National Library purchases rare and significant watercolours for the nation
4 November 2005
The National Library of Australia announces one of the most significant acquisitions in its 105 year history. The Ducie Collection, purchased from the Moreton family in England, is the largest and most important collection of First Fleet art to have come on the market in the last 50 years.
The 56 watercolours are attributed to George Raper, a midshipman on the flagship ‘Sirius’, and one of the most talented First Fleet artists. They show the birds and flowers of the then Port Jackson area as Raper saw them between 1788 and 1790. Many are the first visual records by a European artist of particular species such as the swamp lily and wedding bush and reflect the awe and wonder of the sailors as they encountered Australian birds and plants for the first time.
Jan Fullerton AO, National Library Director-General highlighted the significance of the acquisition. “This is a major milestone for the National Library. I am absolutely delighted that we have been able to purchase these exquisite watercolours of immense historical importance for the nation. We plan to display some of the paintings in the major touring exhibition National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries to open in December this year. All 56 watercolours will be accessible on our website.”
The watercolours were discovered in a storage building near Tortworth Manor, in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, during a routine valuation of the estate of the Earl of Ducie.
The National Library began negotiations to buy the paintings in January 2005, after being approached by representatives of the Trustees of the estate, who had decided to seek an Australian institutional buyer rather than to sell the paintings by auction. This course of action saved the paintings from dispersal among many institutions and private collectors.
“The collection will complement 16 watercolours, manuscripts and maps by George Raper, purchased in 1999 from one of Raper’s descendants. It will also shed new light on one of the Library’s treasures – a sketchbook of birds and flowers of New South Wales by Governor Hunter,” said Ms Fullerton.
It is now clear that Hunter copied many of his drawings from works by Raper in the Ducie Collection. John Hunter, Captain of the Sirius, and Raper were together at Careening Cove (present day Mosman Bay ) from July – November 1789 during repairs to the Sirius. The location of these two important groups of paintings in the National Library will allow scholars to compare them and to draw further conclusions about copying as a method of dealing with such a challenging new landscape and of disseminating information about it.
The Earls of Ducie have a long connection with Australia. The fourth Earl of Ducie, Berkeley Basil Moreton, was a well-known Queensland pastoralist and member of the Legislative Assembly before inheriting the title in 1922. A branch of the family remained in Australia, and the sixth Earl, Basil Howard Moreton, moved to England from his Hervey Bay cane farm to take up the title after his uncle’s death in 1952. David Moreton, the present Earl of Ducie was born in Queensland.
National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries opens at the National Library in Canberra on 3 December 2005. Digitised copies of the watercolours will be accessible at www.nla.gov.au.
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The species depicted in the Ducie collection include the Crimson Rosella, the now-endangered Swift Parrot, a kookaburra and a fairy wren. Raper is clearly fascinated by the brightness of the birds’ plumage and the cheekiness of the parrots. To capture the sheen on the feathers of the Bronzewing Pigeon, he, alone of all the First Fleet artists, uses a glittering bronze paint. The flower paintings include a waratah, fringed lily, swamp lily, boronia, crowea and dendrobium.
The National Library began negotiations to buy the paintings in January 2005 after being approached by Dreweatt Neate Fine Art, the representatives of the Trustees of the estate, who had been advised to seek an Australian institutional buyer rather than to sell the paintings b y auction.
Dreweatt Neate provided considerable evidence of the authenticity of the paintings, including a statistical comparison of the watermarks with those of First Fleet art held in the Natural History Museum, London. When Clive Stewart-Lockhart of DNFA brought the paintings to Canberra for inspection in April, National Library conservators and curatorial staff were able to examine them at first hand and confirmed DNFA's opinion. The impeccable provenance of the paintings through generations of the Ducie family, and the fact that they were discovered with other documents dated in the 1770s, is further evidence of their authenticity.
The National Library does not disclose purchase prices when material is acquired by private sale. The price is in line with independent valuations and auction records of other First Fleet material.
George Raper was born in 1769 and entered the Royal Navy at the age of thirteen. He sailed with Commodore Arthur Phillip and Captain Hunter in the Sirius in 1787 and was promoted to Midshipman during the voyage.
When he arrived with the First Fleet in Port Jackson in January 1788 he was just 18 years old. He spent three periods at Port Jackson: from January to October 1788, from May 1789 to March 1790, and again briefly from late February to March 1791. It is probable that the paintings in the Ducie collection date from the period June to November 1789, when the Sirius was isolated at Careening Cove, now Mosman Bay, for repairs. The floral species in this collection are all spring-flowering; summer-flowering callistemon and autumn-flowering banksias are significantly absent. At least one of the paintings has been dated, by comparison with a related watercolour by Raper in the British Natural History Museum, as no later than 1789.
First Fleet artists
Unlike voyages of exploration by mariners such as James Cook, the First Fleet carried no professional artists. For visual evidence of the first impressions of Europeans of Australian’s puzzling flora and fauna, we rely on the work of the First Fleet officers and convicts. George Raper is recognised as one of the most talented of the First Fleet artists.
The practice of copying, among the naval officers and convicts who made up the body of First Fleet artists, is a well-known phenomenon and was not at the time considered in any way improper.