John Lewin and early Australian natural history art

March Balwyn Meeting Report
Invited speaker: Alisa Bunbury, Curator of Prints & Drawings, The National Gallery of Victoria

At our Balwyn meeting in March, Alisa Bunbury presented a talk on John Lewin’s art in the context of the early colonial natural history artists, with illustrations of paintings of the day. These were in part drawn from the Prints and Drawings Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, which make up about one third of the Gallery’s collection. In that collection there are 16 plates from John Lewin’s Natural History of the birds of New South Wales, purchased with the help of the Stuart Leslie Foundation.

It was interesting to note that, by the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1798, Citizen Science had already been invented. People of private means, or sponsored by wealthy collectors, had become amateur naturalists, sending all kinds of Australian plant and animal specimens home to numerous collections in institutions and private homes throughout Europe. With this explosion of knowledge, there was also a need to disseminate the information and that required drawings, paintings and etchings.

In early Australia the artists were either ship’s crew or convicts who made the original illustrations, as well as copies; even re-copying those done by others. The early convict artists are grouped under two names: the Port Jackson Painter and the Sydney Bird Painter. However, styles show there were many painters, with much copying being necessary within and outside Australia in order to satisfy the very wide demand for information. Thus, errors were often perpetrated or introduced, and there is much uncertainty concerning the artist responsible for particular paintings.

The first illustrations of Australian natural history were made by amateur artists during Dampier’s first voyage, although on his second voyage in 1699, he had a skilled artist on board.


Having circumnavigated New Zealand, James Cook sailed to the east coast of Australia in 1770, with Joseph Banks and his entourage of eight, including the artist, Sydney Parkinson, who made 130 sketches, but only one of a bird – the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.

Professional artists working with bird skins included Thomas Watling and the London-based Sarah Stone, who was very talented, but the birds do not look natural, and the appearance was much determined by the way the skin was prepared.

Sarah Stone

John Lewin was born in 1770 and grew up mostly with the natural history of his time. His father William Lewin was a leading ornithological artist, although he had started a fabric industry in the East End of London. He produced a handbook of the birds of Great Britain, between 1789 and 1794 and painted all of the 323 illustrations of the 60 copies, nearly 20,000 watercolours. William was elected to the Linnaean society in 1791. A second edition, using etchings in place of drawings, was started by William and completed by his sons John and Thomas after his death in 1795.

Thus, John was an experience collector and illustrator, was skilled at etching, and had good connections with his father’s natural history friends and publishing contacts. Furthermore, John had already illustrated Australian birds as early as 1798, before he emigrated to Australia. For these reasons, the Colonial Secretary, the Duke of Portland, suggested to Governor Hunter that Lewin’s skills would be useful in the colony and recommended that he receive the usual government rations while in Australia. John was also sponsored by Drew Drury, who had an extensive collection of insects that already included specimens supplied by William Lewin in 1759, in exchange for additions to his collection. Drury supplied the equipment of collecting and storing insects and plates for etching, and 61 pounds ten shillings and sixpence. John also took with him printing inks and a small printing press, the first in the Colony. Alisa told us, however, that he actually missed the ship, and his wife sailed without him and had to cope for herself for 10 months until he arrived on the next ship in 1800. By the time of Lewin’s arrival, Sydney was 12 years old and comprised about 5000 residents of which 4000 were convicts.

Alisa’s slides clearly showed that Lewin brought a new level of sophistication to the art, for he was the only professional artist employed in the Colony. Initially, his paintings were classically of birds on a branch against a blank background, but with a fresh realism some 30 years before Audubon. This was because he was now making illustrations by direct observation of living birds (below right), instead of the skins he saw in England (below left).


He specialised in the smaller birds, rather than the spectacular parrots and cockatoos and was elected an associate member of the Linnean Society. Thereafter he always appended the initials ALS to his name. His skill at painting birds was only matched by Bower but John’s prints were the first to be produced in the Colony.

John planned to produce all the prints of his first book on insects himself but ended up sending the plates to London to be printed there and combined with text written by Thomas and entomologists. Unfortunately, Drury died in 1805 and did not see the book. By that time, Lewin was receiving private and government commissions. In 1806, Lewin set out to publish a set of 18 bird prints by subscription. Once again he sent his plates to London for printing in 1808, rather than print them in Australia. However, the shipment of copies for Australian subscribers never arrived, presumably through some disaster. Some copies have survived from the English subscribers and four of these are held in Australia and two in London.

In 1813, Lewin made 13 copies of the 1808 book using a mix of trial prints and reworked plates. If he did not have enough copies of a particular bird, he replicated it in watercolour. Those prints, coloured by John and his wife Maria, show a freshness not seen in the commercial copy. Four copies exist in the New South Wales Library, one is in the National Library of Australia and one in the Natural History Museum in London. The one in the Latrobe Library in Victoria was purchased for five pounds compared with the last sale price of some $500,000.

John Lewin died in 1819, aged 49.

Alisa gave us a fascinating tale of the problems surrounding early colonial art, well illustrated with artworks in Australian and overseas collections. If we wish to see some of the original illustrations, we will have to be vigilant or lucky, for prints and drawings have to be rotated in order to protect them from light and there are many of them. She obviously enjoyed researching the early illustrations of birds, perhaps because she has a few relevant genes. After all, her parents were instrumental in having Yarra Flats declared a park. And she has recently purchased some binoculars!

Contributor: Ron Garrett

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