Aborigines hunting waterbirds, a water colour by Joseph Lycett

Joseph Lycett (ca. 1775-1828), Drawings of Aborigines and scenery, New South Wales, nla.pic-an2962715

One of the items of considerable significance in the National Library’s Pictures Collection is the bound volume commonly referred to as ‘the Lycett Album’. It contains twenty watercolours painted prior to 1828 by Joseph Lycett (c. 1775-1828).

Although a number of European artists of the early colonial period, such as Nicolas Martin-Petit and Richard Browne, made portraits of Aboriginal people, it is rare to find paintings that show their daily life. Among Lycett’s watercolours are the only known depictions from the period of Aboriginal people engaged in activities such as spearing eels and eating meat from beached whales.

Early colonial Australia did not attract many professional artists; most paintings prior to the 1820s were made by convicts or naval officers. Joseph Lycett was a convict, transported for forgery. During his time in Australia from 1814 to 1822, he was given freedom to work as a clerk and as an artist, except for one year of hard labour in the coal mines at Newcastle. He came into contact with Aboriginal people on at least one documented occasion when he was wounded in an attack by them.

Lycett’s skills as a forger carried over into his art. Two of the watercolours in the Lycett album appear to have been partly copied by Lycett from other works. The probable partial source for these may be in John Heaviside Clark's 'Field sports &c. &c. of the native inhabitants of New South Wales, published in 1813 including:

  • Climbing Trees
  • Smoking out the Opossum
  • Warriors of New S. Wales; and
  • Trial

The remainder of the watercolours appear to be Lycett’s original work.

The watercolours were bound into an album at some time after they were painted, at which time the title page Drawings of the natives and scenery of Van Diemens Land 1830 was presumably added. (This title is at least partly incorrect in that watercolours in the album with identifiable locations are all scenes near Newcastle and Port Jackson.)

The National Library purchased the album at Sothebys, London, on 31 May 1972 for 9500 pounds.