The earliest known depictions of native Australian flora and fauna – a series of woodcuts illustrating various species of fish, birds and plants – were published in 1703 in an account of William Dampier’s exploratory journey to New Holland four years earlier. James Cook’s voyage of discovery in the Endeavour in 1770 – the first official British voyage to include professional naturalists and artists in the ship’s company – aroused intense interest in the flora and fauna of Australia. The last decades of the eighteenth century witnessed a significant increase in publications on the subject of natural history and in the enthusiastic collection and classification of specimens.
Given the unprecedented level of interest and activity in this area during the period, it is strange that no official naturalists or artists are known to have sailed with the First Fleet. Among the earliest arrivals in Australia were several individuals who had an interest in the exotic flora and fauna of their new home, and who recorded their Observations in written and visual form. In this regard, the drawings of John Hunter, second captain on HMS Sirius, George Raper, midshipman on the Sirius, and an unidentified artist known as ‘the Port Jackson Painter’, are of particular note.
This fine drawing of a boobook owl – the Gallery’s earliest work on paper depicting an Australian subject – was made by another unidentified artist, who is thought also to have produced a number of the natural history watercolours in a volume held in the collection of the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales. Richard Neville, Curator of Pictures Research at the Mitchell Library, has pointed out that the work of at least three different individuals can be discerned in this volume, and that these artists are now collectively referred to as ‘the Sydney Bird Painters’. Although the identities of the artists are unknown, it is possible that they sailed with the First Fleet.
The sophisticated level of draughtsmanship evident in the Gallery’s watercolour suggests that its creator was highly skilled. The owl is depicted at half its actual size, perched on the branch of a bare tree in a sparsely grassed landscape. The bird has been rendered in watercolour and ink over a faint pencil outline and, in the manner of natural history drawings of birds and animals, which were traditionally drawn from life or from reconstructed skins, the physical features of the owl have been delineated in minute detail.
The composition of the drawing is striking in its similarity to that of a smaller watercolour of the same subject in the Natural History Museum, London, a work that is attributed to the Port Jackson Painter and that provided the basis for the original scientific description of the boobook species. The Melbourne drawing is more artistically and technically refined than the London example and, as a consequence, it has been suggested that the Melbourne version, which is clearly not by the same hand, is probably the original from which a copy was later made.
Kirsty Grant, Curator of Prints and Drawings (in 2000)