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An artist's view of Australia in 1802 - the Westall engravings

Corinne Ball's picture

The Migration Museum is currently displaying a booklet of nine engravings by the artist William Westall, who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his 1802 circumnavigation of Australia.  Curator Mich Bolognese tells us more:

Imagine you’re packing for the long, round-the-world trip you’ve been planning for years. Your itinerary (if you’ve even set one) probably includes countries and places you know little about. Maybe you’ve read a National Geographic article on them, or a write-up in your Lonely Planet. Whether you’re a skilled photographer looking to take some ground-breaking new shots, or just hoping to have some pictures to impress your grandkids in years to come, your packing list probably has a camera right near the top. In fact, there are probably many things on your packing list that can take photos: a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a GoPro…

In 1801, Matthew Flinders was busy packing for his third trip to Terra Australis. This time he would circumnavigate the land still commonly known as New Holland, becoming the first person to ever explore the entire coastline of Australia. If you’re keen to take some pictures the first time you go to Machu Picchu or Hao Long Bay, imagine how much Flinders would’ve loved a camera!

But it was right around this time that Thomas Wedgwood, in England, was having the first minor successes in capturing images using silver nitrate. The first known daguerreotypes were still a few decades away. So, with no cameras available to him, Flinders took with him the period’s equivalent: an artist.

In fact, two artists accompanied him on the Investigator. Austrian-born Ferdinand Bauer was an expert in painting flora and fauna, while William Westall was a young but promising landscape artist. Westall sketched parts of the coast throughout the year or so that it took to circumnavigate the continent, and produced nine paintings on his return to England that were included as engravings in Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis, the monumental book describing his journey.

The booklet now on display at the Migration Museum is a collection of the engravings based on Westall’s paintings, published in the same year as Flinders’ book. I like the images because you can really sense in them the wonder with which these early European explorers looked on the land and people of Australia. Looking over Westall’s sketches produced during the voyage, some have suggested, in fact, that he produced such picturesque paintings by incorporating details from several sketches. It might be cheating a little, but it’s hardly different from finding that Instagram filter that makes your holiday snap look as good as it can!

On loan from the South Australian Maritime Museum, HT 2014.601

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