Sometimes, someone’s own story can give us an insight into the bigger story of a place.  Joseph Fowles, 19th century artist, sailor, racing enthusiast and teacher was one such fellow.

Fowles arrived in Sydney with his wife Emily and infant daughter in 1838, an immigrant onboard the barque Fortune, one of many immigrants arriving in the 1830s.  Sydney at the time was still a convict town, although one that was getting its act together, with wide regular streets, high street shops and some fine buildings.  However it still also had open sewers running through the streets, mud flats around the quay and other rudimentary features.

Still, Fowles was enchanted by the place.  He and his family rented a farm at Hunters Hill, growing fruit and vegetables which he would bring to market in his small sailing skiff.  Fowles was a keen sailor, documenting his little boat in his journal.  

Joseph Fowles in his boat on the way to market

Being an artist, Fowles made some money painting ships in Sydney, engaging with his two passions of art and the sea.  Racehorses were another passion and feature regularly in his work (indeed Fowles opened the first major racing stable at Randwick racecourse in 1861).

Fowles was in love with his new home, and was offended by the ongoing poor reports in the London press about Sydney’s convict past.  In 1848 Fowles set out to remedy this by using his talents to capture in fine architectural detail, the principal streets and buildings of Sydney in a series of etchings. 

Fowles, over months, presented the streets in series of elevations showing both sides of the street.  He said the purpose was to remove the erroneous and discreditable notions current in England, and to represent Sydney as it really is with spacious gas lit streets, sumptuous shops and a thriving population.

The publication was an instant hit in Sydney, with people buying copies of the street they lived in or worked in to send home to relatives in England.  The press puffed up with civic pride, possibly for the first time about their city.

Pitt St in Fowles' 'Sydney in 1848'. His fine details are still referred to by historians and architects.

Fowles’ reputation as a fine artist was secured.  With his book in place, he was soon after to begin a teaching career in drawing that took him through to the end of his life in 1878.  Teaching at private schools, at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts and then as drawing master for the Board of National Education and the Council of Education (forerunners of the NSW Department of Education), Fowles was referred to as the father of drawing in Sydney.  His textbooks that he wrote for his course were adopted by the public school system and used well after his death.

There is much more to say about Joseph Fowles, and normally I would tell you.  But this time I direct you to the Dictionary of Sydney, a large and growing online history of all things Sydney (which we also like to contribute to).

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