A Royal Visit and a Rogue Son

A Royal Visit and a Rogue Son

Nat Williams tells the stories behind the Library’s treasures

William Wyatt, The Duke of Edinburgh's Welcome by the Natives, 1868, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, nla.cat-vn2033634

This image celebrating the arrival of the Duke of Edinburgh to Adelaide is both beguiling and a fragment of a tragic tale. It is one of the first in a long line of pictures in which Australians revelled in their connection to the distant, but admired, British monarchy.

Artist William ‘Willie’ Wyatt was born in Adelaide in 1838, soon after his parents’ arrival in the recently founded colony. They had sailed from Plymouth on the John Renwick, the same ship that carried the talented artist sisters Martha Berkeley and Theresa Chauncy (read more about the sisters in ‘Out of the Wilderness’, NLA Magazine, December 2015). Theresa penned a poem describing Wyatt’s French mother Julia as ‘a gaily coloured butterfly’ and his father William senior as a ‘mild, frank and free’ leech. An apothecary-surgeon and polymath, William senior was to have a leading role in the cultural life and growth of South Australia. His interests in medicine, botany, meteorology and education led to appointments as honorary Colonial Naturalist, Coroner, magistrate and Chief Inspector of South Australia’s schools, and to membership of the colony’s Natural History and Arts Societies. For two years he was also ‘Protector of the Aborigines’ and, in later life, wrote a book about Indigenous customs and languages.

Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred (1844–1900), was a naval captain and the first member of the royal family to visit Australia. His first port of call here was Adelaide and his ship, HMS Galatea, moored at Glenelg on 30October 1867, with the locals declaring the following day a holiday. Alfred was welcomed with great enthusiasm and patriotic celebrations were held by both British and German settlers—a stark contrast to his later reception in Melbourne, where he was harassed, and Sydney, where he was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by a Fenian.

In this charming image, however, the Duke is surrounded by local, less threatening ‘natives’. A bespectacled kangaroo reads from a lengthy ‘Welcome’ scroll draped over an emu, his coat of arms companion. Numerous native animals look on and some hold rolled testimonials. Beside the Duke sits the protective British lion, complete with naval tattoo. Wyatt shows several possums looking on from the trees, an allusion perhaps to the 52 possums bagged by the Duke one night in Adelaide. This exceptionally rare cartoon—there are only two known copies and both are held by the Library—seems to be a humorous reaction to the level of public interest in the Prince’s activities during his three-week visit.

Both Wyatts, father and son, attended the special presentations surrounding Alfred’s visit, although they shared little in common otherwise. Willie was a heavy drinker, dissolute and ultimately unemployable. Where his father displayed diligence in community service, an interest in intellectual pursuits and keen business acumen, Willie was a rogue and an artist—although he obviously had a sense of humour.

The Library’s memorable Eliza Younghusband album is a fascinating compilation of drawings and verses assembled by a young South Australian woman between 1856 and 1865. It holds a watercolour of a ‘Corrobbery at Walleroo Bay’ by Willie Wyatt, presumably a friend. The Library holds further South Australian scenes and a sketchbook containing Willie’s youthful drawings, amusing doodlings and penmanship. A series of lithographs of mining scenes from the state’s mid-north also illustrates some of Willie’s regional rambles.

An assay of this disparate material, most of which comes from the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, is poignant especially given Willie’s tragic demise. Three days after Christmas in 1872, at the age of 34, Willie provoked an altercation with James Slape, a labourer for the Wyatt family. Slape, an alcoholic, killed Willie with a mattock blow to the head and then, remorseful, took his own life in Adelaide Gaol the following day. He had earlier asked for a Bible, which was found by his hammock open to Luke XXII: For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.

Willie’s prominent parents were distraught and shamed. All of their five children had now pre-deceased them. It is perhaps telling that Willie’s father established a charitable organisation, the Wyatt Benevolent Institution Inc., upon his death in 1886. This venerable Adelaide charitable organisation still looks after people in dire need today.

Nat Williams is the Library's Treasures Curator. The Treasures Curator is supported by Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund.