‘Hitherto unvisited by any artist’
Travel artist Augustus Earle's 8 month accidental stranding on Tristan Da Cunha in the middle of the South Atlantic
20 June 2016
Artist Augustus Earle’s life was in many respects so remarkable that if it wasn’t true it would have had to be invented. Born in London in 1793, he exhibited at the Royal Academy from the age of 13 and is acknowledged as the first independent, professional artist to visit all continents. He documented his travels with candour and honesty. Loving travel and immersing himself in the worlds he encountered, he captured them in luminous watercolours.
Unfortunately for him, Earle's curiosity almost got the better of him. Sailing for Cape Town in 1824, his ship, the grand sounding Duke of Gloucester, actually a Margate hoy, a small vessel very unsuited to the arduous voyage undertaken, called in at the tiny, remote Island of Tristan Da Cunha, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Even today it takes a week of rapid sailing to get to Tristan from Cape Town, and landing can still be complicated if the weather turns nasty, which it often does. For Earle, who couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting, ‘a spot hitherto unvisited by any artist,’ as he later wrote in the account of his journey, his day trip turned into an 8 month sentence, and he sometimes despaired that he would never leave.
Captain Simon Amm, the master of Earle’s ship, having deserted the poor artist, was to return to Tristan annually over the next 3 years. In 1827 he brought 5 women with 4 children from the Island of St Helena, to marry off to the local men. Fortunately Earle wasn’t still there when he returned!
Earle’s time in Tristan, as it is known locally by today’s 266 residents, is richly documented in a series of memorable watercolours which are held in our collection. The watercolours are a delightful subset of a much larger collection of works undertaken by Earle and in total they document his travels to Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Caroline Islands, Guam, Manilla, Singapore, Penang and Madras, India. Rex Nan Kivell purchased these works early in his epic collecting career, in which he documented the Pacific and beyond in great and rather prescient detail. Nan Kivell saw the acquisition of these 146 watercolours as one of his greatest collecting coups. To view them is to travel broadly and in good company with a remarkable artist and observer of humanity.
Earle’s engaging account, ‘Narrative of a residence on the Island of Tristan D’Acunha,’ covers his 8 month stay and surges between the depths of despair, visually captured in his famous work Solitude, and moments of great companionship with Governor Glass, the local administrator and his 5 male companions, 2 of their wives and numerous children and dogs. Earle had left his ship with only his ‘dog, gun, boat cloak, and sketch book.’
To Earle’s great dismay he witnessed the small vessel depart taking his other belongings with it. Not one to dwell extendedly on the pathos of his dilemma, he kept himself busy hunting, exploring and capturing the weird beauty of the volcanic landscape with its distinctive features in his sketch book. He was a patient listener and notes, referring to his generous hosts,
I take infinite delight in hearing them relate their different adventures in their own peculiar seamen’s phraseology. It is a desirable thing, and one only to be acquired by travelling, to be able to accommodate oneself to the society Providence may throw us amongst.
Accommodate himself he did, and he speaks generously of the kindness of Governor Glass and his companions. To buoy up his spirits and to make himself useful he offers to serve as a chaplain and conducts Sunday services. He performs a funeral for a man named Smith who, while ‘deranged,’ disappeared and died probably from exposure. Acting also as a ‘schoolmaster to the elder children’ he wrote, ‘it gives me the greatest pleasure to be able to assist them in so laudable an undertaking; though, to be sure, we are sadly at a loss for books, paper, pens and all other school materials.’
This is a telling remark. One can only feel for the artist, stranded in one of the most unusual landscapes in which one could possibly find oneself, with daily dwindling resources to capture its unique charms and pitfalls. The urge to capture the subtle interplay of human, landscape and nature was piqued in Earle on Tristan but he lacked the wherewithal to record it fulsomely. The record we do have in his watercolours is unique, however, and creates an engaging visual narrative to enjoy while reading his entertaining published account.
Examining this watercolour, titled A north easter, Tristan D'Acunha, in which the artist appears, unusually, without his dog Jemmy, (perhaps the weather was even too extreme for a walk that day), it provided me with an interesting sense of Earle’s desperation in his mission to record the island. The reverse of the watercolour is as seen here.
This humble sheet of journal paper is a form of palimpsest, clearly demonstrating the artist and the islander’s challenges. Here is a page torn from a ship’s logbook, repurposed by the local children as a vehicle on which to practice their alphabet. The amateurish curls of their inky script face the more delicate handwriting of a mariner, as he scribes the prosaic moments of shipboard life. ‘Set the fore top mas(t)’, ‘37°18’, ‘Fresh breeze with…’. I can imagine Earle, the tutor having dutifully overseen the children’s inky lettering exercises, sliding, with some relief, this sheet of paper into his satchel, preparatory to his next watercolour. By hook or by crook he would record his ‘most desperate situation’ using whatever means possible. Some of the other watercolours in the collection are clearly mounted onto sheets which obscure the backs of the original pages. Who knows, they may also bear the traces of childish exercises upon them. There are also 3 loose pages, 2 torn from a book and another logbook page associated with these watercolours. Clearly Earle was using anything at hand, no matter how insubstantial, and fast running out of materials as he anxiously waited to move on.
I’m not sure what I find more surprising. Seeing this dramatic watercolour capturing the sublimity of nature and painted on a rocky island in the middle of the South Atlantic nearly 200 years ago, or, accidentally finding the writing of a young child living in the 1820s on the remotest place on earth.
In the era of Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter it is somehow comforting to think of the young hand forming these letters on the page, Earle perhaps watching, and waiting, with the only twitter here the calls of the albatrosses and Macaroni penguins.