Our link with 1788: First Fleet art

Louise Anemaat


The sudden emergence of a large, previously unknown collection of New South Wales natural history drawings from the library of a now forgotten botanist has some stories to tell us about the earliest years of the colony in Sydney Cove.

The story of Australia’s early colonial days that we know is one of extremes of hardship, power and punishment. The climate was harsh and unfamiliar, the environment was challenging and unpredictable. There were dire food shortages and rationing, and a crippling sense of isolation, of having been dumped, abandoned and forgotten.

Of course there is truth in this. Life in the colony was without question a difficult, bewildering and alienating experience. But there were also people who found the time and space to observe and to draw what they found – the masses of flowering plants and the many varieties of strange and beautiful birds. Indeed, on 11 February 1788, only two weeks after their arrival at Sydney Cove, surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth recorded in his journal that he had made a good drawing of the grass tree.

In 2011, the State Library of NSW acquired 745 natural history drawings that are closely linked to many of the early colonists, especially Surgeon General John White who arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. Lambert’s collection, now known as the TAL & Da-ichi Life (Earl of Derby) Collection, was formed in the 1840s by wealthy gentleman botanist and collector Aylmer Bourke Lambert, and purchased by the Library from an established aristocratic family in Britain.

When interrogated closely, Lambert’s collection raises questions we hadn’t previously thought to ask about the early years of the convict settlement. It is true that colonists were often fascinated by Australia’s unique natural history, but at the point of settlement – when two distant worlds collided – what was the impact? How did they respond to their new circumstances and surroundings? And how did natural historians in Australia and in Britain communicate and operate?

Lambert’s drawings demonstrate that colonisation was not just the physical and cultural occupation of the land, but the intellectual engagement with it. The drawings from these early years represent ambition and endeavour, making do and making more out of a situation. They are evidence that builds an image of the past, and evidence of a remarkable fusion between two worlds.

Drawings have a great capacity to beguile, seduce and delight across time but perhaps the real power of Lambert’s collection is the direct link to 1788, to the tangible closeness these drawings bring us to an otherwise inaccessible world. In such a small community as Sydney Cove, it is easy to imagine, as Lambert’s collection reveals, that drawings might have circulated and been shared, repeated, honed, refined and copied in much the same way as stories and gossip. They uncover personal connections, and suggest the existence of ‘schools’ of natural history drawing in the colony. They suggest the identity of previously unrecorded First Fleet artists, and reveal unknown associations – such as Governor Arthur Phillip’s acquaintance with the Duchess of Cumberland for whom he named his favourite Australian tree, the Cumberland tree (Smooth spider bush, Clerodendrum floribundum).

Lambert’s drawings exist, in part, as a tribute to humanity’s incessant inquisitiveness about what is beyond our knowledge and comprehension, and the compulsion to try to make sense of it. They signal the enduring nature of human vitality and curiosity, of the need to push boundaries, to explore, and to try to understand the world and our place in it. They are the tools by which knowledge about Australia found its way into books and museums and from there, into European consciousness.

Natural Curiosity: Unseen art of the First Fleet by Louise Anemaat is published by NewSouth. The exhibition Artist Colony: Drawing Sydney’s Nature is at the State Library of NSW until 11 May 2014. Explore the digitised TAL & Dai-ichi Life (Earl of Derby) Collection at the Library’s website here. (Author photo by Joy Lai, State Library of NSW.)