William Westall (1781–1850) was born in Hertford, England, and grew up in London. He was taught to draw by his half-brother Richard Westall (1765–1836), who achieved some distinction as a watercolour painter. Westall was admitted to the Royal Academy School in 1799, the same year as John Constable. In the following year, he was appointed the landscape artist on HMS Investigator, commanded by Matthew Flinders. During the circumnavigation of Australia, he made many pencil and wash landscapes as well as a series of coastal profiles in pencil. Some of the sketches were lost or damaged when HMS Porpoise ran aground on a reef in August 1803. Westall and his drawings were marooned on Wreck Reef for eight weeks. The surviving works were subsequently shipped to England and given to Richard Westall to be restored.
In late 1804 Westall returned to England. He subsequently travelled to Madeira and Jamaica and his watercolour views of places that he visited were exhibited in London. The Admiralty commissioned him to paint nine pictures to illustrate Flinders’s A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814). Many of his pictures, reproduced as aquatints, appeared in publications such as Rudolph Ackermann’s books A History of the University of Oxford (1814) and A Picturesque Tour of the River Thames (1828). He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1812, but never achieved the fame of his brother.
Joseph Farrington wrote that Westall ‘appeared by disposition inclined to retirement and seclusion’. Westall was not a prolific artist like his shipmate Ferdinand Bauer and he seems to have had rather a jaundiced view of the voyage on the Investigator. In 1804 he complained to Sir Joseph Banks that the ship only took him to New Holland, the countryside of which was neither beautiful nor singular, whereas he had expected to visit the South Sea Islands. He had a strong interest in the picturesque and it was significant that, when he returned to England, he exhibited views of China, India, Madeira and the West Indies, but not Australia. Nevertheless, he was one of the first professional artists to visit Australia and his paintings and drawings have enormous documentary value.
The Australian drawings of Westall were sold to the Royal Colonial Institute in London by his son, Robert Westall, in 1889. The collection was offered for sale by the Royal Commonwealth Society in 1968 and it was purchased by the Library.
Paintings by Westall have been acquired from other sources. A painting of Mount Westall was purchased from M.J. Gibbons in 1970. A wash drawing of the wreck of the Porpoise was bought at a Sotheby’s sale in 1973. In 1988 the Library received three watercolours of Westall as a bequest by his great grand-daughter, Elizabeth Westall. In the following year it purchased from her sister, Mary Lester, the portrait of Westall by his son, Robert Westall. Mrs Lester had earlier donated a bust of Westall. A self-portrait by Westall was bought at a Sotheby’s sale in 1990.
The Westall Collection consists of 139 pencil drawings, pencil and wash drawings and watercolour paintings, all but two of which date from the voyage of HMS Investigator in 1801–03. There are 79 views and panoramas, 15 coastal profiles, 25 drawings of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, four drawings of Macassans and their fishing boats, and 15 drawings of flora and fauna. Each of the coastal profiles comprises three or four images.
The views, panoramas and coastal profiles cover many of the places visited by the expedition: the Cape of Good Hope, King George’s Sound, Recherche Archipelago, Spencer’s Gulf, Kangaroo Island, Port Phillip, Port Jackson (including Government House, Sydney), Hawkesbury River, Cape Byron, Keppel Bay, Port Bowen (Port Clinton), Bustard Bay, Mount Westall, Percy Isles, Murray Islands, Torres Strait, Groote Eylandt, Caledon Bay and Arnhem Land. They were made for utilitarian rather than artistic reasons and are valuable for their accuracy and freshness, in contrast to the more contrived paintings that appeared in A Voyage to Terra Australis.
There are paintings of Indigenous peoples of Spencer’s Gulf, Port Jackson, Keppel Bay, Murray Islands, Torres Strait and Caledon Bay. Some of them were drawn in a neo-classical style, and the figures are European in appearance, while others are more realistic and convey a strong sense of pathos. The depictions of trees, plants, seals and a snake are essentially working drawings for larger compositions.
The three watercolours bequeathed by Elizabeth Westall comprise views of Seal Island in King George’s Sound, Port Lincoln and Mount Westall, near Port Bowen. The Library also holds engravings of the nine paintings that illustrated A Voyage to Terra Australis.
There are two portraits of Westall. The self-portrait was painted in oil about 1820, while the pencil and watercolour portrait by his son, Robert Westall, dates from about 1845. The bust of Westall was made by Edward James Physick in 1850.
The Westall Collection is held in the Pictures Collection (R4256–4394). It occupies 14 boxes. The paintings by Westall received from other sources, the portraits and the bust are also held in the Pictures Collection. They have been catalogued individually and most of them have been digitised.
Findlay, Elizabeth, Arcadian Quest: William Westall’s Australian Sketches, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1998.
Perry, T.M., Westall, William (1781–1850), Australian Dictionary of Biography online.
Perry, T.M., and Simpson, Donald H., Drawings by William Westall, Landscape Artist on Board H.M.S. Investigator During the Circumnavigation of Australia by Captain Matthew Flinders R.N., in 1801–1803, Royal Commonwealth Society, London, 1962.
Westall, Richard J. The Westall Pictures, National Library of Australia News, vol. 17 (5), February 2007, pp. 7–10.
Westall, Richard J., Westall’s New Botanic Drawings, National Library of Australia News, vol. 18 (3), December 2007, pp. 14–17.