Mr JW Lewin, painter and naturalist

Richard Neville


John William Lewin is one of Australia’s most imaginative and engaging – but least known – colonial artists. If anyone knows anything about him – he landed in Sydney in January 1800 – it is the story of his missing the boat which was supposed to bring him to NSW. This mistake was compounded by his wife being on the ship he missed (she left for NSW without him) and by the next ship for the colony, on which he took a passage, being delayed in Ireland for 12 months.

This story defines Australia’s first free professional artist as an incompetent who bumbled his way through colonial life, not only missing the boat, but also losing a whole print-run of his second book, Birds of New Holland, which was published in London in 1808 but somehow never made it to Australia.

But, in fact, Lewin, who died in Sydney in August 1819 in a new large two-storey house of eight rooms on two acres near the southern end of Hyde Park, could have looked back at his colonial career with some satisfaction. He would have appreciated, as a working-class artisan from London, that his tombstone referred to him as JW Lewin Esquire, elevating him to the rank of a gentleman.

Had Lewin remained in London, working in his profession as a natural history illustrator, it is unlikely that he would have achieved any distinction or social success, being a very small fish in a very large pond. In Sydney he was the only natural history illustrator in town, one of its few professional artists, and his paintings decorated the walls of Government House.

But the most interesting thing about Lewin is his art. He came to NSW with the intention of publishing illustrated books about its natural history. It was important, he rightfully felt, to work from specimens captured in the colony, rather than working from the often poorly preserved skins and inadequate notes which made it to Europe.

When he arrived in NSW he was steeped in the traditions of conventional English natural history illustration, which focused on a specimen isolated without context on a page. Initially Lewin struggled to find specimens, telling a patron that everything in colonial natural history was contrary to ‘our known knowledge in England’. But once he overcame this challenge, his illustrations suddenly evolved into exquisitely observed, strikingly composed and dynamic images, completely unlike anything he had done before, or indeed was being made by his contemporaries in Europe. His work puts paid to the notion that colonial artists could not properly see gum trees until the Heidelberg school of the 1890s!

It is as if confronting and mastering NSW natural history suddenly ignited some completely unexpected spark of creativity. His images of Australia’s birds, insects, plants and animals are wonderful and surprisingly modern. He locates his subjects in their actual environment, which was then an innovation to be developed by later naturalists like John James Audubon or John Gould. Lewin himself was not a scientist and he could not properly describe his subjects in the language of science. Part of the marvel of his art is that he devised his formula almost in complete isolation from fellow naturalists and artists.

Lewin’s story demonstrates that early colonial history is a lot more than a narrative of brutality and isolation. There is no doubt that colonial life could be harsh and unforgiving, but the other side of it – aspiration, opportunity and social mobility – was equally part of the story. John Lewin’s colonial life exemplifies how quickly and easily Europeans embraced the new country: in 1803 Lewin complained of the contrariness of Australia, by 1812 he described it as one of the finest countries in the world!

Mr JW Lewin, Painter & Naturalist (NewSouth) is the first full-length account of this intriguing artist and individual. The book is published to coincide with an exhibition, Lewin; Wild Art, held at the State Library of NSW, from 5 March to 27 May 2012 and then in the National Library of Australia from 28 July to 28 October 2012.