The National Library of Australia acknowledges Australia’s First Nations Peoples – the First Australians – as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this land and gives respect to the Elders – past and present – and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this recording may contain images of people who have passed away.
Guy Hansen: Hello, I'm Guy Hansen, director of exhibitions at the national library of Australia. Today, I'm going to be talking to Dr. Philip Jones about our new exhibition, Illustrating the Antipodes, George French Angus in Australia and New Zealand. I'm really looking forward to hearing about this show, Philip.
Philip Jones: Great to be here.
Guy Hansen: So this show's all about George French Angus, the artist. Can you tell me what he did and why he's [00:00:30] a figure we should be interested in?
Philip Jones: He was an extraordinary young man, highly talented and precocious, not prepared to go into his father's business and wanting to travel the world as a naturalist and an artist. And he was able to do that. He was a romantic, but also a highly skilled, disciplined natural history illustrator and he somehow managed to combine these two elements.
Guy Hansen: [00:01:00] So he spent two years traveling the world, producing amazing sketches and art which has now ended up in the collections of the national library and the South Australian Museum, and you've had the great pleasure of going through these collections and curating a great show for us.
Philip Jones: Well, it's been a detective story, I suppose, lasting for nearly a couple of decades.
Guy Hansen: What were the years that he was traveling?
Philip Jones: He set off in late 1843 from London, [00:01:30] arrived in South Australia on the 1st of January, 1844 and spent the next 18 months in Australia and New Zealand before returning to a huge exhibition of his work, 300 watercolors.
Guy Hansen: So all of these pictures which he produced over this time, they sort of give us a snapshot of what was happening in Australia and New Zealand and on the frontier and as the settlement was ongoing. So it's an invaluable resource.
Philip Jones: It is. [00:02:00] He was very aware of his place in history and he called it the tide of history he knew would be sweeping over these distant colonies. And his intent was to capture what was shortly going to be irrevocably altered by European colonization.
Guy Hansen: And what are these two key works which you've got at the front of the exhibition? What are they?
Philip Jones: Well, these are the titled pages to his two volumes [00:02:30] of lithographs. Hand colored lithographs, which were published both of them within a few months of his return to England in 1846. South Australia illustrated 60 lithographs contained in that volume and the New Zealanders illustrated which came out in the same year.
Guy Hansen: And so the exhibition has some of the original sketches and drawings and watercolors, as well as some of the lithographs from these books?
Philip Jones: Yes, indeed. [00:03:00] The watercolors that he made were made purely in order to essentially market the lithograph volumes and were forgotten for many years because people turned their attention to the lithographs and the watercolors stayed in collections and were generally not seen for 175 years.
Guy Hansen: Let's go and explore some of these works. So Philip, Angus was clearly a very talented artist and I gather he was quite a child prodigy. Can you tell me a bit about his [00:03:30] education and how he acquired his skills?
Philip Jones: Well, in the early years he was entirely self taught as a young boy and he was known for drawing on the walls of his bedroom. But soon after that, he began you could say his career essentially as a copyist initially and highly skilled at reproducing birds and insects and plants, really from the age of eight or nine. And then [00:04:00] after three or four years, I believe he really began to see his future in terms of publishing. He was taking his model perhaps from people like Edward Lee. He was looking at the subscription method of publishing. And so in 1838, a year after Quinn Victoria ascended the throne, he founded a little magazine when he was 16 years old with his own illustrations and [00:04:30] journalism in it.
Guy Hansen: So I can see that we've got some great examples of his early work here. I can see a school book, clearly a very good student, and we can also see some of these early publications, which I gather he sold to relatives and friends?
Philip Jones: Yes, he began this little magazine, the Victoria Magazine. He offered them by subscription for a penny or [inaudible 00:04:55] a month, and then the idea was that you pass it on to the next person and this was to his [00:05:00] relatives and friends. He was age 16 at this time so you can detect an entrepreneurial spirit.
Guy Hansen: Did he just do one addition and that was what was circulated or more than one addition?
Philip Jones: Yeah, he did one addition. We are very lucky to have three of them that still exists. There are two in the national library collection and they combine his copier skills which you see to very good effect. But his school book is an extraordinary document because you can see [00:05:30] in there that he's already, at the age of 16, conversant with the principles of light and physics and perspective, and he was extremely good at employing or deploying those skills in his work later.
Guy Hansen: Did he have an unconventional education at the time?
Philip Jones: He had a nonconformist education. He was from a family of dissenters and the idea was that if you made money, you needed [00:06:00] to push it back into the society and the community and he was imbued with those ideals as well.
Guy Hansen: So Philip, Angus came out to Australia and New Zealand and also spent a lot of time in South Australia in particular. What was the reason that he came to this part of the world?
Philip Jones: Well, he was poised to embark on a career as an artist, but he didn't particularly have a subject until we bring in his father to the story. His father was the chair of the South Australia Company, [00:06:30] the new colony that had been founded in 1836 and in the early 1840s, his father actually purchased what is largely the Barossa Valley today. And he needed to promote the valley to investors and those who would be interested in coming to South Australia and the idea that his son would become an artist was anathema to him at that time. But then he saw maybe it's a good idea [00:07:00] to bring him to South Australia and he can do pictures of the Barossa Valley and so on and promote the colony.
Guy Hansen: And we've got a couple of sketches, drawings from the Barossa just here.
Philip Jones: Yes. Well, this is an extraordinary image. It's the only image that exists of the small, old German township of Bethany on the edge of the Barossa Valley. The beauty of the national libraries collection is that we have the sketches [00:07:30] for these images. And here you see, for example, a milk maid, you could call her that and some figures sitting on a log here. And here's the sketch for those individuals. And this is what Angus did. He did figure studies separately, then he did the landscape and then inserted the figures into that picture. So we see that very nicely in these two images.
Guy Hansen: And this is the kind of detective work that you've been able to do working with the library's archives, [00:08:00] as you've been able to find the original studies and then how he has recombined those elements into finished illustrations.
Philip Jones: And hopefully also revisiting those sites and seeing, yes, he did actually stand there in January, 1844 and do that image.
Guy Hansen: So it's a really important record of what South Australia was like in this period?
Philip Jones: Well, yes, because of the detail, and there were more impressionistic images, people who were not necessarily trained in art, [00:08:30] but Angus had this training and he had in a sense a photographic sensibility for the landscape.
Guy Hansen: So we've got a whole set of drawings and watercolors and things from the Barossa in the show for people to look at.
Philip Jones: We do, because this was his primary obligation to his father, which he more or less completed in the first month or two of being in South Australia. And then he moved to various expeditions, journeys into the bush as he called it, [00:09:00] and there are four of those and we look at all of those in the exhibition.
Guy Hansen: So Philip, the accuracy of his depictions of the frontier of course included some really beautiful and sympathetic drawings of Indigenous people and we've got some here.
Philip Jones: And what you can see in these images is essentially the balance that he was able to maintain between his leanings towards romanticism and his absolutely austere depiction of detail. And I think you [00:09:30] see that in this little image of Rimili Peringiri, who was a young boy whom he encountered with his mother on the banks of the Murray at Wellington, Southeast of Adelaide, and wearing a little duck bill pendant. And these are details which no other ethnographer was recording at the time. He also wasn't averse to including images of the impact of Europeans. And so you see a blanket here [00:10:00] and probably a sailor's jersey in the top image there.
Guy Hansen: So we can see that Angus is sort of drawing what he's seeing. He's not making things up. There's good evidence to suggest these are very accurate drawings.
Philip Jones: Yeah. I would maintain that he didn't draw anything that he couldn't see. In other words, he's not adding in. Occasionally in his landscapes, he leaves a space in the foreground for figures, but [00:10:30] these are figures that he's seen. Yeah.
Guy Hansen: So the documentary nature of Angus's illustrations, I think really comes out in this piece. You can see how accurate and how much attention to detail. What are we looking at here?
Philip Jones: Well, here we are looking at a compilation from his different expeditions in South Australia generally, although he also included a few objects which were lent in by governor Gray, who was really his sponsor in South Australia. [00:11:00] So this is little Kimberley Point from Northwestern, Australia and one or two other items, but generally he's recording items which other ethnographers had not noticed in this period. So for example, a wicker-work snare if you like, or something where birds would rest and then they'd be hooked off with a device which is recorded [00:11:30] down here. A whole range of material culture objects and the interesting thing now is that Nari-Nari descendants are looking at these objects as inspiration for reviving material culture in their region because of the accuracy of these works.
Guy Hansen: So some of the other ethnographers when you see their assemblages, it's often heavily focused on weapons, but you can see baskets and other devices here.
Philip Jones: Yes. Yeah, items [00:12:00] of domestic use. And if you look at these tiny little vignettes, he's recording Nari-Nari women fishing on the lake, Lake Albert using a floating island of reeds to dive off and collect muscles, and nobody else recorded this. So these sorts of things are really vital.
Guy Hansen: It's this beautiful couple of drawings. Angus of course, had been very interested in natural history when he was younger and of course during these [00:12:30] expeditions, he did a lot of natural history drawing and we've got some examples here. Can you tell me a bit about this beautiful piece here and then this slightly awkward looking kangaroo here?
Philip Jones: Well, here you see his finished work and actually this is a lithograph of his entomology of South Australia. So to gain those pictures, he collected the specimens himself, but he also relied on colleagues who were already forming a reputation in Adelaide in the early [00:13:00] 1840s for their entomology. So he was always using these networks of individuals and from that, he was able to make these extraordinary drawings which stood the test of time and they're still used as a reference today. Whereas this one is a field sketch and it was made during his third expedition with governor Gray, and Gray a few months earlier had actually discovered for Western science, this particular species of [00:13:30] kangaroo which is now extinct. It was named for him, [inaudible 00:13:36] Grayeye and on the third expedition, they discovered more specimens of this kangaroo and this is the one that ended up in the British museum, but this is Angus's sketch in the field where he's created the measurements, tail length, hind and four paws, ears, the whole thing.
Guy Hansen: And when you say specimen, [00:14:00] you must probably mean the kangaroo's dead when it's being drawn.
Philip Jones: Yes. Yes. I mean, what they commented on is it's extremely agile and fast and you had to be very lucky to bring one down with the weaponry, the hunting weaponry of that time. It's inscribed on the image, April 19th, 1844. It was during the third expedition with governor Gray. Gray had the year before actually secured [00:14:30] a specimen of the kangaroo and from that, the kangaroo was named [inaudible 00:14:37] Grayeye named after gray. But on this expedition, they were able to bring to ground this particular female of the species and from that dead animal, Angus was able to draw this image with all the measurements which are scientifically so important for differentiating [00:15:00] species and 100 years later, this animal extinct. So these records are extremely significant and important scientifically.
Guy Hansen: Yeah. No, it's obviously a really important record of things which are gone now and it really captures that moment that Angus was there where Australia was changing so much.
Philip Jones: Yes, and his eye for color is so important here. He has captured all of the nuances [00:15:30] of the animal's fur for which it was known widely and one of the reasons for it going extinct was this very attractive fur.
Guy Hansen: So Philip, we talked about South Australia and the extensive work that Angus did there, but New Zealand was another focus of his interest. And so can you tell me about his travels in New Zealand?
Philip Jones: Yeah. In July, 1844, he received a letter from his father [00:16:00] saying, "Well, you've done enough. Come home," and Angus was just in the grip of his project and he didn't want to go home, but he didn't know how to evade his father's reach if you like. And so he heard about this incredible place over the water where there was this remarkable architecture and material culture and people in New Zealand, Nari people. So he managed to jump on a South Australia Company ship which was going [00:16:30] there and from there on, he had introductions from the governor, George Gray to various officials and individuals in New Zealand and he was able to set off on a tour with the protector of aborigines as it was called in New Zealand, Thomas Forseth who actually spoke fluent Nari and they went from mission to mission by foot.
One of the objectives was to discuss issues [00:17:00] which had arisen from the treaty of [foreign language 00:17:03], which had just been a few years earlier, four years earlier. So Angus was then meeting all of the [foreign language 00:17:10] or the chiefs of the Nari who were very pleased to have their portraits taken, because they knew that Angus would be taking them over the seas to Queen Victoria. And they, at this particular juncture felt that they needed more authority on their side [00:17:30] to win the arguments with the New Zealand government if you like and in that period.
Guy Hansen: So I can see that the portraits we've got here, they're not just exotic figures. They're real people and you can even see the signatures of the people who've been depicted.
Philip Jones: Yeah. We were at this particular moment in history where Nari are embracing literacy. They're seeing Christianity as a means of [00:18:00] entering the European sphere on their own terms and literacy is certainly part of that. So a lot of these significant political figures, the [foreign language 00:18:12] the chiefs were already literate and were prepared to sign their own portraits almost as an endorsement. This is me and I am the chief of so and so, and so and so. So Angus is asking them to do this and they're posing for [00:18:30] him knowing that these pictures are going to reach England. So they're dressing in their finery and what you're seeing are these extraordinary records that Angus is making so faithfully of the decoration and the material of these flax cloaks at this juncture.
Guy Hansen: Yeah, they really are quite extraordinary and you can really see the details of the cloaks [00:19:00] and the care that Angus has taken to record the individual's names and the settings. So again, really important documentary material about the history of New Zealand.
Philip Jones: And this image, or both of them are particularly interesting because these children here are the children of Tupacoru, who was one of the key figures in the north of the north island of New Zealand in the early 1840s. [00:19:30] And these two men are signatories of the treaty of [foreign language 00:19:34]. I was able to visit this locality and almost by chance meet the great, great, great, great grandson of Tupacoru who had never seen this particular picture. He was familiar with this one because it was published as a lithograph, but he was very touched to see that this existed and Angus [00:20:00] would've been touched as well, I think.
Guy Hansen: Yeah. Fantastic story. So Philip, in these set of drawings and illustrations of New Zealand, there's some amazing depictions of Nari carving. Can you tell me a little bit about these images here?
Philip Jones: Well, these were made during his journey north from Lake Taupo, which is in the middle of the north island of New Zealand, north back to Auckland. I think [00:20:30] these images give us an image of what separated Angus from other artists of this period who would've been intimidated by something as complex and finely drawn and finely carved and detailed as this, which is a monument erected by one of the key [foreign language 00:20:52] or chiefs in the north island to his favorite daughter who had passed away. And [00:21:00] he'd commissioned it from an old man who was a renowned carver, who was simply using a single old bayonet, a British bayonet to make this incredible carving with pearl shell eyes on all the figures.
This fellow was still alive and living in the village when Angus came through and made this drawing. Angus had the opportunity to show the drawing to the old man who was overwhelmed. [00:21:30] He said, "You are a great priest," he said in Nari to Angus and this is the sort of thing that Angus was able to rattle together pretty quickly and astonished everyone by this degree of accuracy and skill. And you see it here in this carving of a Tiki. He had permission by the chiefs to do this and once they realized [00:22:00] his levels of skill, they were very happy for him to take these images back to England.
Guy Hansen: And do these structures survive today?
Philip Jones: No, they don't and Angus was aware. He was seeing the damage that had been wrought by colonization. The fact that traditions were falling away and he knew that these structures would not last much longer and they didn't. However, [00:22:30] Nari people are reviving these skills today and have been hanging onto those traditions in the intervening period. But nowadays, these images are becoming more and more significant for people who are looking to recreate what their ancestors had made.
Guy Hansen: So Philip, one of the places where Angus did spend some time was Sydney and here you can see some illustrations which looks like they're fairly the kind of idea of [00:23:00] Sydney and the heads. What are we looking at here?
Philip Jones: Well, after he finished his work in South Australia, he knew that he had to do two things. Firstly, assemble all his work and have exhibitions of his work, both in Adelaide and Sydney. So he moved across to Sydney in July, August 1845 and he made a number of drawings in Sydney and also south of [00:23:30] Sydney around Kiama. And here in Sydney, you can see his black and white, or ink and wash sketches of the La Perouse Monument, which of course is still standing. Botany Bay, a well known monument in memory of the French Explorer, Hala Perouse. And then below, and these were made just a few days before he left Australia [00:24:00] for London. You can see his image of the heads and what he called the parting ship, the ship on its way from... Not his ship, but another ship on its way from Australia back to London. And interestingly, 10 years later, Angus was actually living not far from this vantage point as the secretary of the Australian museum in Sydney.
Guy Hansen: You can sort of see, he's got a bit of an eye for the market though in the production of these sketches. These [00:24:30] are things, images that people might want to have.
Philip Jones: Yeah. And these were turned into small lithographs which were published in the record of his journal of his time in the antipodes and these featured in that. So they've only just come to light actually just before the exhibition so we are very lucky to have them in there.
Guy Hansen: More of your great detective work, Philip. [00:25:00] So Philip in 1845 when Angus started his journey back home, he was only 23 and he'd had an amazing couple of years. So you've had the great pleasure of going through all of this material, what do you think is the legacy of Angus from this amazing two years of his life?
Philip Jones: Well, he was able to return to London where his father had probably booked the Egyptian Hall, which was the premier exhibition venue in London. [00:25:30] And so his show was held there with more than 300 of his finished watercolors on display together with specimens of natural history and ethnographic material. And that would've been a transitory experience were it not for the fact that he produced these two marvelous volumes, one South Australia illustrated, one New Zealanders illustrated. And for that, he had to subject his own watercolors to the lithographic process. [00:26:00] And here you can see the transition from his original watercolor. And this is of one of the sinkholes in the volcanic region of Southeastern South Australia where they came across these remarkable land forms that they had not seen before. And this is Angus's image of what was known then as the devil's punch bowl.
And you can see Angus himself as the artist sitting on the edge of [00:26:30] the punch bowl. You can see some figures in the background as well. But when it came to making the lithograph, the lithographers and probably Angus himself decided that some of these images needed simplifying. They're a little too complex. So what you see here is the figures have been taken out and kangaroos have been substituted. Also, the vegetation has altered a little so the recognizable vegetation that Angus was drawing very [00:27:00] accurately is unfortunately in the lithographs is occasionally overcome or superseded by the lithographers version of what the vegetation should look like.
So one of the satisfying aspects of this show has been to go back to those original sketches or original watercolors and to see the difference between the original watercolor and the lithograph. The lithography was a very [00:27:30] high level, very high standard and Angus was certainly happy with the result and he has been known primarily for those lithographs. So once again, this exhibition and the book that accompanies it takes us back to the field to the way in which the images were made, and we can measure the effect of his lithographs and the original watercolors.
Guy Hansen: Well, thanks for that Philip. It's amazing to hear [00:28:00] about these wonderful illustrations produced by Angus in the 1840s. If you'd like to see this beautiful exhibition, it's on now at the National Library of Australia. I hope you can come in.
Join author Dr. Philip Jones and NLA Director of Exhibitions Guy Hansen, for a tour of exhibition highlights from Illustrating the Antipodes: George French Angas in Australia and New Zealand 1844-1845.
Learn more about this exhibition here.