Joseph Lycett (c. 1775-1828) was born in Staffordshire, England, and was trained as a portrait and miniature painter. In 1811 he was convicted of forgery at the Shropshire Assizes and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. He arrived in Sydney on the General Hewitt in 1814. He was granted a ticket of leave and worked as a clerk. In 1815 he was again convicted of forgery and was sent to Newcastle, where he worked in the coal mines. When Captain James Wallis arrived as commandant in 1816, he recognised Lycett’s talents and engaged him to draw up plans for the church and paint the altarpiece.
By 1820 Lycett was living in Sydney and earned a living as a painter. Governor Macquarie and Elizabeth Macquarie were among his patrons. Although he later painted Tasmanian views, it is not known that he visited Van Diemen’s Land and he may have based the scenes on the work of George Evans and James Taylor. In 1821 he received an absolute pardon and in the following year he returned to England. In 1823 he printed and published two large lithographs of Sydney and Hobart and in 1824-25 his Views in Australia were published in twelve monthly parts. The work was dedicated to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Little is known of Lycett’s last years, apart from the fact that he died in Birmingham.
In 1950 the Library purchased two watercolours by Lycett, scenes of Hobart, from the London antiquarian booksellers Maggs Brothers. The Nan Kivell Collection, which was acquired in 1959, included 18 watercolours of Lycett. In 1972 the Library bought at a Sothebys sale in London an album of watercolours, mostly depicting Aborigines of the Newcastle region. It had previously been in the ownership of the La Trobe Family, having been bought by Charles La Trobe, the son of the Lieutenant Governor of Victoria, in 1872.
The National Library holds an album of 20 watercolours and 22 separate watercolours by Joseph Lycett. The collection is rather unusual, as most of the works consist of studies of Aborigines or drawings of plants, whereas Lycett is mainly known for his landscapes.
The watercolours in the album were probably executed in 1820-22. One work is a landscape, a distant view of Sydney, Sydney Harbour and the residence of Captain John Piper. The other 19 works mostly depict Aborigines living near Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Port Stephens and Myall Lakes. They are shown, either singly or in groups, climbing trees, taking shelter during a storm, spearing fish, hunting kangaroos and emus, and taking part in a corroboree, ritualized combat and a funeral process. One scene is of Aborigines attacking Europeans in a rowing boat. For reasons of decorum, Lycett clothed his subjects, but in general he neither romanticized nor denigrated the Aborigines. Unlike most nineteenth century painters, he did not treat them as marginal figures in a European landscape, but instead depicted them in control of their land and, in one instance, in conflict with Europeans.
There are 13 drawings of flowering shrubs and trees, painted in about 1820. The titles are in Lycett’s hand and include Blandfordia, Hibiscus grandiflora, Melaleuca fulgens, and Epacris grandiflora.
In addition to the landscape in the album, the Library’s collection contains nine watercolour views by Lycett of Sydney, Parramatta, Port Macquarie, Lake Patterson and Hobart. Some are dated 1819-20.
The Library holds six copies of Views in Australia, which was published in 13 parts in 1824-25. The first plates were printed as lithographs, but they were re-issued as aquatints. The 25 New South Wales works include views of Sydney, Parramatta, Liverpool, Windsor, Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Lake George, Botany Bay and the Nepean River and also the homes of Captain John Piper at Rose Bay, Alexander Riley at Raby and John Macarthur at Parramatta. They accord with the English practice of painting the country seats of the gentry and, in showing the prosperity of settlers, were an inducement to migration. The 25 Tasmanian works include views of Hobart, Mount Wellington, Mount Nelson, the Derwent River, the Huon River, the Tamar River, Cape Pillar and Port Davey. The prints differ from some of the original drawings of Lycett, especially in the case of the trees, which tend to resemble oak trees more than gum trees. As Penelope Hackforth-Jones has written, ‘The country has been painted not as it was but as Lycett felt it should look like and in accordance with current aesthetic notions of the Picturesque’.
A facsimile edition of Views in Australia was published by Thomas Nelson in 1971.
The drawings and prints of Joseph Lycett are held in the Pictures Collection at various locations. They have been catalogued individually and digitised. The Lycett album was reproduced by the Library in 1990.
Paintings and drawings of Lycett are held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales), the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Newcastle Region Art Gallery and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Hackforth-Jones, Jocelyn, The convict artists, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1977
Hoorn, Jeanette and Elizabeth Imashev, Lycett, Joseph, in The dictionary of Australian artists, edited by Joan Kerr, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 482-84
The Lycett album : drawings of Aborigines and Australian scenery, with commentary by Jeanette Hoorn, Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1990
McPhee, John, ed., Joseph Lycett; convict artist, Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2006
Rienits, Rex, Lycett, Joseph (1774-1828), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Turner, John, Joseph Lycett: Governor Macquarie’s convict artist, Newcastle, Hunter History Publications, 1997
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)