Boobook owl

The Sydney Bird Painter(c. 1790-1800)

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne, Australia

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.


  • Title: Boobook owl
  • Creator: The Sydney Bird Painter
  • Date Created: (c. 1790-1800)
  • Physical Dimensions: 32.2 x 29.8 cm (Image)
  • Type: Watercolours
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne The Warren Clark Bequest, 1999, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: watercolour and pen and ink over pencil
  • Provenance: Private collection, until 1920s; private collection, England and Canada, before 1994; by whom sold, Christie’s, Melbourne, 6–7 December 1994, no. 67; sale, Deutscher-Menzies, Melbourne, 23 August 1999, no. 46; from where purchased, 1999.
  • Additional information: The arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson in 1788 coincided with the unprecedented level of activity in the field of natural history that characterised the late eighteenth century. Throughout Great Britain, continental Europe and North America, this period was marked by a significant increase in the collection and classification of specimens, as well as in publications on different aspects of the natural world. Given this scientific climate and the intense interest that Captain James Cook’s 1770 voyage to the east coast of Australia had aroused in Australia's indigenous plants and animals, it is surprising that no professional naturalists or artists sailed with the First Fleet, despite its primary purpose of transporting convicts. During the early years of settlement however, there were a number of individuals who visually documented the new colony's exotic flora and fauna. In addition to the scientific purpose of such activity, a further motivation may have been the prospect of discovering an indigenous ‘product’ that would bring commercial gain both to the individual who discovered it and to the Empire.

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