Recording date:

The colonial heritage of Norfolk Island is little known to most Australians. 2020 NLA Fellow, Alisa Bunbury’s recent research comprises a careful and structured examination of visual imagery created during the various stages of its settlement during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

These images show the difficulties of contact and communication with its steep cliffs and dangerous reef; the clearing of the land for agricultural purposes; the indigenous flora and fauna, including rare documentation of species driven to extinction; and the built environment, including the long-demolished first settlement and the later penitentiary buildings, the ruins of which are now World Heritage listed. Written records and recollections complement the visual material, ranging from diaries, letters and naval journals to published accounts of visits, official appointments or the horrendous treatment endured by convicts imprisoned there.

Alisa’s research aims to bring the numerous stories of this tiny island to light in time for the 250th anniversary of the Resolution's crew sighting Norfolk Island in 2024.

21 05 13 Alisa Bunbury

*Speakers: Alfa Maguire (A), Alisa Bunbury (B)



*Date: 13/5/2021

A:        Hello, thank you for joining us. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Alfa Maguire, Senior Adviser in Curatorial and Collection Research here at the Library. I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Thank you for attending this afternoon’s presentation by Alisa Bunbury, 2020 National Library Fellow for Curatorial Research. This fellowship has been generously supported by the patrons and supporters of the Library’s Treasures Gallery Access Program. Alisa specialises in art depicting or relating to Australia from 1770 to the mid-19th century. She’s the Grimwade Collection curator at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne and recently completing a major publication on this important collection of early settler art and books. Formerly curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria Alisa was lead curator of their Colony exhibition in 2018 to which the National Library lent many important works of art. She also undertakes independent projects such as this fellowship.

During her fellowship which she began in March 2020 and returned to one year later Alisa has explored the visual imagery created on and depicting Norfolk Island during the various stages of its history from 1774 to the later 19th century. This is the first presentation she has given on her research to date, but she hopes to have many more opportunities to share this art and the stories that accompany it with the wider public through talks, publications and hopefully an exhibition. Please join me in welcoming Alisa Bunbury.


B:        Hello. What a lovely group of people. It’s wonderful to be here, somewhat later than originally planned so I thank you for coming. Firstly of course I want to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and the lands on which you may be watching from. I live and work on Wiradjuri Woiworung country and I acknowledge that my ancestors came to this country uninvited.

I also want to acknowledge the people of Norfolk Island whose visual history I have been researching over a number of years now. I have no personal connection with this island. There was a Commandant Bunbury there briefly but we are not related so I approach this as an art historian and as a curator, not as a local or as a descendent or a botanist or an ornithologist or a specialist in convict history although I am learning all the time.

For such a tiny island there has been a huge amount of research done and I thank those who have previously gathered visual records, particularly impressive in the years before digital technology, and also those who are generously sharing their research and their knowledge with me now.

The very fact that I titled my project The Eastern Isle shows that I’m approaching it as an outsider but it also locates it in relation to the colonial colonies of New South Wales and later Van Diemen’s Land which is the period that I’m largely focused on. I feel it’s important to acknowledge the enormous pain, suffering and brutality that took place on Norfolk Island during its convict years. It is rarely depicted in the art and so I don’t refer to it much but please bear it in mind as I talk. It is the very reason most people were on the island until the mid-19th century so it underpins much of what I’m going to show you.

On a lighter note I warmly thank the patrons and supporters of the Treasures Gallery Access Program for funding my fellowship and I hope that curatorial fellowships such as this continue into the future. I have had a really fabulous time. Despite the extraordinary access that digitisation provides and reference sites such as Trove it is really important to see these works in person, to see the scale, to turn the pages, to feel the paper, to examine details that may not come across in a photograph no matter how high the resolution. I’ve also met people here whom I wouldn’t have otherwise which has been so interesting and stimulating. The exquisite autumn weather we’ve been having has also helped.

I found this talk quite difficult to prepare because there’s so much that can be said and I know there are people listening who know a lot, a little or nothing at all yet about Norfolk and I also want to show the kind of research I’ve been doing and why I’m interested in this visual material.

So today I’m going to give a brief introduction to the history of Norfolk Island and then I will focus on some stories that can be drawn out from the National Library’s collection here. There are also strong holdings elsewhere, but the key stories can wait for another time.

To highlight what I’ve been working with during my fellowship I’ve placed the captions of the National Library of Australia’s works in blue. I have also been shall we say very generous in the number of images that I’m showing so I will be moving through these pretty quickly. If you want to go back, though, of course, this is being streamed and you can see this presentation again at your leisure. Any photographs that don’t have captions such as those that I’ve shown so far are mine. I hope to take better when I return there later this year, but I wanted to give you a sense of it as we begin.

Firstly, to locate it. Norfolk Island is a tiny hilly wave-battered island in the western Pacific around 37 square kilometres with two small offshore islands, Phillip and Nepean. This early map of New South Wales includes insets of both Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island, but it always amuses me to see how they have evoked the great distance of the island. Have you spotted where Norfolk Island is? It’s over here, they’ve put it outside the margin of the map to show its distance.

It is roughly in line with Byron Bay so is subtropical in climate and as you can see it is closer to New Zealand than the east coast of Australia and closer again to New Caledonia and sits on the undersea Norfolk Ridge that runs between those islands so geologically and ecologically it is much more akin to them. Everything on the island got there by flying or floating so like New Zealand there were no land mammals but a lot of birds as you will see. It is currently one of Australia’s seven offshore territories although its political status has been discussed and debated since the mid-19th century.

Norfolk Island’s history is most easily presented in four distinct stages plus one important visit so I’m going to run you through these fairly quickly to give you the background for their research. Norfolk Island was first discovered and settled by Polynesian seafarers as part of their exploration and occupation of islands throughout the Pacific. It is one of the western most points that they reached but for still unknown reasons it was only inhabited for a limited period of time so Norfolk Island here and I also point out Pitcairn Island here which comes into the story.

When Europeans settled there, evidence of prior occupation was soon recognised. Bananas for example had been introduced to the island as noted on this early map and stone tools were discovered as in this early watercolour. Archaeological digs have confirmed this, finding evidence of structures, fire pits, animal bones and a rudimentary marae, a Polynesian temple.

In 1774 James Cook leading his second Pacific voyage, this time in The Resolution, was again sailing the seas finding numerous small islands in their mission to find Terra Australis Incognita, the great southern land. This voyage disproved its existence. Sailing south from New Caledonia and having just named the Isle of Pines they came across another pine tree-forested island which Cook named for the Duchess of Norfolk and in this map you can see the larger Phillip Island to the south and the smaller Nepean Island. They were named later.

Weather and waves were kind to them, and a small party disembarked and explored the island for a few hours on the 11th of October 1774. This included Cook himself who noted the towering trees and other plants he recognised from his previous visits to New Zealand, and the two naturalists on board, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son, Georg, who collected and recorded specimens as quickly as they could during their limited time there, noting the dense vegetation and the abundant bird life.

Upon return to England and the publishing of the voyage’s findings Norfolk Island was added to the published maps of the Pacific and you can see it very clearly marked there. Cook reported back to the Admiralty on the potential of this island, specifically the immense straight trees for use as ships’ masts and spas and the plant he knew as New Zealand flax which had potential for making canvas. I show you two later images here from this collection.

One of the reasons I became interested in Norfolk Island is that it was settled only six weeks after Sydney and so few people know that. It was the second settlement of this new imperial venture and unlike mainland Australia, and later Tasmania and New Zealand, it wasn’t an invasion and it was planned from the beginning. Governor Arthur Phillip had been instructed to secure the island and he commanded Lieutenant Philip Gidley King to sail to this speck in the ocean and set up an agricultural base with a small group of convicts.

They arrived on the 6th of March 1788 having been taken there by Lieutenant Ball in his tiny brig, The Supply, and en route they came across Lord Howe Island. Here on the left you see Supply and Lord Howe Island depicted behind the ship and note the ship on the right, Sirius, which we’ll come back to.

Here we see Midshipman George Raper’s coastal profile of Norfolk Island, Phillip Island and Nepean Island, one of a series of profiles which is now split between different collections. This is held with the large collection of first fleet art in the Natural History Museum in London, but the National Library here has a number of these important watercolours painted later but showing ports visited during the voyage of the first fleet.

We also here have this view of the first settlement, seen from the sea or the rocky reef, showing the early clearing of land and the rows of small, usually thatched buildings leading toward the Commandant’s house in the centre rear behind the disproportionately large flagpole.

There was regular contact between Port Jackson and Norfolk Island and its struggles and successes were recorded in personal journals and official accounts, reported back to England and published for an eager audience as in this first official account of the colonies.

Neither the pines nor the flax proved suitable for the British naval hopes, so labour was largely agricultural and it became a society of convicts, free settlers and soon emancipated convicts farming the land. However once agriculture became more established in better soils in New South Wales and with the occupation of Van Diemen’s Land far distant Norfolk Island became uneconomical and it was formally closed by 1814. Convicts were removed and settlers who by then far outnumbered the convicts were required to leave, many reluctantly, heading to Van Diemen’s Land. This is why we have New Norfolk and the Norfolk Plains in Tasmania.

Just over 10 years later in 1825 Norfolk Island was reopened as a penitentiary of secondary punishment, intended for the worst of the worst, repeat offenders and to revive fear of transportation to this hell on earth. It was male prisoners only, the only women were families of the officers, surgeon, chaplain and so on and also the wives of whalers who occasionally visited.

The steep hill surrounding Sydney as it was called, renamed Kingstown to avoid confusion and now Kingston, proved a useful vantage point and watercolours, drawings and prints have been used by architectural historians to analyse the development of the prison buildings and the officers’ houses. Here you can see a comparatively early view and you might just be able to make out some convicts pulling a cart in the middle here, one depicted at the very end of its time as a prison showing the officers’ houses. This street is now called Quality Row, and the second Government House in the centre.

What remains today is now World Heritage listed and known as KAVHA. That’s the Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area. A lot of these buildings have been restored beautifully as you can see here while others were demolished over the years but many of the finely rendered architectural plans survive, particularly in the Tasmanian Archives. This is the panopticon for the so-called new jail with cells opening out onto the enclosed exercise yards.

In the visual imagery as I mentioned there’s little evidence of the convicts. This pencil drawing by the chaplain, Thomas Beagley Naylor, is a rare depiction and fails to capture the brutality and dehumanising treatments that he later reported upon to London. Note the couple sitting at the lower left watching the jetty just as tourists do today.

There are however numerous official reports, letters, diaries and accounts of what happened here. If researching this period, you may come across this journal, one of the many fictionalised accounts of lives there. Although dated 1823 and apparently recounting events of the first penal settlement this journal shows buildings constructed later than that date and the apparent author, Robert Bucky Jones, died in 1818. Nevertheless, floggings of hundreds of lashes were common among many other cruel punishments.

Lives of the prisoners and officers can be gleaned from archaeological items found, now in the Norfolk Island Museum. Opposition to transportation grew from the mid-1830s and from 1847 onwards Norfolk Island was slowly emptied, and it was formally closed as a penal settlement in 1855.

So, to the next stage which is the origins of the community today, the arrival of the Pitcairn Islanders in 1856. I’m sure you all know at least a little about the mutiny on The Bounty of 1790 when Captain Bligh and his supporters were forced from The Bounty by Fletcher Christian and his. Nine of the mutineers, 12 Tahitian women and six Tahitian men ended up on Pitcairn Island on the east side of the Pacific which like Norfolk Island had been previously inhabited.

Pitcairn had been discovered by the Spanish in 1606 and the British in 1767 but its position was misrecorded. Basically, it was lost again so the new Pitcairners remained in isolation until an American whaler found them in 1808. Jumping forward 50 years, by the mid-1850s the community had grown substantially, too large for the island’s resources and they appealed to Queen Victoria for assistance. With Norfolk Island available the 163 residents were relocated there in the Morayshire landing on the 8th of June 1856 which is celebrated on the Island as Bounty Day. Roughly a third of the Norfolk Islanders today are descendants of these Pitcairners and the Norfolk language, a mix of 18th century English and Polynesian, is still spoken on the Island.

This period coincides with the arrival of cameras so the visual imagery changes considerably, photography largely replacing the watercolours and drawings of previous decades, documenting the scenery, the ruins and the changing use of the land, the industries including whaling, both local and visiting whalers including from America, as well as family photographs, of course. There are a number of photo albums in books here in the Library collection with images of Norfolk Island such as these 1890s photographs by successful Sydney photographer, Charles Kerry, who recognised the commercial appeal of such images.

Okay, I’m going to stop my extremely potted history of Norfolk Island there and I’ll turn now to some of the artworks and stories contained within this remarkable collection here. A key work, possibly the key work, held here relating to Norfolk Island is this dramatic watercolour which you’ve already seen. The melancholy loss of HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island, March 19th, 1790 painted by an artist we’ve already met in this presentation, George Raper who was probably around 22 at the time of this catastrophe. He was midshipman on board The Sirius, flagship of the first fleet and the larger of the two ships left for the colony when the first fleet unloaded their human cargo.

Sirius and Supply were critical to the survival of the settlements of Sydney and Norfolk Island which struggled with their early agriculture and unfamiliar soils and climate and the delay of the second fleet which was to bring much needed supplies. In fact, Sirius, captained by John Hunter, had already sailed to the Cape of Good Hope for food and essentials and was about to sail again once convicts and marines had been conveyed to Norfolk Island to alleviate the starving Sydney settler population.

As is often the case on Norfolk the weather made landing difficult. On the previous day the passengers, 183 convicts, 27 children and 65 marines, had been safely landed on the other side of the island but on this day wind and tides drove The Sirius onto the reef by Kingston. Here you might be able to just make out Supply behind Sirius’ broken masts. It managed to tack in time and avoid the same fate and I show you here the location. The Island’s somewhat different in profile but the dangerous reef is very evident.

This was a terrible calamity. Although no-one drowned some came close and the crew was also now stranded, increasing the pressure on the Island’s limited resources. A good proportion of The Sirius’ cargo was retrieved over a period of time as Raper shows in this image. Some floated to shore, animals were pushed to swim or to drown, other items were swung and hauled ashore with ropes. You might be able to see; we have people on board the ship on the reef and on the shore hauling what they could save. But many of the crew lost most if not all of their possessions. One thing that fascinates me is that clearly watercolours and papers were retrieved, enabling Raper to paint these images. We do love a good swirly signature and a firm date.

So during the next 11 months until they were retrieved Raper and his crew mates used their time to grow food, fish when possible, capture and kill many, many thousands of the seabirds nesting on the island for meat and eggs – that’s a lecture in itself – and to record their events. Losing a ship meant a court martial so writing down how it happened, and there are numerous written accounts, and painting it if you could, were important records in the crew’s defence. Here you can see one of Raper’s maps where the route that The Sirius took is marked and the reef is clear to everyone.

Raper was not the only artist on Norfolk at this time, though, his superior, First Lieutenant of The Sirius, William Bradley, also kept records of his time participating in the first fleet, witnessing events in early Sydney and then trapped on Norfolk Island. He later, maybe around 1802, produced what is called a fair copy of his journal with maps and numerous illustrations which gives us another point of view of those events. Here we see both before and after the crash as well as another key event, the day in August that two ships of the second fleet, Justinian and Surprise, came with additional supplies. The ships’ masts here emerging with the seemingly dead pine trees and you might be able to make out, it’s one ship here and the other one over here. Despite the arrival of these ships the crew weren’t to leave the Island until February of the following year.

One point you will have noticed here is the varying styles of painting and the amateur nature of the art. These are not professional artists, of course, but as navy men they had cartographic training as we saw with the coastal profiles and maps earlier. Despite that and although there has been subsequent erosion and quarrying on the islands there’s no way Phillip Island ever looked like this.

There’s a huge amount of material about The Sirius. As I mentioned firsthand accounts, plenty of books written later, impressive websites gathering information about everyone involved as well as archaeological items retrieved from the surf. An anchor and a cannon from Sirius have been installed in Macquarie Place in Sydney since 1907, the rest remains on view at Norfolk Island in their Sirius Museum. I would point out that despite all the technology Norfolk Island can be just as hard to land on to this day and the same method 230 years later was used last year with swimmers in the surf taking ropes to enable this beached cargo barge to be refloated on a slightly different location, I do note.

On board The Sirius and also stranded on Norfolk was another artist, the Captain himself, John Hunter, later Governor Hunter. One of the early colonial treasures in the National Library’s collection is his so-called sketch book but it’s much more finished than that and it had been a real privilege to be able to look through this. It is very carefully composed with alternating pages of birds, occasionally other animals and flowering plants and these we know were copied by Hunter after George Raper and maybe other artists.

Copying and painting multiples at this time was common. This was prephotography, of course, so these were visual records for dissemination and for sending home. The State Library of New South Wales has a letter from Raper to Sir Joseph Banks in which he describes the providence petrel that they ate so many of and in that letter, he enclosed a picture.

As an example of the copying is this work here in the Ducie Collection which is attributed to Raper. This is by Hunter with charming editions, a little hand offering cherries, and Hunter himself was also copied later, around 1800 back in Sydney in an album by or made for Robert Seton, an ensign in the New South Wales Corps. So comparing these copies and versions in various collections has been one of my great joys in examining this early material so I’m looking there at the Hunter sketchbook, a book about the Ducie Collection held here and my computer screen is showing material from Natural History Museum in London.

However, if we come back to the Hunter sketchbook, amidst his copies of Raper’s art is a group of watercolours of Norfolk Island birds that Hunter seems to have painted himself rather than copied. Here I show three birds, all regrettably now extinct. The middle image is particularly important as it is the only record of this Norfolk Island ground dove. There are no other paintings, apart from Seton’s copy, no skins or mounted specimens although bones have been found that prove its existence. So, images such as these and written accounts play an important role in studying past ecologies of impacted environments such as this.

But I want to talk about another bird that Hunter painted, the Norfolk Island kaka. Those of you who know your birds may know the New Zealand kaka. This is a separate species, now extinct. It worked in our practice; it rotates for you to see. Anyway, you get the idea. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that Hunter is not the world’s greatest ornithological artist. Only 16 skins or mounts of this bird are known in museums around the world. This is from Leiden in The Netherlands. Again, putting aside Seton’s album copying Hunter no other artist at this time appears to have painted the Norfolk Island kaka which to me seems incredible given it is such a large and distinct bird. Was it painted by Raper or others? Have paintings maybe been lost or are still hidden in British attics somewhere?

The next depiction I know of is quite different. By the supremely accomplished natural history artist, Ferdinand Bauer, who had circumnavigated Australia with Matthew Flinders in The Investigator and then took himself to Norfolk Island for five months. The material that he drew then, including studying the Norfolk Island pine, is now in the Natural History Museum Vienna and most of it was never worked up into finished watercolours, nor was it published but we have this pencil drawing which shows both his great ability and also his meticulous numbering system by which he recorded which colours to use when he eventually painted these sketches up.

For the colours we need to leap forward 30 years to John Gould who while he didn’t visit Norfolk Island saw and heard a live specimen in a Sydney aviary and included them in his multivolume publication, Birds of Australia. I have numerous quotes that I’ve refrained from using but I’ve allowed myself this one, “It may be possible and indeed it is most likely that flocks of parakeets no longer fly over the houses and chase each other in the streets of Hobart Town and Adelaide, that no longer does the noble Bustard stalk over the flats of the Upper Hunter nor the emus feed and breed on the Liverpool Plains as they did at that time and if this be so surely the Australians should at once bestir themselves to render protection to these and many other native birds otherwise very many of them, like the fine parrot of Norfolk Island, will soon become extinct”. The last known Norfolk Island kaka died in a London zoo some time around 1851.

Now we want to introduce you quickly to a series of watercolours held here, in part to remind myself not to look at these works in isolation but to look at how Norfolk Island was represented in the broader colonial context. This library has a group of eight watercolours by Edward Dayes. I’m showing you here four of them, three being different aspects of Sydney and the upper right image being a tranquil scene of a verdant landscape with first nations people relaxing but still with a sailboat visible on the waters behind.

Dayes never came to Sydney nor certainly to Norfolk Island. He was a London-based topographical artist who in this case was preparing images to become book illustrations. In fact, these watercolours were translated into etchings and appeared as illustrations in David Collins’, ‘An Account of the English Colony of New South Wales’ published in 1798, one of the important so-called first fleet books. In this watercolour and etching we see a view of Sydney, Kingston, on Norfolk Island also looking tranquil but in a very different way, certainly not untouched. The distinctive pine trees and the broken waters in the foreground help locate us and the rows of houses, again leading towards the Governor’s house but with additional buildings up the slope are again signs of progress, signs of clearing and controlling the land.

Dayes painted this as with the others with a very attractive glow in the centre of the painting, framed by shadows that lead your eye into the scene. It’s a skilful technique and when you look at these works closely you can clearly see the amount of detail drawn in with pencil. But where did Dayes get the visual information from? It seems likely that it came via the storekeeper, later Deputy Commissary on Norfolk Island, William Neate Chapman, who drew this scene in 1796. So that fits date-wise, time for a version of this to get to London, for Dayes to paint it in 1797 as part of his series of watercolours for Collins’ book of 1798. Three other versions of this scene are known, all slightly later and with an interesting provenance to the King family, that is, Philip Gidley King, the first Commandant on Norfolk Island who would have lived in that house, his wife, Anna Josepha King, who lived on Norfolk Island for a number of years and also their son, Philip Parker King. William Neate Chapman was a close friend of the family and later Secretary to King so that all ties in with a desire for them to remember that landscape, King’s achievements there and the years on the Island.

This talk is not long enough to explore some of the people who were on the Island but I’m allowing myself this one watercolour to make things a little bit more personal. This lovely family scene was painted in London just before Philip Gidley King returned to Australia to become Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales. The three children you see here were born on Norfolk Island as were two older half-brothers named Norfolk and Sydney, born to King and a convict, Ann Inett. The two eldest children depicted here remained in England for their education, so I wonder whether this painting went with the parents to remember the children or stayed with the children to remember their parents.

I’m now jumping ahead to another group of works in this collection, being a group of six pencil drawings by Thomas Beagley Naylor, Chaplain on the Island from 1841 to 45 during the second penal settlement. I’ve already shown you this image of the jetty at Kingston. Upon leaving the Island Naylor was vocal about the conditions and treatment of prisoners under his care and the differing approaches of the Commandants. In his detailed report he wrote, ‘…as a clergyman and a magistrate I feel bound to tell your Lordship that the curse of Almighty God must sooner or later fall in scorching anger upon a nation which can tolerate the continuance for state of things so demoniacal. How appalling that these words still seem so apt regarding one of our offshore islands today...’

But Naylor avoids this in his art. He lived with his wife and eight children, two of whom were born on the Island, and his images show an appreciation of picturesque scenery rather than the suffering he witnessed. It also shows an early development of recognised views of Norfolk Island. On the left here we see what is known as Bloody Bridge. There’s a story that a tyrannical overseer was murdered by convicts building the bridge but his blood seeping through the mortar revealed where his body had been hidden.

In the album of photographs by Charles Kerry towards the end of the century we see the same view and this bridge is absolutely on the tourist route when you visit Norfolk Island today. This is my favourite of the Naylors, showing maybe a daughter seated sketching and two men relaxing looking through the pines to the islands. This became a staple vista, maybe not from this exact point but looking out to Nepean and Phillip Islands. I could show you many examples, but I couldn’t resist pairing it with this, the islands there but very hard to see but the later Minister relaxing in his pith helmet is a sign of his times, isn’t he? Note the hills now largely cleared of trees.

Now for something completely different, and thank you to Jean Rice for bringing this to my attention. An 1855 board game, Tour through the British Colonies and Foreign Possessions, forming an amusing and instructive game which teaches British children how to rule their empire. The board unfolds, you spin your teetotum, and I had to Google it, and you work your way around the various outposts of empire until you reach the apex, of course being somewhat gloomy, very gloomy London and thus win the game. It is very much about naval power, Britannia ruling the waves in cahoots with Neptune and with minimal evidence of the military. Along the bottom you see the four corners of the globe represented, being Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa to which has been added Australia. This depiction is very telling of attitudes of the time, of course, from the active movers and shakers on the left to the passive onlookers supposedly complicit in their own perceived demise. The various colonies in Australia are included, represented by mining, grazing and whale-hunting. Not very exciting images, I must say.

Then there’s Norfolk Island. I quote part of the text from the book that accompanies. Of course, you’re meant to read and learn as you work your way around. “Norfolk Island was used exclusively as a penal settlement, only the worst class of convicts are banished here, and it is necessary to keep the most vigorous watch and discipline, to keep subordination amongst such desperate characters. Landing on this spot results in the worst penalty in the game. Stop two turns and lament the degraded condition to which sin has reduced some of our fellow men”.

Among the secondary research and reading I’ve been doing while here I was pleased to learn of this study which has a whole chapter analysing the implications of this particular board game. If anyone comes across anything else like this, please do let me know. How Norfolk Island was perceived elsewhere is definitely of interest to me.

My last 19th century work from the National Library collection, although I could certainly keep going, is this small watercolour study clearly labelled Norfolk Island and the property of Morris and Co, 21 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London. These are designs by the pre-Raphaelite artist and designer, Edward Burne-Jones, and who on earth would think that there’s a connection between tiny Norfolk Island and one of the great British artists of his day. This came about as from 1866 Norfolk Island became the headquarters and college of the Melanesian Mission, the Anglican evangelical organisation founded in New Zealand in 1849 which sought to introduce Christianity to the Melanesian islands. Relocating to warmer and closer Norfolk Island the mission was given around 400ha to use and various dormitories, married quarters, a dining hall and so on were built to provide for the community where young Islanders, teenagers and adults, were taught farming and carpentry and the like for the men, and cooking and sewing for the women, and of course Christianity and conversion.

To undertake this task the first Bishop of Melanesia, George Coleridge Patteson, and others would sail to the Island in their ship, The Southern Cross, preaching the gospel and there Patteson came to grief in 1871, murdered, mistaken it seems for one of the numerous blackbirders who were kidnapping young men for slave labour in Queensland and elsewhere.

Patteson had previously written, “…sometimes I have a vision of a small but exceedingly beautiful gothic chapel, rich inside with marble and stained glass and carved stooled and encaustic tiles and brass screenwork. It may come some day and most probably long after I am dead and gone…”

To honour Patteson’s martyrdom substantial funding was gathered by mission friends, family and supporters in England and elsewhere to build this memorial chapel. It was created in the arts and crafts ideal introduced by Burne-Jones and William Morris, to have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. This applies in the design of this building with carvings, pearl inlay, mosaic floors, tapestries and the like and a significant church organ. I’m certainly not the person to give a lecture on the architecture and interior of this building but I want to show you these exquisite windows. Here we see Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with their attributes either side of Christ, Rex of Nibertins over the altar. Here is the sketch, simple but clearly conveying the poses and the lead lines that were to be used.

If we turn to look back towards the entrance, we see a large rose window, again by Morris and Co as the design now in the Huntington Collection in California records. Below St John, the evangelist, and St Stephen, flanking St Philip, baptising the Ethiopian eunuch. Different from the figures originally painted on the design if you compare the two. It is evident why St Philip’s act was seen as particularly appropriate for this mission but to 21st century eyes the elderly white man asserting his beliefs over another is one I find very uncomfortable.

These windows don’t have the same aesthetic power as the others, being much more static in pose and delivery and a collaboration between Burne-Jones for the figures and probably designer, William Emile Pozzi, for the foliage and the rose window above. The St Barnabas windows were the only stained glass windows installed in Australasia during Morris’ lifetime and at the time when practice was often to reuse the designs of the saints at the altar end on the chancel were designed by Burne-Jones specifically for Norfolk Island’s church. Bear in mind, of course, that these windows were made in England, were transported halfway around the world and safely landed and installed at Norfolk.

I think I have just enough time to squeeze in one more group of works which don’t fit into my set chronology made between the late 1920s and the 1960s but I’m pleased to say by a woman to slightly redress the gender imbalance of this talk, and they’re too good not to show. When searching the National Library database for material relating to Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island the name Ida McComish comes up repeatedly for a series of albums she created and compiled. You are looking here at her album of fungus and lichens. There’s a unity with her eight albums, all of a similar scale and all clad in covers made of Norfolk Island pine bark as she always notes inside the cover.

They're the most wonderful texture and these are certainly items that need to be seen and handled, albeit very carefully, to appreciate them. The albums relating to Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands are a combination of watercolours and specimens of flowers, leaves, barks, seeds, fungus, lichens and seaweeds collaged onto the pages in a manner that is a mix of the scientific and the artistic. However, I haven’t been able to find out much about her apart from a brief entry in a National Library publication about female botanical artists by Leonie Norton.

New Zealand-born Ida Evans and her partner, later husband, James Doren McComish, explored and trekked around numerous South Pacific islands and repeatedly visited Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands gathering botanical specimens which are now held in various herbaria around the world. James Doran also had a Lord Howe Island plant named for him, Rapanea mccomishii, which I may be mispronouncing there.

Idea created her albums over a period of time, adding to them on successive visits. Apparently, she stayed with friends on Norfolk Island so local history I’m sure knows more about her than Google and Trove have revealed. Although her paintings don’t usually contain the precision and details required for scientific illustration the combinations with which she compiled these albums is really quite fabulous. The fungus and lichens as we saw are watercolours, the seaweeds are the real things, collected and beautifully pasted down while this book of both indigenous and introduced plants growing in Norfolk Island gardens combines watercolours, specimens sealed somehow in plastic and even weaving, a traditional skill passed down from the Pitcairner Polynesian women.

There are even a couple of butterflies that combine both specimen and drawing, nature and art, the wings being real, the bodies painted. So, this seems an appropriate example to finish this collage of a talk. I hope this gives you a glimpse of the diversity of material that can be brought into this topic and I should say I’m gathering similar information about Lord Howe Island as well. There are abundant works of art, ranging from the meticulously scientific to the wonderfully quirky held in collections around the world and yes, I am always keen to hear if you know of more.

I also have vast quantities of reading to do to contextualise what I’ve been looking at here. This can range from accounts of the beauty of the Island, the enormity of the trees, the raucous nature of the parrots, the fear of starvation, the brutality endured to current work being undertaken to revegetate damaged lands and to save endangered species. The list goes on. If you use Instagram, I also post about my often very esoteric research so if you’ve enjoyed this talk you might like to have a look there.

So once again I most warmly thank the National Library for allowing me this time. It has been a real privilege and I am exceedingly grateful, and I hope to show you more of this story in the future.


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