On 11 January 1800, the arrival of the convict ship Minerva can be now seen as a milestone in the creative and cultural history of Sydney. On board that ship, amongst the convict cargo, was the first free, professional artist to emigrate to Sydney-John William Lewin.
Lewin, a naturalist, collector, printmaker and publisher was drawn to Sydney by the promise of new and exciting natural discoveries and subjects to collect and paint. The natural history illustrating business was a lucrative trade in England, and the new colony provided a rich, untapped source for the right person.
While we now recognise Lewin’s talents, his arrival in Sydney was less auspicious. He missed the boat-literally. He was supposed to come aboard the ship Buffalo with his wife Maria, but as it was readying to sail, he had to return to London to retrieve something, leaving Maria onboard. The wind sprung up and the ship left without him. Maria arrived alone in the colony a full 12 months before her husband. I can’t imagine she was too impressed, especially as her virtue was questioned during the voyage. She sued over that and won.
Once arrived, and reconciled, Lewin embarked on a remarkable career.
His paintings presented the wildlife of NSW to the world in a new and exciting format. Lewin was struck by wonder at the exotic birds, plants, animals and people of the colonial world and was included a number of early explorations, such as to the Hunter River in 1801, as an official artist. Lewin also travelled to Tahiti later in 1801, where he was caught in a brutal civil war; the experience convinced him that his travelling days were over.
Lewin transformed the way his subjects were viewed by the simple technique of painting them in the context of the environment they came from.
It sounds so obvious now, but at the time most natural history works had the subject removed from their place, with either a generic landscape behind or none at all.
The bird or animal were mostly drawn from dead specimens, sometimes only a disembodied skin, and while Lewin also did this, he included the environment where he collected them in the work. The result was a spectacular leap in nineteenth century artistic technique.
His speciality was birds.
Painting many of them perched delicately on a frond or branch of a native NSW plant, Lewin’s paintings resemble wildlife photographs more than the traditional paintings of the time. Some look like he has simply captured a fleeting moment as a small honeyeater has flitted in, or a wren has bounced out of the undergrowth for a quick bite to eat.
In 1808 he advertised his new publication Birds of New Holland would soon arrive from the printers in London. The books never arrived, a mystery still as to what happened and only 6 survive. Undeterred, Lewin published his own local version, Birds of New South Wales, which was the first illustrated book published in the country.
With the arrival of Governor Macquarie in 1810, Lewin’s life took a curious turn. He was appointed coroner, a position he appears to have had few qualifications for, but one he took seriously and pursued with vigor. He did not give up his paintings however, or his exploring. In 1814, Lewin accompanied Macquarie on his first trip over the Blue Mountains. Lewin painting the grand, sweeping views, the treacherous new road, the camps in the bush and the extensive, fertile grassy plains they reached on the other side.
In August 1819, after a severe illness, Lewin died in Sydney. His wife, Maria, sold up lEwins materials, packed up and returned to England, where she kept his legacy alive through the sales of copies and prints of his work.
Lewin’s body of work now included birds, plants and animals, Aboriginal portraits, landscapes, commissioned works of country estates and public buildings. Much of his collection is currently on show, for free, at the Galleries of the Mitchell Library. Seen together, they provide one of the most vivid visual representations of the early colony as well as capturing many birds and animals no longer common, or even seen, in the Sydney region.