabakal people from the Newcastle area, and landscapes from Sydney and regional NSW.

Mr Neville said some of the paintings shed new light on the relationship between white settlers and the indigenous population.

Funds for the purchase came from a library acquisition fund and from benefactors.

A spokesman for the state library said the purchase was not the most expensive it had ever made, but described it as a "major" transaction.

Australian treasure pulled out of the wardrobe and on display 21st February, 2012

It is a $1.8 million "scrapbook" that reveals some of the earliest days of European settlement in Australia.

But until recently the album, compiled almost 200 years ago by commandant of Newcastle Captain James Wallis, was gathering dust in the back of a clothes cupboard in Canada.

Thanks to a winning bid at auction last October by the State Library of New South Wales, the artefact and the two dozen original works of art in it returned to Australia and were displayed for the first time yesterday in Newcastle.

State librarian Alex Byrne said the paintings were "incredibly significant" historically, because of the scenes they depicted and the fact Aborigines were named.
"There is still some research to be done, but it looks like this is what Wallis did in retirement - he made this scrapbook showing the high point in his career," Dr Byrne said.

The scrapbook includes a book Wallis wrote about his time in Newcastle and the artworks pasted in one by one.

The original watercolours "are so bright and vibrant because it has just sat in this cupboard for 100 years," Dr Byrne said.

Wallis, an amateur artist, originally claimed the art as his own work, but recent investigations have revealed they were by convict artist Joseph Lycett.

Dr Byrne said the scrapbook ended up in Canada after being handed down through Wallis's family, some of whom had settled in Canada.

"The last one in the family left all his goods and chattels to charity and they were going through his house and found this in the back of a clothes cupboard," Dr Byrne said.

See also: Captain James Wallis (1785-1858)
An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales (1821)