Australia 1770–1861 / Frontier Wars

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square

15 Mar 18 – 15 Jul 18

NGV Australia hosts two complementary exhibitions that explore Australia’s complex colonial past and the art that emerged during and in response to this period. Presented concurrently, the two exhibitions, Colony: Australia 1770–1861 and Colony: Frontier Wars, offer two parallel experiences of the settlement of Australia.

Drawing from public and private collections across the country, Colony: Australia 1770–1861 brings together the most important examples of art and design produced during this period and surveys the key settlements and development of life and culture in the colonies. Importantly, the exhibition acknowledges the impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities.

The exhibition includes a diverse range of media: from Indigenous cultural objects of the period, early watercolours, drawings and illustrated books, prints, paintings, sculpture and photographs to a selection of decorative arts objects, furniture, fashion and textiles, even taxidermy specimens.

This significant exhibition will be of particular interest to Victorian audiences who have rarely seen, or had access to, the remarkable material created in the decades prior to the settlement of Melbourne in 1835.


Colony: Australia 1770–1861

Colony: Australia 1770–1861 explores the period between 1770, when James Cook reached the east coast of Australia, and 1861, when the National Gallery of Victoria was founded. Drawing upon public and private collections throughout Australia, it presents works ranging from maps, drawings and printed books to paintings, decorative art, furniture, photography and vernacular art. The exhibition follows a chronology based on the establishment of the key European settlements of Sydney, Newcastle, Hobart, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, and charts the development of European art and culture in colonial Australia. The exhibition also includes historical cultural objects made in the nineteenth century that show the rich material culture of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, as well as that of First Nations people from New South Wales and Victoria.

Colony: Australia 1770–1861 is one of two complementary exhibitions that explore different perspectives on Australia’s shared history. Colony: Frontier Wars, on display on level 3, explores the impact of colonisation on First Nations people through powerful contemporary and historical works of art. These two exhibitions aim to open a discourse on Australia’s history that acknowledges our difficult past, celebrates the cultural diversity that underpins this country and contributes to the ongoing exploration of our national identity.

Continue the conversation on Australia’s complex past and its impact on First Nations people in Colony: Frontier Wars. Free exhibition now on display on level 3. Aboriginal people have occupied the Australian continent for more than 65,000 years. The arrival and settlement of Europeans, from 1788, affected them profoundly. This proud massing of nineteenth-century shields at the entrance to this exhibition serves as both a reminder of the resilience of Aboriginal people in the face of colonisation, and a representation of the first chapter in Australian art.


Aboriginal people have occupied the Australian continent for more than 65,000 years. The arrival and settlement of Europeans, from 1788, affected them profoundly. This proud massing of nineteenth-century shields at the entrance to this exhibition serves as both a reminder of the resilience of Aboriginal people in the face of colonisation, and a representation of the first chapter in Australian art.

The painted and incised designs on the shields are signifiers of the identities and places of these artists whose names, language groups and precise locations were not recorded by European collectors.

There are two kinds of shields traditional to south-east Australia. The first type is narrow and fashioned from a single piece of hardwood, designed to block the forceful blows of clubs, usually in individual combat, and is called a parrying shield. The second is broad and thin with a convex outer face and concave under-surface, and is fashioned from the outer bark or cambium. It is known as a broad or spear shield. This type of shield deflects sharply barbed spears thrown in general fights and also has a ceremonial purpose. These precious cultural objects are of inestimable value to Aboriginal people today.

European exploration before 1770

The notion that James Cook ‘discovered’ Australia denies the presence of Aboriginal people for 65,000 years and overlooks other European and regional visitors to the Australian coast. The existence of a great southern land, Terra Australis, had long exercised Europeans’ imaginings about the world and began to take a more realistic shape on maps in the early seventeenth century because of maritime exploration. The earliest documented European contact was that of Willem Janszoon and his crew aboard the Dutch ship Duyken, which landed on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula in 1606.

Subsequently, a number of navigators on Dutch and English ships charted the west coast of the continent. Dutch explorer and trader Abel Tasman mapped the west and southern coasts of Van Diemen’s Land in 1642. Two years later, on his second voyage, he reached the north and west coast of Australia, which he named New Holland. The British privateer William Dampier reached the west coast in 1688, and trade between Aboriginal people and the Makassans (from modern-day Indonesia) is documented from around 1720. The Dutch charts of the western coast of Australia were known to the British for more than a century before Cook set sail on his first Pacific voyage.

The voyages of James Cook 1768–79

James Cook’s three Pacific voyages (1768–79) mark a turning point in British ambitions for the South Seas. These Enlightenment enterprises were scientific voyages of discovery that aimed to extend British knowledge and imperial and economic potential. They not only charted the previously little-known Pacific from the Antarctic to the Arctic but also brought back vast collections of natural and ethnographic material that sparked huge public interest and scientific study.

Cook’s First Voyage (1768–71) was of special significance for Australia, as it charted for the first time the mainland’s east coast, from Point Hicks in the south to Torres Strait in the north. Also on the voyage was the wealthy young naturalist, Joseph Banks, and his personal retinue of naturalists and artists who undertook extensive natural history collecting at Botany Bay and Endeavour River while Endeavour was being repaired. Banks was a strong advocate for settlement in Australia, and retained a lifelong, active interest in the colony and its progress.

After his First Voyage, Cook never returned to the Australian mainland, although he spent a brief period at Adventure Bay in Van Diemen’s Land on his Third Voyage in 1777. The importance of visual documentation was acknowledged in these later journeys, with official expedition artists being included as members of the crew.

Transportation to New South Wales

The favourable accounts of New South Wales by James Cook and Joseph Banks were influential in the government’s selection of Botany Bay as the site for a new penal colony. Britain’s loss of the American colonies in 1783 ended convict transportation across the Atlantic and increased the pressure for new solutions to the rising rates of crime and incarceration experienced in late eighteenth-century Britain. The founding of a penal settlement in New South Wales was perceived not only as providing a solution to domestic, social and political problems but also as holding the key to territorial expansion in the South Pacific and the promotion of imperial trade.

The lengthy preparation for the First Fleet raised huge public interest. For most people at that time it was a journey of unimaginable length to a place as remote and unknown as the moon. The eleven ships comprising the First Fleet left Portsmouth in May 1787 with more than 1300 men, women and children on board. Although most were British, there were also African, American and French convicts. After a voyage of eight months the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in January 1788.

Landing and settlement at Sydney Cove 1788

Although Botany Bay had been chosen as the site for the establishment of the new penal colony, within days of arriving in January 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip relocated the First Fleet north to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. Here the ships could be safely anchored and a freshwater stream provided a crucial water supply around which the first rudimentary settlement of tents, huts and the governor’s residence was established. The early years were extremely difficult and the colony faced starvation as the crops failed due to the lack of skilled farmers, unfamiliar climate and poor soil. But as farming pushed into more arable lands during the 1790s, settlement expanded and new townships were laid out, competing for resources with the Aboriginal inhabitants and dispossessing them of their lands.

No official artists accompanied the First Fleet and the colony’s earliest works of art were drawings made by officers trained in draughtsmanship and convicts with artistic skills. These drawings largely comprised ethnographic records of local people, natural history images of flora and fauna, charts and coastal views of the harbour’s topography. By the early years of the nineteenth century views of Sydney emphasised its growth, as urban development symbolised for the colonists the progress of Empire.

Natural history

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the world was being studied and described by Europeans on a scale never seen before. Exploration in the Pacific revealed unanticipated communities and environments and the vast quantities of material brought back – objects, artefacts, specimens, maps, records, descriptions – were regarded with awe and astonishment. Enlightenment ambitions to understand the world through empirical observation led to intense scientific scrutiny, as people sought to comprehend and to classify this exciting, bemusing abundance. In this period, visual imagery became increasingly important, far exceeding a written description and surpassing dried or dead specimens in its ability to depict form, texture, colour, oddity and beauty.

From the time of the British landing in 1770, the people of Britain and Europe were astounded by what they saw in the colony. Captain (later Governor) John Hunter wrote ‘it would require the pencil of an able limner [artist] to give a stranger an idea of [the colourful birds], for it is impossible by words to describe them’. John Lewin was the first professional artist to arrive in New South Wales. Trained in natural history illustration and printmaking, Lewin promptly began drawing and making etchings of local moths and birds perched on Australian plants.

Indigenous Representation

In the early years of settlement there was little contact with the Eora, the Traditional Owners of the area around Sydney Cove, who actively avoided the new arrivals, but as the colony grew, communication, and occasionally friendships, developed. The English had little understanding of the deep relationship between the Eora and their lands, and their careful management of resources, which were soon overstretched by the colonists. Famine and introduced diseases also devastated numerous communities. As the nineteenth century progressed, traditional life along the east coast of Australia was irrevocably changed.

Early images of Aboriginal people reflect the curiosity of the early colonists. Studies of the material culture of Indigenous people, and attempts to record everyday activities ranging from ceremonial gatherings to fishing and hunting, reveal the Europeans’ desire to understand Aboriginal people and culture through ethnographic documentation. Importantly, a number of these portraits include the names of the people depicted – they are not generic representations. The European artists who made these images were fascinated by the appearance of the individuals they encountered, sometimes producing finely detailed drawings and watercolours showing the particulars of hairstyles, ornamentation and scarification.

The Flinders and Baudin expeditions

Between 1801 and 1804, skilled British navigator Matthew Flinders and his crew aboard the Investigator circumnavigated Australia, funded by the Royal Society and its president Sir Joseph Banks. Their directive was to chart the final stretch of southern coastline that remained unknown on European maps, and learn more about the continent’s extraordinary natural history. A similar French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin on the Géographe and the Naturaliste had already commenced (1800–04). Sent by the Marine Ministry and Napoleon Bonaparte, the expedition sought to map and explore the unfamiliar land and its inhabitants; however, the British feared that it was a reconnaissance mission with a view to founding a French base in New Holland or Van Diemen’s Land.

The most dazzling record of both voyages’ scientific achievement was produced by the artists on board. Travelling with Baudin on the Géographe was Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who delineated thousands of animal specimens, and Nicolas-Martin Petit, who represented the Aboriginal people encountered on the voyage. Their drawings were the basis for the engravings published in the official account of the expedition, Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands (1807–11). Aboard the Investigator was the mature natural history artist Ferdinand Bauer and the talented young landscape painter William Westall.

Newcastle 1804

A penal settlement was established in Newcastle in 1804 as a place of secondary punishment for convicts. The area was rich in natural resources, including timber in the hinterland, large deposits of coal in the cliffs at the entrance to the harbour and shell middens for lime burning. Reoffenders sent to Newcastle experienced gruelling physical labour extracting these materials and desertion occurred frequently.

Yet, from this brutal setting, a rich body of work was born which represents the first local art movement by settlers within the Australian colonies. Over a decade, two commandants overseeing the settlement, Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe (1811–18) and Captain James Wallis (1816–22), both of whom were appointed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, used convicts with artistic skills on a range of projects and capital works programs. They set artists to work documenting the Newcastle region and the local flora and fauna in drawings, paintings and prints. Others interacted with the local Awabakal people and produced important visual documents recording specific individuals and their way of life. Convicted forger Joseph Lycett was sent to Newcastle in 1815, and was the most significant artist involved in these projects, executing a group of major oil paintings, numerous watercolours, and drawings for subsequent etchings.

The Dixson collector’s chest

The Dixson collector’s chest, c. 1818–20, and its close relation, the Macquarie collector’s chest, c. 1818, are rare examples of colonial ‘cabinets of curiosity’ and among the most fascinating and complex objects of the colonial period. The Macquarie collector’s chest was commissioned and likely designed by Captain James Wallis, commandant of Newcastle, to present to Governor Lachlan Macquarie. It is debated whether the Dixson collector’s chest, on display here, was produced as its prototype or subsequently as a second version.

Crafted by expert convict cabinet-makers from local Australian timbers, the cabinet opens to reveal painted panels by convict artist Joseph Lycett. Several show the Newcastle region, while others are painted after views by exploration artist William Westall. The drawers contain shells and originally would have also held other natural history specimens including birds, insects, coral and seaweed, tagged and arranged fastidiously by shape, colour and/or type. It is believed these specimens were collected with the assistance of the local Awabakal people, as Wallis had an amicable relationship with their kinsman Burigon.

Both of these chests were only discovered in the twentieth century; the example owned by Macquarie was found in a Scottish castle in the late 1970s, while the Dixson collector’s chest was acquired by Sir William Dixson, benefactor of the State Library of New South Wales, from a London dealer in 1937.

Sydney 1810s–50s

The 1810s through to the 1850s was an era of expansion for the colonists who had settled in New South Wales and a time of continuing dispossession for Aboriginal people. Transportation ended in 1840, but convict labour continued to be assigned to assist with building roads and clearing land for pastoralists. The settler population grew and continued to occupy land further inland, north and south of Sydney. Emigration commissioners in London, and advocates within the colony, worked to encourage the arrival of free settlers, particularly women.

Throughout this period Sydney was the local centre of political power, and social and cultural sophistication. Artistic patronage was fostered. This is reflected in the proliferation of images in which nature and civilisation are pleasantly unified; the newly tamed wilderness placed against views of newly constructed Georgian buildings, demonstrating the colony’s ability to create order and flourish. Portraits were also in demand, and not only reflected the material success of prominent families but were commissioned by the expanding middle class. A print industry was established and expanded as the demand for locally produced prints increased. Images of colonial subjects, including portraits of Aboriginal people, account for a significant proportion of the art market at this time.

The Macquarie years

The nascent township of Sydney was transformed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who led the colony from 1810 to 1821. Under his leadership there were significant improvements to the infrastructure of the colony, including an extensive road-building program. This included a road over the Blue Mountains, built around 1815, that opened up the rich pastoral lands around Bathurst. Macquarie also fostered the cultural life of the colony, and the arts flourished during his term. He and his wife Elizabeth were passionate about architecture, and together they embarked upon an ambitious – and expensive – public works program that led to the construction of many handsome buildings including an army barracks, hospital, orphanage, and churches.

However, the expansion of the colony was only possible because vast tracts of land were granted to settlers. This was predicated on moving Aboriginal people off their traditional lands and, on occasion, placing their children in establishments such as the Parramatta Native Institution. On 10 April 1816, Macquarie wrote in his Diary & Memorandum Book:

‘I have this day ordered three Separate Military
Detachments to march into the Interior and remote parts
of the Colony, for the purpose of Punishing the Hostile
Natives, by clearing the Country of them entirely… the
officers Commanding the Military Parties have been
authorized to fire on them to compel them to surrender…’

Van Diemen’s Land 1803

In 1803, 160 years after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman named and charted Van Diemen’s Land, the British laid claim to the island by relocating convicts and officers from New South Wales to forestall any incursion by the French. Convict transports continued to arrive intermittently in Van Diemen’s Land, mostly bringing prisoners from Britain and Ireland, until 1856, by which time more than 72,000 convicts had been sent there. There were several penal settlements established in Van Diemen’s Land, the most notorious of which were at Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur.

In 1804, a year after the arrival of the first transports of convicts, Hobart Town was founded on the banks of the Derwent River and it quickly became an important southern trading port.

Over the next twenty years the settlement developed into a cultured, albeit provincial, Georgian township. Local sandstone was widely used to build fine buildings, including places of worship and civic and commercial buildings, and in turn the cultural life of the colony developed. In 1822 fifty-eight per cent of the population of Van Diemen’s Land were convicts, and consequently the majority of artists and artisans came from their ranks.

Colonial silver

From the earliest days of settlement, the British government was concerned with the manufacture of functional goods for the colony. Convicts with appropriate and useful skills were put to work as stonemasons, timber workers, builders, carpenters, potters and bricklayers.

The demand for luxury goods was initially limited and examples of Australian silver produced prior to 1851 are exceedingly rare. The work of silversmiths had little practical use in a penal settlement and was limited to commissions for presentation pieces or domestic objects for government officials and wealthy free settlers. With their combined population akin to that of a small city, the colonies could only support a small number of such skilled artisans. The few silversmiths who made a living during the 1820s and 1830s were able to dominate the market.

The discovery of gold in 1851 and the gold rush that ensued altered this climate dramatically. The eastern colonies experienced an influx of wealth and immigration, both of individuals skilled in the production of luxury goods and those able to purchase them. Silverware became increasingly sophisticated and opulent in scale and effect, aided by the arrival of jewellers and silversmiths from outside Britain who introduced European flamboyance to the Neoclassical style previously favoured by the British.

Van Diemen’s Land 1820s–50s

The increased arrival of free settlers from the 1820s onwards saw the colony of Van Diemen’s Land evolve from a brutal penal settlement into an economically sound and vibrant cultural centre. With its pleasant climate, few droughts and floods, and open grassland, which seemed pre-prepared for aspiring pastoralists, Van Diemen’s Land became the preferred destination for immigrants. By 1830, almost a third of the arrivals to Australia settled in the south, and the small island experienced economic prosperity.

Colonial society was increasingly able to support a vibrant artistic community, composed of amateurs and professionals, free settlers, highly skilled convicts and emancipists who found patronage despite their unsavoury backgrounds. In August 1837 the colony asserted its cultural superiority when Hobart hosted the first exhibition of art to be held in Australia, under the patronage of Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife, Jane. The Franklins had arrived in Hobart earlier that year, and during their tenure (1837–43) enthusiastically fostered the development of intellectual life, regarding the visual arts as an outward signifier of culture in the colony. The Vandemonian art, decorative arts and design produced from the 1830s to the early 1850s are among the most sophisticated and diverse of the colonial era.

Tasmanian Aboriginal people

Between the establishment of the settlement of Hobart in 1804 and the early 1820s the British government granted to settlers just over 100,000 acres of land already occupied by Tasmanian Aboriginal people. By the beginning of the 1830s more than fourteen times this acreage had been taken over by Europeans. During these decades, Tasmanian Aboriginal communities were ravaged by introduced diseases and famine as their hunting grounds disappeared, and were involved in violent clashes with the settler population. These conflicts escalated during the 1820s and came to be known as the Black War.

In 1830, George Augustus Robinson was engaged in the so-called Friendly Mission, which sought to make peaceful contact with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people remaining on Country. With the assistance of groups of Aboriginal individuals, he persuaded those still living freely on the land to relocate to the Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island. By 1835, many of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population lived permanently on Flinders Island, waiting to return to Country as they had been promised. Their numbers dwindled rapidly and in 1847 the remaining forty-seven individuals were forced to move to a former penal settlement at Oyster Cove, until the site was closed in 1874. Their traditions have lived on through Tasmanian Aboriginal people living outside of the official Wybalenna settlement in other coloniser and fishing communities.

The Port Phillip District

In 1835, Melbourne was established on the Country of the Kulin nation on the northern bank of Birrarung, the ‘river of mists and shadows’. Contact between Indigenous peoples and European explorers and raiding groups of sealers had begun prior to the arrival of hopeful colonists from Van Diemen’s Land. They were soon followed by John Pascoe Fawkner and John Batman, each leading separate parties of settlers keen to secure acreage on the fertile lands found in what was soon to be known as the Port Phillip District.

In the early years Melbourne went through a period of rapid development, quickly becoming a progressive provincial town. In 1839 a visitor noted: ‘When I was here three years ago there were but two houses of any note whatever … Now I find a town occupying an area of nearly a mile square, on which are some hundreds of houses, and many of them spacious and well-built edifices’. In tandem with the settlement of Melbourne, pastoral expansion devastated Aboriginal communities already severely affected by disease. Dispossessed of their traditional lands and forced from Country and the food sources that had long sustained them, the remaining populations faced starvation.

The Province of South Australia 1836

As early as 1829 the development of a convict‑free colony, home to settlers and migrants from Britain, was mooted. Seven years later, with regal approval, the Province of South Australia was officially proclaimed. Nine ships carrying free settlers to the colony set sail from England in 1836. They landed at Kangaroo Island and Holdfast Bay and finally settled on the banks of the Torrens River, where the township of Adelaide was established. With a number of trained artists among the early colonists, South Australia rapidly secured a position comparable to that of Hobart as a sophisticated centre for the visual arts.

These artists documented the earliest years of the colony and the first settlers. In 1845, Australia’s first solo exhibition was held by George French Angas, and two years later Adelaide artists held a group exhibition in the new colony. The discovery of gold in Victoria led to an exodus to the eastern colonies, slowing but not halting activity in South Australia.

The Province of South Australia was established on the land of the Kaurna people; the South Australia Act of 1834 included a guarantee of the rights of ‘any Aboriginal Natives’ and their descendants to lands they ‘now actually enjoy’. Despite these worthy ambitions, colonial expansion did ultimately dispossess and marginalise Aboriginal people.

Melbourne 1851–61

The township of Melbourne grew steadily as migrants from Britain and other European countries sought economic opportunities and political and religious freedom. In 1851, the Port Phillip District became an independent colony and was named Victoria in honour of the Queen. The town’s fortunes were further transformed that year when gold was discovered. Victoria was the richest source of gold in Australia, and consequently experienced the greatest levels of growth and change. The population exploded as enthusiastic and optimistic prospectors poured in from around the world with the hope of making their fortunes. Despite enormous social turmoil and environmental destruction, gold propelled Melbourne into an unprecedented phase of expansion and prosperity.

This had a profound impact on the arts and cultural life in colonial Australia. The desire to replicate the cultural institutions of European capitals reached new heights and wealth from gold enabled these aspirations to be realised, with the establishment of a university, library and museum. In 1861, in a moment of great significance and pride, the Museum of Art – Australia’s first art museum, later known as the National Gallery of Victoria – opened at the Melbourne Public Library on Swanston Street.