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Three illustrated publications by officers of the First Fleet

Members of the First Fleet were well aware of the importance of the venture in which they were participating. Europe had been captivated by the discoveries (and dramatic death) of Captain Cook, and there was a fascination with the ‘new’ country about to be colonised. Interest was such that a book was even published on the topic as the fleet set sail. At a time when journal and letter writing was a daily activity, members recorded the events they witnessed, some for purely personal reasons, some for official dispatches, while others saw opportunities for recognition, income, patronage and scientific knowledge. For these reasons, Australia is in the rare position of having written and published records about the establishment of a nation, including a one-sided history of its impact on Indigenous communities.

In 2012 the National Gallery of Victoria was fortunate to acquire three of the four illustrated publications written by officers of the First Fleet. The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay; with an Account of the Establishment of the Colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island was the first formal account of the colony (although Captain Watkin Tench’s unofficial and unillustrated A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay managed to beat Phillip’s to the press). The text about the voyage and establishment of the settlements was compiled in London from reports sent by the Governor and extracts from journals of other naval officers, and was issued in parts between July and late November/early December 1789. This book was shortly followed by Surgeon-General John White’s observations of the settlement and its natural history, Journal of Voyage to new [sic] South Wales: with Sixty-Five Plates of Non descript Animals, Birds, Lizards, Serpents, curious Cones of Trees and other Natural Productions, published in 1790.

Although no official artist had been sent with the fleet, its members clearly recognised the advantages and attraction of visual information. These two books contain the earliest printed images depicting the new colony and its flora and fauna: Phillip’s Voyage contains forty-six plates and seven maps, while White’s Journal has sixty-five plates, as his subtitle records. At the time, ‘non descript’ literally meant not described: creatures not yet known to Europeans. The plates were based on watercolours made by convict and naval artists, or drawn from specimens shot, skinned or otherwise preserved and sent back to England. Although little is known about the source of the illustrations in Phillip’s Voyage, many of the specimens for White’s Journal were drawn by the artist Sarah Stone, in preparation for the etchings, and then displayed in a privately owned London museum to an interested public. Both of these publications were produced in an uncoloured (and therefore cheaper) version as well as in a deluxe version in which the plates were painted by professional colourists. The copies acquired by the NGV are beautifully hand-coloured.

The third publication was produced somewhat later, following the return to England of David Collins, Judge-Advocate and Secretary of the colony (and after whom Collins Street in Melbourne was later named). Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales appeared in two volumes: the first in 1798, based on his eyewitness account, and the second in 1802, based largely on letters provided by the then-Governor John Hunter (who had also written a book). Of particular importance are the long appendices about Indigenous culture and a series of plates depicting initiation and funerary rituals undertaken by Eora men, which Collins and an unnamed artist (possibly convicted forger Thomas Watling) were permitted to watch in 1795. The acquisition of these key publications was generously funded by the Stuart Leslie Foundation and the Joe White Bequest.

Alisa Bunbury, Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (in 2013).