John Lewin, a natural history illustrator, arrived in New South Wales from England in 1801, the first professional artist to come to the new colony as a free settler. Richard Browne was also an artist, but arrived in the colony as a convict in 1811, completing his sentence in Newcastle in 1817. Their illustrations of the exotic bird life of Australia are today recognised as some of the most significant in colonial art.
Lewin’s Birds of New South Wales with their Natural History was the first non-Government book published in the colony. He finished the plates for the book between December 1804 and February 1805, and a small edition was published in England in 1807. The National Gallery of Australia’s copy is one of 13 books known to have been produced in the Sydney edition of 1813. Lewin’s distinctive style of closely cropped and often asymmetrical compositions, combined with his naively unscientific yet poetic texts, has ensured the book’s place in Australian visual history. It is not only one of the most important colonial publications, but also one of the most beautiful.
1 Compiled from Roger Butler, ‘John Lewin: Birds of New South Wales with their Natural History (1813)’ in National Gallery of Australia: An introduction to the collection, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1998, p.2 and Andrew Sayers, Drawing in Australia: Drawings, water-colours, pastels and collages from the 1770s to the 1980s, Melbourne: Oxford University Press and National Gallery of Australia, 1989, p.28.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002