The earliest painting made in Australia in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection, Boobook owl is the work of an unidentified artist who is thought to have also contributed to a group of ornithological watercolours, dated to c. 1790, in a volume held in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. The work of at least three different individuals has been identified in these watercolours and these artists are now collectively referred to as 'the Sydney Bird Painter'. Although their identities are unknown, it is possible that they were all members of the First Fleet.
The sophisticated draughtsmanship evident in the Gallery’s drawing suggests that its creator had undergone formal art training. Rendered in watercolour and ink over a faint pencil outline, the owl is depicted at half its actual size. The physical features of the bird are carefully delineated in the manner of such natural history drawings, which were traditionally drawn from life or from the stuffed skins of collected specimens. Yet, despite the attention to detail, the depiction reveals several inaccuracies - for example, the shape of the beak - which may be the result of factors such as the artist’s having worked from a skin and never having seen a live specimen, or, simply, artistic licence. The colours and distinctive pattern of feathers on the owl’s head, and the area of white around its beak, suggest that the species depicted here is in fact, probably from New Zealand or Norfolk Island, rather than Sydney. There remains some doubt about the origin of the bird depicted in the Gallery’s drawing however, due to the fact that it is not known with certainty whether the drawing is the original or a copy of the so-called Watling drawing of the boobook owl (Natural History Museum, London), a smaller version of the subject which is attributed to the Port Jackson Painter. The Watling drawing was used as the basis for the classification of the Sydney species of boobook at the beginning of the nineteenth century, despite the fact that it is not known whether the specimen depicted was in fact collected in the Sydney area. Strikingly similar to the Gallery's work in terms of composition and detail, the Watling drawing is however, less artistically and technically refined, and for this reason is generally thought to be a later copy.
Text by Kirsty Grant from On Paper: Australian Prints and Drawings in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 18.