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Augustus serendipitous

by Joanna Gilmour, 24 March 2016

Waterfall in Australia, c. 1830 by Augustus Earle
Waterfall in Australia, c. 1830 by Augustus Earle

In the days before Christmas 1828, a number of London newspapers published reviews of the spectacle then on offer from the panorama proprietor and painter, Robert Burford, at his premises on Leicester Square. ‘Mr Burford, whose pencil has so frequently delighted us with interesting excerpta from the regions of landscape’, and who ‘transports us to Nature’s choicest scenes whenever we wish to please our senses, or to satisfy our curiosity, has just produced a panoramic view of Sydney, the capital of New South Wales’, stated the Times on 20 December. ‘At first sight we were struck with the great beauty of the place’, it continued, and ‘if Mr Burford have not indulged his fancy in the execution of his present work, and heightened the beauty of the scene, one of the finest spots in the universe is appropriated, by a strange inconsistency, to the reception of the very dregs of society’.

Similarly, the Examiner wondered whether Burford’s delightful panorama might ‘cause such a yearning after a residence in that attractive spot, that a transportable offence would become as common as lying, and Hicks’s Hall and the Old Bailey be looked upon merely as rude passages leading to an earthly paradise’. The Morning Chronicle, meanwhile, enthused over Burford’s ‘genius, and his industry, for enabling us of the North to have a real idea of what exists among our brethren of the South’, while another paper declared that the panorama of Sydney ‘will add greatly to Mr Burford’s high and justly earned reputation’, and that it ‘surpasses in interest any we have yet seen’.

Presented in a purpose-built, three storey high circular building designed to the specifications of Henry Aston Barker, the inventor of the panorama, Burford’s view of Sydney had the added thrill of intense veracity, with viewers entering an immersive installation that created a disconcertingly ‘real’ encounter with the curious English outpost. The idea of a colony designed for the reception of those ‘whose residence in their native land was incompatible with the welfare of society’ had long been something that could intrigue, bemuse or repulse England’s exhibition-going classes, and by 1828 the appetite for news and evidence of the distant dominion and its people was such that it was ideal fodder for panorama painters such as Burford and other artists engaged on the boundary of popular culture and fine art. Indeed, the colonisation and consolidation of New South Wales coincided with the emergence of panoramas as a popular form of entertainment, or what the historian Richard Altick has since defined as ‘rational amusement’, whereby showmen or commercially-inclined artisans might turn the material culture of discovery, exploration and empire-building into a sensational yet educational attraction. In light of this, what is perhaps most interesting about this particular panorama was that it was produced by Burford from drawings made in Sydney in February 1827 by the intrepid and intriguing painter and traveller, Augustus Earle, whose work concurrently inhabited the spheres of art, information and entertainment. As art historian Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones and others have explained, Earle’s work was characterised by a winning combination of empiricism and reportage with Romantic, Picturesque and comic traditions. His travels, furthermore – in the Americas, the Pacific, Asia, the Mediterranean and various other places – were conducted for personal, opportunity-and-adventure-seeking reasons, leaving his documentation of the sights and peoples he came across unconstrained by the precise, record-keeping requirements of the state, or the predilections and instructions of a wealthy patron. 

The London-born son of an American painter, Augustus Earle (1793–1838) ended up in Australia by accident in January 1825. Earle had spent much of the preceding year stranded on Tristan da Cunha, a remote volcanic island in the south Atlantic with an adult population of eight, his ordeal coming about at the end of a four year period during which he had travelled and worked in New York, Philadelphia, Brazil, Chile and Peru. Against advice, Earle boarded a ship called the Duke of Gloucester in Rio de Janeiro in February 1824, thinking it would eventually get him to Calcutta. When the vessel anchored off Tristan da Cunha, Earle seized the chance to explore the island, going ashore with his dog and a shipmate only to be left behind when the Duke of Gloucester inexplicably sailed without them.

‘Thus I suddenly found myself placed in a situation the most singular and distressing’, Earle wrote in a letter published in the Hobart Town Gazette in February 1825. ‘Eight dreary months did I endure on this dismal and sequestered spot, in a state of anxiety and expectation indescribable.’ During this period, Earle fulfilled the role of chaplain and of tutor to the children of the island’s pipe-smoking ‘governor’, and, given his ‘most vexatious and miserable’ situation, sought also to keep himself sane by venturing around the hitherto un-depicted island, producing a number of landscape views and representations of daily life before his art materials ran out. His output included a self-portrait titled Solitude, watching the horizon at sunset, in the hopes of seeing a vessel, Tristan d’Acunha, showing Earle and his dog, Jemmy, looking dejectedly out to sea, and we see him again in Governor Glass and companions, Tristan d’Acunha, an interior scene recording the exceedingly limited society he quitted with relief when the Admiral Cockburn, blessedly en route to Van Diemen’s Land, called at the island and ‘released me from my melancholy confinement’.  

Portrait of Bungaree, a native of New South Wales c. 1826 by Augustus Earle

Having arrived in the considerably more varied and convivial Hobart Town, Earle stayed long enough to complete a number of works – including drawings of Hobart that became another Burford exhibit in 1831 – before leaving for Sydney in May 1825. Enterprising, astute and adaptable, Earle evidently saw the potential of colonial society and subject matter: by late 1826, he had opened an art supply store and gallery on George Street; completed a portrait of the governor, Thomas Brisbane, along with those of other colonists; staged a well-received exhibition of his work; and partaken of journeys west to the Blue Mountains, Bathurst and the Wellington Valley, and north to Port Macquarie, Port Stephens and the Hunter. Earle had also come into possession of the lithographic press which had been brought to the colony at Governor Brisbane’s instigation, using it to produce a series of views of Sydney, along with a lithograph of his painting, Bungaree, a native of New South Wales; this demonstrated both the suitability to the limited colonial art scene of artists versed in the so-called ‘useful’ and commercial aspects of the profession, as well as Earle’s awareness of the worth of local scenes and depictions of the settlement’s displaced and dispossessed original inhabitants. Earle’s travels inNew South Wales accordingly yielded many representations of Aboriginal people, resulting in an intelligent but occasionally contradictory pictorial record and a telling account of artistic activity in, and associated with, early nineteenth century Australia. 

Based on Earle’s own unflattering generalisations – his comment, for example, that Aboriginal people had ‘neither energy, enterprise or industry’ – it is unsurprising that some of his output conformed to ideas of Aboriginal people as mere specimens, fascinating for their strangeness, novelty, or ‘savagery', and like notions underpinning the commercial viability of peculiarly colonial topics. The watercolour Native of New South Wales, for example, made amidst Earle’s trip west in 1826, shows its unidentified subject from behind, recording the precise details of his cicatrices, dress and implements. Earle portrayed himself alongside his Aboriginal guides in works such as A bivouac, day break on the Illawarra Mountains, a result of a journey to that district in 1827, and the oil painting Waterfall in Australia, wherein we see the artist atop a Blue Mountains precipice and in the act of drawing one of his travelling companions. By the early nineteenth century, the practice of exhibiting first peoples in Europe was well established, and supported by the circulation of affordable, popular printed portraits and the availability of other ways to gawp or marvel at ‘exotic’ others. Earle’s 1828 Sydney panorama, for instance, included another representation of Bungaree along with scenes of ‘several groups of Natives, employed in their exercises and sports’ and ‘there is likewise an idea given of the manner in which the natives climb trees’. The guidebook accompanying the panorama, however, described the Aboriginal inhabitants of New South Wales as ‘a miserable race’ who had ‘become so dependent on the settlers that, without what they earn or beg, they could not exist’, while Bungaree was mocked for being typically ‘clothed in a gold-laced blue coat, with massy epaulettes, buttoned up close, to avoid the necessity of a shirt or waistcoat’. Similarly, in a malign contrast to the fine painting on which the 1826 lithograph was based, a third version of Earle’s portrait of the Aboriginal voyager and leader, printed by Charles Hullmandel in London in 1830, shows a diminished, stereotyped Bungaree, backgrounding him with empty booze bottles and a semi-clad, dishevelled woman sitting in the street.

Desmond, a NS Wales chief painted for a karobbery or native dance c. 1826 by Augustus Earle

However, though English imperial ambitions and taste for ‘curiosities’ had furnished a basis for the production of such works, Earle has been shown by a number of scholars to have utilised his prints and portraits to make his own barbed or insightful observations about the profound and pernicious impact of colonisation. In this light, prints such as the apparently derogatory lithographed Bungaree of 1830, or the various works in which Earle took care to capture the evidence and symbols of dispossession – the government hand-out blankets, the cast-off clothing, the grog, the clay pipes and so on – read as an expression of the artist’s sensitivity to and awareness of the plight of Aboriginal people. The unique and striking 1826 painting of Bungaree, and Desmond, a NS Wales chief painted for a karobbery or native dance (c.1826), for example, are stand-outs in this regard. Desmond, about whom very little is known, is depicted as commanding and proud, standing firmly, even defiantly, in his country, while the painting of Bungaree is now cited by art historians as exemplary of Earle’s skill in the incisive, subversive use of conventions otherwise employed for humorous effect. 

A man of Guringai descent, Bungaree (c.1775–1830) arrived in Sydney from Broken Bay in the 1790s, soon becoming an influential mediator between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. In 1799, he travelled as far north as present-day Brisbane with Matthew Flinders and joined him again in 1802 as a member of the Investigator expedition; in 1817 he joined the voyage led by Phillip Parker King, who considered Bungaree ‘sharp, intelligent’ and ‘of much service to us in our intercourse with the natives’. Governor Lachlan Macquarie also valued Bungaree as an intermediary, setting aside land for him and his people and issuing them with farming equipment and a fishing boat to encourage the adoption of industrious, ‘civilised’ ways. As Mary Eagle, an authority on Earle’s work, has explained, the portrait recreated Bungaree’s often lampooned practice of welcoming newly-arrived ships to his country, showing him in his second-hand military hat and jacket and wearing the gorget or kingplate given to him by Macquarie in 1815, while simultaneously presenting him in the attitude of a landowner and dignified gentleman. Earle, Eagle says, ‘was not shy of making a pithy comment’, his extensive journeying and contact with different places and cultures having ‘broadened his horizons, providing a comparative perspective for cross-cultural reflection’. In her writing on the subject, Eve Buscombe has cited the significance to Earle’s portraiture of his American heritage, intimating that the exemplar of the congenial, itinerant artist provided by men such as his successful New England portraitist uncle, Ralph Earl, served Augustus especially well in the fluid, unconventional or more egalitarian social conditions of the frontier and the colony. 

Similarly, Earle’s depictions of the Maori men and women he met during his eight months in Hokianga and the Bay of Islands in 1827 and 1828 express the artist’s respect for a people and their culture. As historian Anthony Murray-Smith has said, ‘Earle found that although the Maori were warlike, often cruel, and sometimes treacherous, they were brave and chivalrous and also generous, faithful friends. … He praised their busy, enquiring minds, was fascinated by the complexity of their character, impressed by their artistry in carving and by their mastery of the art of warfare’. Earle’s depictions of Maori people and customs, Murray-Smith continues, were consequently ‘infused with human understanding of his fellow men’. The captions accompanying the portraits and group scenes published in 1838 as the folio Sketches illustrative of the native inhabitants and islands of New Zealand correspondingly record the industriousness, good-humour, diplomacy, beauty, affection, or leadership characterising the individuals he befriended and portrayed. Instead, Earle reserved his contempt for the negative influence exerted on Maori culture by the ‘generally low, unpolished men’ of whom the European whaling fraternity was largely composed, and in particular for the ‘unsociable’, corpulent and ill-educated so-called missionaries, who were evidently less concerned with the spiritual work of saving Maori souls than with their own material well-being. ‘In New Zealand, the “mechanic” missionary only carries on his trade till he has every comfort around him – his house finished, his garden fenced, and a strong stockade enclosing all, to keep off the “pagan” savages’, Earle wrote.

The annual meeting of the native tribes at Parramatta, New South Wales, the governor meeting them c. 1826 by Augustus Earle

Earle returned to Sydney in 1828 and in October that year departed for Madras, from where he made his way home to England. Despite now being in a poor state of health, in October 1831 he embarked as the ‘artist supernumerary with victuals' aboard HMS Beagle, which was to make a survey of the South American coast. Illness forced him to leave the ship at Montevideo in August 1832 and make his way back to London. Sketches illustrative of the native inhabitants and islands of New Zealand was his last published work, appearing some months before his death in December 1838. Burford had designed yet another panorama after drawings by Earle – of the Bay of Islands – earlier the same year, and the Royal Academy had exhibited A bivouac of travellers in Australia in a cabbage-tree forest, day break, one of the numerous consequences of the artist’s fruitful if unanticipated sojourn in New South Wales, and his contact with its original custodians.