Australia as drawn by convicts

Approximately 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia over an 80-year period from 1788 to 1868. Many brought with them skills and talents which enriched the life and economy of the new colony.

Among them were artists – several of them, unsurprisingly, transported for the crime of forgery. Some convicts were required to use their artistic skills as assigned servants. Others, like John Eyre, could not practise their art until they had received pardons from their sentences. Intriguingly, the convict outpost of Newcastle, north of Sydney – a place of harsh, secondary punishment for reoffenders – saw several convict artists sentenced to hard labour there, including Joseph Lycett, Richard Browne and engraver Walter Preston.

The penal colony of New South Wales was a place of thriving artistic output. Local commissions by the ruling class, military officers and emancipist settlers (freed convicts) were plentiful, illustrating the aspirations of the newly prosperous. Convict artists were commercially motivated, and the direction of their work was shaped by the interests of their clients, who were on the whole hoping for images which drew on the traditions of English provincial art. Ironically it was easier to commission a painting in Sydney than it was in an equivalent English provincial town, where artists tended to be either itinerant or scarce.

Convict artists recorded and interpreted the landscape, the natural history and the people of the fledgling colony. Their work contributes enormously to our understanding of early 19th-century New South Wales and suggests that even in a harsh place of banishment and punishment, artistic endeavours managed to flourish. A few of the most significant of Australia’s convict artists are introduced below.

John Doody

John Doody was one of the earliest artists to document Australian natural history. He was sentenced to transportation for seven years at the Old Bailey, London, in December 1788 for stealing 40 pounds weight of leaden pipe, and arrived in New South Wales on 16 October 1791 on board the Admiral Barrington as part of the Third Fleet. Also on board was Captain William Paterson, who was given command of the military detachment to Norfolk Island. Doody, having been assigned to Paterson as a servant, accompanied him to the colonial outpost in December 1791. They remained there for some 15 months, during which time Doody prepared a set of watercolour drawings depicting plants found on the island. He documented 48 species, all but three being indigenous to the island. Paterson sent Doody’s watercolours, along with seeds and specimens, back to London for Sir Joseph Banks. In a letter to Banks dated 12 December 1794, Paterson wrote:

“The drawings are done by a young man who came out in Barrington [sic] with me, a Convict, he has been my servant ever since & is known I believe to Mr Latham, to whom he has wrote, to any person collecting he might be made very useful; his name is Jno. Doody.”

John Doody left Norfolk Island for the New South Wales mainland on 9 March 1793 on board the Kitty. In 1795, while Acting Administrator of the New South Wales colony, Paterson granted Doody 30 acres of land in an area originally named Doody’s Bay. It is now called Gladesville, a suburb of Sydney. No further record of John Doody can be found in the convict musters from 1800 onwards, nor is there any known record of his death.

John Eyre

Born in Coventry, England, John Eyre was sentenced to seven years’ transportation in 1799 for housebreaking and arrived in Sydney in 1801. After three years in the colony, he received a conditional pardon and began work as an artist. Eyre created naval charts for Governor Bligh and was also employed in more mundane artistic tasks, including painting numbers on the sides of buildings and painting offices.

Eyre is probably best remembered for his drawings and watercolours of topographical views around Sydney. Many of these were used in publications such as Absalom West’s Views in New South Wales and David Mann’s The Present Picture of New South Wales (London, 1811). John Eyre left Sydney in 1812 for Europe. It is not known where or when he died.

Richard Browne

Browne was born in Dublin, sentenced to transportation in 1810 and arrived in Sydney in 1811 on the Providence. Within a few months he reoffended and was removed to the secondary penal colony of Newcastle. In Newcastle, Browne encountered Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe of the 73 (Highland) Regiment of Foot who was Commandant of the Newcastle penal settlement from 1811 to 1814. Skottowe was interested in natural history and commissioned Browne to create drawings of his collections to illustrate a manuscript entitled Select Specimens from Nature of the / Birds Animals &c &c of New South Wales, Collected and Arranged by Thomas Skottowe Esqr. The Drawings By T.R. Browne. N.S.W. Newcastle New South Wales, 1813. Browne’s illustrations of insects are particularly fine.

Like Joseph Lycett, Browne contributed many of the original watercolours for Major James Wallis’ An historical account of the Colony of New South Wales which were engraved by Philip Slaeger (Sligo) and Walter Preston.

After 1817, when he gained his freedom, Browne returned to Sydney. His illustrations from this period concentrate on the Aboriginal people of the region. He remained in Sydney for the remainder of his life.

Richard Read Senior

Originally a Londoner, Richard Read was convicted of forgery and sentenced to transportation for 14 years. He arrived in Sydney in 1813 and was granted a ticket-of-leave (released on parole) eight weeks later. His son, also named Richard, emigrated in 1819. As both were artists, they differentiated themselves with the suffixes Senior and Junior. Read Senior appears to have trained as a miniature painter. He advertised his services in newspapers, describing himself as a portrait painter and historical painter – an important claim for a colonial artist.

In 1814, Read opened one of Australia’s first drawing schools. As well as offering lessons, he sold paintings, drawings and embroidery designs, and undertook commissioned artworks, specialising in portraits and miniatures. Read’s skill as a portraitist earned him the patronage of many of the colony’s notable citizens, including Governor and Mrs Macquarie, the Johnston and Marsden families and Barron Field. He bolstered his reputation by stating that he was taught by the British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Read continued his artistic career until the late 1820s. He may have left the colony at the end of his sentence. There is no record of his death, but it probably occurred in about 1829.

Joseph Lycett

Born in Staffordshire in around 1774, Lycett’s early life remains an enigma. Evidence of employment as an apprentice engraver or as a working artist is lacking, however he may have been employed in a Staffordshire pottery, possibly as a painter of china. In 1811, at the age of 36, he was convicted of forgery and sentenced to transportation for a term of 14 years. On arriving in Sydney, he was described in the government records as being a professional portrait and miniature painter.

A year after he arrived in Sydney, Lycett was again convicted of forging bank notes. As punishment, he was sent to Newcastle and sentenced to hard labour. Lycett’s prospects improved however when a new commandant was appointed to the post; Captain James Wallis of the 46th (South Devonshire) Regiment. Wallis was an amateur artist who was interested in documenting the colony and the Australian landscape. It was under Wallis’ patronage that Lycett commenced work as a legitimate artist, producing landscapes, natural history drawings, and depictions of the traditional owners of the land, the Awabakal people.

In 2011, the State Library of New South Wales acquired a unique grangerised (decorated with inserted material) volume of James Wallis’ 1821 publication, An Historical account of the colony of New South Wales. It includes original drawings, watercolours, and collages by both Wallis and Lycett including views, portraits of Aboriginal people, botanical and natural history illustrations. Five of the views bear the inscription ‘Drawn by a Convict’, clearly establishing Lycett as the artist. It seems that, being a convict, he could not sign his name to his works, although in at least one of them, Sydney from Surry Hills, he managed to print in barely legible, tiny block letters, his name at lower left, `Lycett’, among the tree roots.

Elise Edmonds is a senior curator at the State Library of New South Wales. With a background in Australian history and Museum Studies, Elise has worked with the Library’s maps, pictures and manuscript collections; acquiring, writing and promoting these to a variety of audiences. Browse the watercolour paintings from the library’s collection here.