Augustus Earle (1793-1838), the son of an American artist, was born in London and may have studied painting at the Royal Academy. In 1815 he visited Sicily and Malta and spent some time in the Mediterranean, sketching antiquities, Moorish ruins and batteries. In 1818 he travelled in the United States and in 1820-23 he lived in Brazil and other parts of South America. In 1824 he embarked for India, but the ship was driven by a storm to Tristan da Cunha, where he was marooned for eight months. He was rescued by the Admiral Cockburn, which brought him to Hobart in 1825. He arrived in Sydney later in the same year.
Earle spent a little over three years in Australia, where he painted landscapes, studies of Aborigines and portraits of colonial notables. He travelled widely, including the Blue Mountains, Wellington Valley, the Hunter River, Port Macquarie and the Illawarra. He held exhibitions in Sydney and in 1826 published Views in Australia. In 1827-28 he spent several months in New Zealand. In late 1828 he left Sydney and travelled to the Caroline Islands, Manila, Singapore, India and Mauritius, finally reaching London in 1830. In 1831 he joined HMS Beagle as artist supernumerary and became a friend of Charles Darwin. However, declining health forced him to leave the ship at Montevideo in 1832. His place was taken by Conrad Martens.
Earle was the author of Views in New South Wales, and Van Diemen's Land (1830), A Narrative of a Nine Months' Residence in New Zealand in 1827, Together with a Journal of a Residence in Tristan D'Acunha (1832) and Sketches Illustrative of the Native Inhabitants and Islands of New Zealand (1838)
Augustus Earle was the first professional artist to work in Australia. As a freelance travel artist, he had enormous curiosity about new lands and exotic peoples and a concern to depict them as accurately as possible. According to Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones, 'Earle combines a Romantic response to nature with an acutely scientific interest in the accurate delineation of form'. Unlike Joseph Lycett and other contemporaries, he tried to capture the open nature of Australian trees and their olive-blue character. His figure studies vary in quality, but in several of his Australian works he conveyed the gradual degradation of the Indigenous peoples as a result of contact with Europeans, at the same time portraying the lingering dignity of some Aborigines.
A watercolour view near Rio de Janeiro, which is now attributed to Earle, was bought by E.A. Petherick in 1887 and was acquired by the Library as part of the Petherick Collection in 1909. All the other paintings and drawings of Earle are in the Nan Kivell Collection. They were deposited in the Library by Rex Nan Kivell in 1948 and were formally acquired in 1959. They had originally been in the possession of Admiral William Henry Smyth, Earle's half-brother, and were sold by his grandson at a Sotheby's sale in 1926. They were bought by a dealer, Walter Spencer, who subsequently sold them to Nan Kivell.
The Library holds 168 original works of Augustus Earle, making it by far the largest collection held anywhere. It consists of five oil painting, 149 watercolours and 14 pen and ink drawings, dating from 1820 to 1838. The collection reflects Earle's life as a traveller, as it includes works relating to New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, New Zealand, Guam, Juan Fernandez, Brazil, Peru, Tierra del Fuego, Malacca, Penang, India, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena and Ireland.
There are 50 Australian works, including coastal scenes and views of Port Jackson, Point Piper, the Blue Mountains, caves in the Wellington Valley, the Hunter River, cabbage tree forests and mountains in the Illawarra, farms in Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales, Government House in Sydney and the Female Orphan School and the Female Penitentiary at Parramatta. There are many paintings and drawings of Aborigines, including an oil portrait of Bungaree, who was recognised by Macquarie as 'the Chief of the Broken Bay Tribe'. There are also some portraits of European settlers. One portrait that has been attributed to Earle is of Edward Smith Hall, the editor of the Sydney Monitor.
The 38 New Zealand paintings and drawings mostly depict Maori, including chiefs, warriors and dancers, a burial ceremony, Maori being tattooed, houses and a fortified village. There are also several views of the Bay of Islands and the missionary stations at Rangihoua and Keri-Keri.
There are 21 works painted by Earle in Brazil in 1820-23 and 15 works date from his exile on Tristan da Cunha in 1824. The Brazilian paintings include views of Rio de Janeiro, St Juan and the Corcovade Mountains, cocoa and banana trees, the coronation of Don Pedro in 1822, a female soldier, Negro slaves, slaves being punished and a fandango dance. Apart from a view of Government House, the Tristan da Cunha works mostly depict coastal scenes and mountains.
Other works by Earle include several shipboard scenes, views of Penang and Malacca, a view of Napoleon's tomb in the island of St Helena, and three drawings of scenes in novels by Tobias Smollett and Daniel Defoe.
In addition, the Library holds many engravings and lithographs of works by Earle. Among them are panoramas of Sydney and Hobart painted by Robert Burford and based on drawings by Earle. There is also a copy of Views in Australia (1826), consisting of five lithographs mounted in an album with a lithographed introduction and the bookplate of Sir Ralph Darling, the Governor of New South Wales.
The paintings, drawings and prints of Augustus Earle are held in the Pictures Collection. They have been catalogued individually. All of the original works and some of the prints have been digitised. The large oil painting by Earle entitled A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia, in a Cabbage-tree Forest, Day Break is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Australia.
The Mitchell and Dixson libraries in the State Library of New South Wales hold several views of Sydney and Hobart by Augustus Earle, as well as his portraits of Sir Thomas Brisbane, John Mackaness, Robert Townson, Captain John Piper and Col. William Stewart. The National Gallery of Australia holds his portraits of Richard Brooks and his wife. The Alexander Turbull Library in the National Library of New Zealand holds a watercolour of Cower Cower River and two oil paintings of Maori.
Hackforth-Jones, Jocelyn, Augustus Earle, Travel Artist: Paintings and Drawings in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1980.
McDonald, Patricia, The Wandering Artist: Augustus Earle's Travels Round the World, 1820-29, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1996.
Murray-Oliver, Anthony, Augustus Earle in New Zealand, Whitcombe & Tombs, Christchurch, 1968.
Smith, Bernard, Earle, Augustus (1793-1838), Australian Dictionary of Biography Online
Smith, Bernard, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768-1850: A Study in the History of Art and Ideas, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1960.