Australian Colonial Painting
Origins, History, Characteristics of Art in the Colony of Australia.

Pin it

Australian Landscape with Cattle (1835)
National Library of Australia.
Oil on canvas, by John Glover.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

Australian Colonial Painting (c.1780-1880)
History, Characteristics, Painters


What is Australian Colonial Painting?
Australian Society and Culture
Migrants to Australia
Urban Culture After the Gold Rush
Colonial Painting in Tasmania
Colonial Painting in New South Wales
Colonial Painting in Victoria
Colonial Artworks
Famous Australian Colonial Painters

Art in Australia Series
Aboriginal Art (c.50,000 BCE onwards)
Australian Colonial Painting (c.1780-1880)
Australian Impressionism (c.1886-1900)
Australian Modern Painting (c.1900-60)

Nuggetting (1852)
National Gallery of Australia.
Lithograph of drawing by S.T.Gill.
One of many sketches of the gold
diggings and diggers of Victoria.

What is Australian Colonial Painting?

"Colonial" in Australia in the popular sense means the period from the foundation of New South Wales in 1788 to about 1880. The Colonies remained such in name until 1901 when they became States in the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia. But in spirit the colonial era had then been over some 20 years or more and a native Australianism was replacing the plantations of European culture which the pioneers and their immediate successors had brought to the Great South Land. In any event, Australian Colonial art was created either by British immigrant artists, or by their sons and daughters, most of whom used French Painting, or English Landscape Painting as the basis for their own works. Watercolours were more common, if only because oils required more resources, but as one might expect, Australia had few art collectors, and commercial opportunities for visual artists, outside education, were almost non-existent. Sadly, despite the traditions of Australian Aboriginal art, 19th century colonial artists had no contact with the indigenous art of the Aborigines, either on the seaboard, or in the interior. In comparison, although American Colonial Art (c.1670-1800) had equally little contact with American Indian art, it flourished much more rapidly than its Antipodean counterpart, due to the enormous prosperity of the New World.

Portrait of Martha Sarah Butler (1845)
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.
Watercolour, gouache, pencil on paper.
By Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.

Society and Culture in Australia

Shaped by a hostile physical environment, the social and cultural atmosphere in late-18th and 19th century Australia was bleak. In general, neither painting nor sculpture was seen as important or even relevant. Australia was founded for a variety of motives. One of them was to forestall the French and another was to get rid of a surplus of felons who could no longer be exported to North America. The earliest settlements, therefore, were convict settlements, at Sydney in New South Wales and at Hobart in Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was first known, both ports destined to become famous in maritime history. So first came the convicts and those who ruled them in what was in the beginning a tight military dictatorship. From the earliest years, however, there were free settlers who came in increasing numbers with post-Napoleonic depression at home and the inducement of an often reluctant relaxation of official sanctions on settlement and commerce in Australia.

In the old Colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania there grew up microcosms of an English Georgian society with soldiers and squires, Anglican parsons and merchants as the dominant class; radical newspaper publishers, often at odds with the Establishment, as the representatives of an emergent order; and, at the bottom, the convicts who, if they survived to freedom, found their place in a society certainly not less favourable than that which was coming into being in their homelands.

Thus while the Industrial Revolution proceeded to change the face of England there developed in Australia plantations of England which maintained the characteristics already under threat in the society which had given them birth. A modified Georgian architecture persisted in these outposts long after the Georgian era had ended and although these enclaves have been overwhelmed, some of the harshness and sardonic attitudes of Australian life may reasonably be deemed to derive directly from a Georgian England unmodified by the middle-class mores of the Victorian period in Britain.

Migrants to Australia

To us today to whom, even now, a journey from England to Australia seems formidable, though it is fast and without hazard, it is strange that so many people in the early 19th century were not only willing but eager to make the voyage of 12,000 miles from Britain to Australia, to an unknown land which they would probably never leave and whose perils and satisfactions alike they could only guess at. Yet thousands did.

Many perished on then uncharted coasts. But those who reached harbour set to work to create an image of their homelands. Most were poor, younger sons of yeomen and the like, and had little beyond energy and hope; some, surprisingly, were quite affluent and willing to chance all. Convict labour made possible the public works - the administrative buildings, the roads, hospitals and of course gaols and provided "assigned" service on the farms. The Colonists raised Government buildings and houses in the Georgian manner, planted oaks and elms and willows and hedges of hawthorn and briar, surrounded their houses with fruits and flowers. The world went very well for many of them.

By process of migration within Australia and from abroad other colonies such as Victoria and South Australia came into being which had never known the convict system. (Transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1840 and ceased in Tasmania in 1853.)

Urban Culture After the Gold Rush

But there were to be other profound modifications. The great gold discoveries, firstly in New South Wales but more importantly in Victoria in the 1850's, following hard upon those in California in '49, brought vast tides of migration to Australia, transformed the economy of Victoria in particular and raised Melbourne from pastoral hamlet to the beginnings of the world city which it has become.

The settlers who remained when the impetus of the Gold Rush had spent itself were of a different kind from their predecessors. They came from Victorian, not Georgian, Britain. In the Colony of Victoria, Nonconformity and Commerce became what Anglicanism, the Services and the Professions had been to the older Colonies. In time this influence spread to the other settlements. Today, although certain characteristics are still to be found which seem to belong peculiarly to New South Wales and Tasmania, a general Australian amalgam has been achieved and those who cherish the Georgian legacy are put to as much pains to preserve it as are their equivalents in the British homeland.

All this, then, may be read in the art of the Australian Colonial period. We have first the work of the amateurs who practised sketching and watercolour painting as accomplishments proper to men of taste, and of convict craftsmen, as we might call them today with our careful distinctions between fine and useful or commercial arts. And we have, secondly, with the Gold Rush and the emergence of an urban culture, the recorders of popular life or the town scene, sometimes, like S. T. Gill, with a certain earthy carryover of toughness from the time of Rowlandson. These artists have one thing in common - they are all "colonial" in the sense that they came as colonists from the homeland, whether voluntarily or otherwise, and they brought, as we might say, a "packaged" culture with them, modified sometimes by the new environment but sometimes not at all. After them, with an odd transitional figure or two, came the native born and a new story.

Colonial Painting in Tasmania

To go back to the first comers, the most interesting in many ways is John Glover (1767-1849). Glover was a successful English artist and teacher of landscape painting. At the age of 63 when, according to some stories, he had accumulated as much as £60,000, he migrated to Van Diemen's Land. It seems to us a curious thing to do; but, after all, there was a depression at home and it must be realised that life in the Tasmanian countryside was very little different from life in the English countryside, for this lush green island when planted with English trees becomes in almost every way a replica of "home", and "home" was to be, for many decades, a recurrent word in Australian conversation. At any rate Glover set himself up as a country gentleman and as a painter with a town house. He was a sympathetic and conscientious painter, becoming one of the best landscape artists in nineteenth century Australia. Unlike some visitors to the southern hemisphere to whom all aboriginal peoples looked like Europeans darkened with burnt cork and all trees were European trees, Glover realised that Australian eucalyptus trees, in particular, were fundamentally different from English trees. Necessarily he did not have the peculiar vision of the later coming Australian Impressionists - he would have had to be out of his time to do so, as well as out of his very English island.

Now it seems a kind of Arcadian period, despite its darker under-side. Glover apparently had no regrets in having left the world of Claude Lorrain whom he so greatly admired. It is pleasant to think that he was so successful in making his accommodation to his new world, in recreating the things he loved, and that he lived out his days in peaceful fulfilment.

No doubt Glover's influence was considerable. Among the talented amateurs of his circle were such watercolourists of charm as F. G. Simpkinson, or Simpkinson de Wesselow as he called himself, a nephew of Lady Franklin, wife of the Arctic explorer, then Governor of Tasmania. De Wesselow was a naval man and a friend of various artists, including JMW Turner; so more things than wheat and adzes, millstones and ploughshares, had been taken to Van Diemen's Land. In this still-Georgian society with its ringleted misses at their sketching and their music, its balls to the music of the regimental bands, there was much that was agreeable to the privileged; and much that was no doubt compensation to those who had emerged from the fetters of convictism. Of these latter many prospered materially; the artists and craftsmen among them were less fortunate than the rest and many perished in a taproom obscurity (as did others later who were not convicts.)

Most romantic interest attaches to Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847), the forger and supposed poisoner, friend of Charles Lamb and others. Wainewright's pencil drawings of the daughters of Van Diemen's Land society have charm and the years have conferred upon them the sentimental appeal of times past. They suggest Jane Austen and an order to which some of us, at least, are apt to look with nostalgic regret (always assuming that we should have been in the position of the Papas who commissioned the portraits and not of Wainewright, a talented neurotic who ended a miserable life in further misery.) Long afterwards Wainewright had the attention of Oscar Wilde in "Pen, Pencil and Poison".

Colonial Painting in New South Wales

New South Wales had likewise its convict painters, among the best known of them Thomas Watling - another forger - who arrived in Sydney soon after its foundation and who, in 1794, painted the first known oil painting of the settlement. A Romantic from the Border country, he was disappointed in the qualities of Australian landscape and said so very fluently in his letters home.

The romantic tendencies incipient in Watling find full expression in Conrad Martens (1801-1878), an Englishman of German descent who had studied under Copley Fielding. After a scientific expedition with Charles Darwin he arrived in Sydney in 1835. Martens, the most considerable artist of his time, painted mostly in watercolour. Like many people he was in love with Sydney Harbour in all its moods and to it he returned between the bread-and-butter commissions for his patrons. In a long and useful life he made a worthy advance in the interpretation of his country.

Colonial Painting in Victoria

Leaving New South Wales and Tasmania for Victoria we come to a group of painters, Gill, Rowe, Roper, Tulloch and Burn, who have nothing to do with the old ascendancy. These are the painters of the emergent democracy of Victoria and although some - like Gill - were in Australia before the Gold Rush and some painted after it - like Burn - the Gold Rush is the keystone of their world.

More than a hundred years have gone since the gold seekers swarmed over the countryside but the story is still vivid. So great was the wealth won by the luckiest of the diggers in a world already fascinated by the Californian discoveries that people seeking their fortune poured into Victoria from all parts of Europe, from North America and from China. The ships which lay in hundreds in Port Phillip Bay were deserted by crews making for the goldfields; the price of goods sky-rocketed; Melbourne was almost depopulated as its inhabitants, by wagon or on foot, struggled to the diggings. Californians with Spanish sashes and the flat-crowned hats of Mexico, pigtailed Chinese, bearded New Englanders, London clerks, Scottish shepherds, Italian revolutionaries, French vignerons, Irishmen, Germans, Austrians, Chartists and radicals, poets and painters, all milled around in this turbulent society of fantastic flux.

S. T. Gill (1818-1880), who had come to South Australia in 1839 and who had done some pleasant topographical gouache drawings, was caught up in it. He was, in a real sense, the artist of the goldfields. His sketches of rude and active life, circulated widely thanks to lithography, are among the few examples of Australian colonial genre painting. As rendered, they are often crude but they have a hearty vigour in surprising contrast to the genteel values of his early sketches. Gill, no doubt, got some fun out of it but he got little else except a posthumous fame. A society interested in the quest for the Big Nugget and in the later development of the quartz mines was not concerned about a pathetic old man who had outlived his day.

Gill, sitting on the Melbourne Post Office steps as a boozy old wreck, is at the opposite end of the scale from Glover sitting among his roses and his hollyhocks meditating on Nicolas Poussin or watching his harvest home. Both are authentic parts of the colonial story.

Although there were no others with Gill's zest for the rough-and-tumble of the times - or at least none able to express it - there were other artists able to take a picture, as they would have said, and make some admirable records of the time. They are for the most part obscure; in such times painters and writers appeared and disappeared, often leaving no trace except some solitary work which chances to survive. They are modestly referred to by initials.

Such were J. Roper and G. Rowe. As for E. Tulloch, few details are known of him, which is a pity, for he anticipated in some ways the work of those who were to carry the techniques of Australian painting a stage further. In the Swiss painter Louis Buvelot we have a transitional figure; aspects of the Australian scene not before perceived begin to emerge.



Colonial Artworks

The professional artists of the Colonial period, unless they were men of means like Glover, were generally unfortunate. There was no art-buying public as such. Wealthy people bought portrait paintings of their daughters or their homesteads from sentiment or to flatter their vanity or perhaps, acquired them to settle a taproom score. Hence in part the generally gloomy pattern of the artists' lives. They sang for their supper and it was usually inadequate.

Australia is now old enough for these early works to have attained popularity not only among those who are interested in the story of painting but among those who are interested in the story of Australians. Early Australiana, like the corresponding Americana, has become a fashion and the primitives as well as the works of the accomplished have graduated from the tavern wall to the saleroom.

It is possible now to see in such works as these more than historical, or technical or romantic interest. Together with those which come after them they represent not only the changes in the Australian way of living but the changes in Australians' vision of the land which they inhabit. As such they are to Australians precious for, even in a country with so short a history of settlement, much has already gone beyond recall and the rate of change constantly accelerates. Such pictures are to be seen not only as works of art, or craft, but as chapters in a story which began at Sydney Cove on 28th January 1788, when Captain Phillip read to the people of the "First Fleet" his commission establishing British sovereignty over the whole of the eastern part of the Australian continent and Van Diemen's Land.

For the next phase of art in Australia, see: Australian Impressionism (c.1886-1900), also known as the Heidelberg School. After this, see: Australian Modern Painting (c.1900-60).

Best Known Australian Colonial Painters

George French Angas (1822-86)
Born at Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Eldest son of George Fife Angas, who, next to Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was the foremost of the founders of South Australia. Took sketching lessons from Waterhouse Hawkins in London. Arrived in Adelaide 1844. Travelled extensively in South Australia, making water-colour sketches for "South Australia Illustrated", which he published in 1847. Also published "A Ramble in Malta and Sicily", "The New Zealanders Illustrated", "Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand", "The Kaffirs Illustrated" and a set of six views of the Ophir goldfields and illustrated other works. Secretary of the Australian Museum, Sydney, 1853-59. Returned to London two years later.

Abram Louis Buvelot (1814-88)
Born in Switzerland. Studied at Lausanne Academy and at Berne and Paris. At the age of 21 went to Brazil to work on his uncle's plantation and continued to paint in his spare time. Settled in Rio de Janeiro in 1839. There the Emperor, Dom Pedro II, became interested in his work and conferred upon him the Order of the Rose. After eighteen years in Brazil he returned to Switzerland. Emigrated to Melbourne in 1865 and remained there until his death. Within a few years several of his landscapes were purchased by the Melbourne Gallery. Buvelot was one of the first important artists to arrive in Australia and the first to express in paint something of the strange beauty of the Australian landscape. His work was an inspiration to the next generation of Melbourne painters, like Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Walter Withers (1854-1914), Charles Conder (1868-1909) and Fred McCubbin (1855-1917).

Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-80)
Born at Parrington, Somerset. Educated at the Naval and Military School at Plymouth, of which his father was headmaster, and at Dr. Seabrook's Academy. Entered upon his career as an artist in London. Came to South Australia in 1839 and set up in Adelaide as a painter of portraits, animals, local scenery and residences. In 1846 accompanied Horrocks's exploration party to the interior. In 1851 joined the gold rush to Ballarat and Bendigo. Died in Melbourne. His work has great documentary value and his output, particularly in water-colour, was prodigious.

John Glover (1767-1849)
Born at Houghton-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. Practically self-taught as an artist. While employed as a writing master at the Free School at Appleby, he devoted his spare time to the study of drawing and painting. Began his professional career as artist and art teacher at Lichfield in 1805, proceeding later to London, where he became a fashionable drawing master. Exhibited in London and Paris. President, British Water-Colour Society, 1815. A founder of the Society of British Artists. Emigrated to Australia in 1831 with his family, settling at Patterdale near Launceston, Tasmania, where he remained until his death.

Colonel William Light (1786-1839)
The founder of Adelaide. Son of an English merchant captain, he served with distinction both in the Navy and Army and was also an engineer, surveyor, musician, artist, linguist and author. Had an adventurous career in Europe, including service in the Peninsular War, before coming to South Australia in 1836 as Surveyor-General. His selection of the site and plans for the layout of the city of Adelaide aroused great opposition at the time, but have been fully vindicated by history. He resigned his position in 1838.

Conrad Martens (1801-78
Born in London, son of a German merchant, who had settled there. Studied under Copley Fielding and travelled in many countries before arriving in Sydney in 1835 as official artist accompanying Charles Darwin in H.M.S. "Beagle". Finally settled in Sydney as a professional artist and teacher. Worked principally in water-colour.

George Rowe (1797-1864)
Born at Dartmouth, England. Published many lithographic views of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. Came to Australia in 1857 and remained for three years. Five of his large Australian watercolours were awarded a medal at the London Exhibition, 1862. Died at Exeter.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1796-1847)
Born in London, where he moved in literary and artistic circles and knew Charles Lamb, Dr. Burney, Sir David Wilkie and other writers and artists of the day. Wrote for Blackwood's Magazine and exhibited at the Royal Academy 1821-25. Unable to live within his means, he resorted to forgery. He was also suspected of poisoning three of his relatives, but was never charged with these crimes. Convicted of forgery in 1837, he was transported to Tasmania. There he was in demand for his portrait art, working under the eye of an armed guard. He died at the age of 53 after being in poor health for several years.

Thomas Watling (1762-1812)
A convict, who arrived in Sydney in 1791. Probably made sketches for Collins's "Account of the English Colony in New South Wales", which were redrawn in London by Edward Dayes and W. Alexander. Also made paintings of natural objects for John White, some of which are now in the British Museum. The earliest known painting of Sydney Cove is the one by Watling included in this exhibition. He appears to have practised miniature painting in Calcutta from 1801 to 1803, but no further biographical details are available.

Frances Guillemard Simkinson de Wesselow (1819-1906)
Son of Sir John Simpkinson, he was named Frances Guillemard Simpkinson, but at the age of 50 assumed the name of de Wesselow after his great-grandfather, who was Ambassador of Peter the Great at the Court of Vienna. A nephew of Sir John Franklin, a Governor of Tasmania, he joined the Navy and sailed with Franklin in his earlier commands and with Admiral Belcher in his voyage round the world in the "Blossom" and was one of Humboldt's lieutenants, of whom two were appointed by each nation to take synchronous pendulum observations in various parts of the world. He was sent to Van Diemen's Land. In the 1840's was naval officer in charge of the Hobart Observatory. Lived in Hobart from 1844 to 1849. A friend of Prout and Turner. In his later years he lived at Cannes, but died in England.

Paintings by Australian colonial artists can be seen in almost every one of the best art museums in Australia, including: the Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide), Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney), National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), Art Gallery of Western Australia (Perth), Commonwealth Collection, Canberra, Royal Society of Tasmania, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane.

Modern Artists in Australia
For the most famous modernists, see: Russell Drysdale (1912-81) and Sidney Nolan (1917-92).

• For the chronology of Colonial painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about 19th century painting in Australia, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.