European adventurers and merchants 'bumped into' the west coast of Australia from as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, it was not until the British sailor and cartographer, Captain James Cook, chartered the east coast of Australia in 1770 that there was any thought of establishing a colony in New Holland. When the First Fleet arrived from England in 1788 it brought nearly 800 convicts and 110 marines and officers. They had been at sea for eight months and one week. If nothing else, the length of the voyage must have impressed upon the travelers how far away they were from European civilization.
Reflecting on the earliest days of the settlement, Governor Arthur Phillip wrote in the year after his arrival,
'There are few things more pleasing than the contemplation of order and useful arrangements arising gradually out of tumult and confusion; and perhaps this satisfaction cannot anywhere be more fully enjoyed than where a settlement of civilized people is fixing itself upon a newly discovered savage coast. The wild appearance of the land entirely untouched by cultivation. The close and perplexed growing of trees, interrupted now and then by barren spots, have rocks, or spaces overgrown with weeds, flowers, flowering shrubs, or underwood, scattered and intermingled in the most promiscuous manner, are the first objects that present themselves: afterwards, the irregular placing of the first tents which are pitched, or huts which are erected for immediate accommodation, wherever chance presents a spot tolerably free from obstacles, or more easily cleared than the rest, with the bustle of various hands busily employed in a number of the most…
…incongruous works, increases rather than diminishes the disorder, and produces a confusion of effect, which for a time appears inextricable, and seems to threaten an endless continuance of perplexity. But by degrees large spaces are opened, plans formed, lines marked, and a prospect at least of future regularity is clearly discerned, and is made the more striking by the recollection of former confusion.'
Accounts of the voyages of Australian and Pacific exploration and the first settlement were the 'best sellers' of their day. The most popular of these, published in 1773, was the account of Captain Cook's voyage. Issued in many languages and aided by his romanticized death, it ensured that Cook became an international hero of the Age of Enlightenment. There were many similarly popular accounts of the experience of those associated with the establishment of the colony.
Drawings and watercolours of the landscape and flora and fauna were sought after as ways in which to show those in Europe the strange place in which the settlement was made and its progress in becoming an example of European civilization. Amateurs did their best making sketches and watercolours to send or take back home. Engravers, convicts convicted of forgery, were commissioned to make the first prints depicting the settlement. Specialized artist's supplies were so scarce that the plates for these etchings were made on copper sheeting intended for use on ship's hulls. Those who could afford it employed others to paint views for them. Governor Macquarie made use of the convict painter, Joseph Lycett, to depict his achievements to accompany official reports to his superiors in London. In the days before photography these images were the way in which people were able to show those in Europe something of the excitement they felt in being part of the first European settlement on the last habitable continent to be discovered.
Today it is difficult for us to imagine just how exciting the unusual, and sometimes bizarre, landscape with its strange flora and fauna, appeared to the first Europeans. Explorers were amazed and fascinated at this upside-down Antipodean world, a whole new continent to classify. From the first European discovery scientists and botanists collected natural history specimens, such as the kangaroo and the duck-billed platypus, which were sent back to England to puzzle naturalists. Amateurs also made collections for their education and enjoyment, and sometimes financial reward. One of the most remarkable of these collections was housed in a purpose built collector's chest decorated by the convict artist Joseph Lycett in 1817-1818.
The landscape also frightened the Europeans. Explorers perished, children and adults who wandered away often disappeared. Drought, fire and flood regularly destroyed stock and property, while sharks, spiders, and snakes were not an imagined threat to human life. The landscape and its flora and fauna were not benign.
Throughout the history of European settlement there are accounts of the weirdness and the ugliness of Australian flora and the bush. It was frequently described as monotonous, drab and dull, lacking in greenness and the colours of a more familiar landscape. However, at the same time there were those who looked more carefully, at first the professional botanists, but soon after those who lived close-to or travelled through the bush. They perceived its subtleties and the unique qualities which encouraged the observant viewer to look closer – its delicate patterns and tiny detail, its myriad browns, greens and greys of the softest hues over which the tints of pink, purple and golden yellow spread themselves. And, of course, the bright golden light and clear blue skies inspired painters such as the British landscape painter John Glover who arrived in Tasmania in 1831 on his 64th birthday and painted some of the most beautiful and perceptive images of the Australian landscape.
Of course, for the Aboriginal people Australia was not a wilderness but a landscape in which they had been living for thousands of years, and which had shaped their culture. The Stone Age culture of the Aboriginal people was considered less developed than that of Europe, and dismissed by explorers and, later, settlers. Few developed anything more than a basic knowledge of the complex languages used or of the sophisticated way in which Aboriginal people lived in harmony with the land and its flora and fauna. Seeing no familiar signs of ownership such as permanent buildings, nor settled agricultural practices, the Europeans appropriated the land with little understanding of the devastating impact this would have upon its original inhabitants.
Apart from establishing the convict colony Governor Phillip explored the possibility of considering its future economic well-being. Some historians consider that the British settlement was determined by the navy's need for timber suitable for ship's masts and a steady supply of flax for sails. While Norfolk Island pines provided timber for masts, and later red cedar and Huon pine proved useful for boatbuilding, the Australian colony never became the source of these natural materials. Late in 1788 Phillip sent a sample of Sydney Cove clay to Sir Joseph Banks who passed it on to Josiah Wedgwood whose newly established pottery at Eturia produced a medallion with figures representing,
'Hope encouraging Art and Labour under the influence of Peace, to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to an infant colony'.
These rare medallions are some of the earliest decorative arts objects associated with European Australia.
Similarly Phillip sent samples of colonial timbers back to England to be assessed for potential use. In his The cabinet dictionary, published in 1803, Thomas Sheraton described these timbers as 'Botany Bay wood', and as being of little commercial value, although some had been used in 'ornamenting cabinet work', and there are several examples of British furniture made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from exotic Australian timbers. The most elaborate of these being a Pembroke table made from beefwood [Grevillea striata] sent back to England by the First Fleet's Surgeon-General John White.
Later the discovery of Australian red cedar [Toona ciliata] provided the colony with its most popular timber for building and architectural joinery, as well as cabinetmaking. The export to Britain of colonial timbers, but more significantly whale oil, were the first profitable natural products from the colony. Later, after the crossing of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, in 1813, and the discovery of huge pastoral land, wool and wheat, formed the basis of the colony's future prosperity. By the mid-19th century Australia was one of the world's richest pastoral areas.
Although Australia was settled when the Industrial Revolution was having its greatest impact in Europe, the abundance of free convict labour in the colony undoubtedly slowed down the introduction of new technology. While the first steam mill was established at Darling Harbour, Sydney, in 1813, and from the 1830s steamships regularly sailed between Europe and Australia and provided local transport and freight services the wood and coal to fire the engines was most often dug and cut by convict labour. The first railroad, between Sydney and Parramatta, was opened in 1854, after the goldrush of 1851 which brought huge numbers of free settlers and entrepreneurs to the colony, changed the size and nature of the original convict settlements and increased the need for a more industrialized economy.
The first tents and huts described by Phillip were soon replaced by simple wattle-and-daub houses and a few brick buildings. These followed the vernacular style common in Britain, exemplifying a simple Georgian symmetry. As the colony developed more impressive houses and public buildings were erected in the neo-classical style. Houses, such as Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, followed British taste and drew on the 18th century tradition of a gentleman's country villa. Public buildings, even more obvious in drawing their inspiration from Greek temples, were seen as helping to civilize the wilderness. The most impressive of these, Acanthe, was designed by the convict architect, James Blackburn, for Lady Franklin, the wife of the Tasmanian governor, as a centre for the education and enlightenment of the local population. Some early settlers and members of the military had experienced life in India and houses were often built with verandahs and other ways of making life more comfortable in a hot climate. Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, built for Elizabeth and John Macarthur in 1793 is the oldest surviving building in Australia, and an outstanding example of how verandahs, French doors, breezeways and covered walkways helped Europeans to cope with the Antipodean climate.
In the earliest settlements of Sydney and Hobart, furniture and silver, often made by convict craftsmen, followed the British fashion for a restrained neo-classical style with little or no ornament. The sideboard made by an estate carpenter for John Macarthur's Elizabeth Farm is a fine example of this restrained elegance. Like much colonial furniture its simplicity was inspired by the designs of British cabinetmakers such as Hepplewhite and Sheraton whose pattern books were published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Similarly Alexander Dick's silver dog collar, made as a prize for the winner of a rat killing competition, exemplifies the restraint of colonial silversmithing, but perhaps not the ferocity of colonial life! There are, of course, occasional more exuberant examples of neo-classical design and a variety of classical motifs such as the fluting of columns, and its opposite, gadrooning, flowerettes [paterae], lyre shaped sofas, scallop shell and cornucopia decorations were fashionable, and sometimes used in excess.
When Loudon's Encyclopaedia of cottage, farm and villa architecture and furniture was published in London in 1833 copies were soon available in the colony. Loudon offered designs for every kind of building necessary for life in the colony whether building a grand house or a farmhouse, as well as specialized buildings such as stables and dairies. He also provided designs for furniture and fittings such as carpets and curtains, and made suggestions for appropriate colour schemes for specific rooms. Other later pattern books, as well as fashion plates, ensured that it was possible for colonial gentry to be as up to date as their equivalent in England.
In a landscape with no permanent buildings one officer of the First Fleet looked to Sydney Harbour's natural rock formations to create 'charming seats, superb buildings, the grand ruins of stately edifices'. This was a romantic response from someone looking for the familiarity of ruins to remind them of human achievement and assure them of their place in the landscape. Like many others faced with a landscape with no familiar signs of human occupation, the desire to make their mark was strong.
The gothic revival style was chosen for many public buildings as a way of symbolizing British history and the permanence of the settlement. In 1820 in an expanding colony showing signs of stability and prosperity Governor Macquarie had the designs for a new Government House in Sydney executed in the gothic revival style. However, the plans by the convict architect, Frances Greenway, proved too extravagant and only part of the stables were completed. Two chairs in the gothic style, commissioned by Macquarie, and made by convict craftsmen, are remarkable survivors of this fashion. Similarly an enthusiasm for more exotic styles, often symbolizing British colonial interests, occasionally resulted in architecture and furniture in the Egyptian taste.
Whalers and sailors, working in and around Australian waters, before and after the official European discovery, would have been the first people to create objects in the western tradition. Occupying themsleves during long voyages or while waiting for sightings of whale, many turned their hand to a variety of crafts including scrimshaw, shell work and embroidery. Similarly convicts and members of the military on board ships en route to Australia occasionally made objects such as love tokens and perhaps the remarkable Charlotte medallion recording the ship's arrival in Botany Bay in 1788. One group of convict women even worked to piece and embroider a quilt, a unique survivor of convict women's art and an example of Elizabeth Fry's attempts to reform and improve the conditions of convict women in gaol and on board ship.
The folk and popular arts tradition to which this work belongs was undermined by the hardships suffered by the earliest Australian settlers and later the Industrial Revolution. The traditional crafts of women and those unschooled in art failed to flourish and remain rare in Australian art history.
As in all pioneering settlements the first furniture was little more than 'making-do'. Tree stumps and logs served as seats and tables. The earliest furniture makers in the colony would have been either attached to the military or ships' carpenters, or were among the few convicts with carpentry and cabinetmaking skills. Working with unfamiliar woods, poor tools, and in most instances, only a familiarity with provincial styles, they made furniture to meet the demands of the colony. The poor quality of these objects, and certainly the desire to forget more humble beginnings, means that no examples of the earliest efforts have survived. The on-going Australian tradition of 'making-do', with furniture made from packing cases and quilts made from scraps, undoubtedly has its origins in the earliest days of European settlement. Needless to say, the humble nature of these early objects has meant that few have survived. Getting-ahead, improving oneself and forgetting humble, and convict, origins meant that until late in the 20th century Australians seldom appreciated, valued or collected, examples of folk and popular art.
The official announcement of the discovery of gold in 1851 marks the greatest change in the nature of the colony. Within a few months, as fortune seekers came from Britain, the United States and China, there were more free settlers than convicts. Transportation of convicts to New South Wales and Tasmania officially ceased in 1853, and the move towards self government culminated with Federation in 1901.
Also in 1851 London's Crystal Palace Exhibition, showed the excesses of Victorian design, which had been aided by the mechanized production of the Industrial Revolution. People such as Prince Albert, an active patron of the decorative arts, and William Morris, a reforming philosopher and designer, realized the significance of modern design. They promoted new philosophies of art and design and a broader understanding of its significance in everyday life.
By the mid 19th century the development of photography, a new egalitarian art, gave people a much greater awareness of themselves and their place in the world. Photographs documented the places and people of Australia and enabled people to keep in touch as never before. Photography helped to 'shrink' the world and was a significant factor in creating the world we know today.
These three unrelated events mark the end of the colonial period, but each had enormous impact on the colony's future and how Australian's saw their place in the world. The colonial period in Australia ends with an increasingly prosperous and independent Australian population. The colony's enormous wealth in the last half of the 19th century resulted in some of the most elaborate private and public buildings following British revivalist fashions. Early in the 1850s 'Marvelous Melbourne', as the city was called, and the centre of government, built a Parliament House and a Treasury exemplifying colonial confidence. Joseph Reed's Royal Exhibition Building survives as an extraordinary example of the 19th century delight in international exhibitions.
At the end of the 19th century Australian artists, crafts persons and architects were much more aware of their place in the world and began to see the need to establish a specifically Australian style. Adherents of the Arts and Crafts Movement developed an architecture that was less formal, more suited for modern living, and which was appropriate to an Australian lifestyle. Artists and crafts persons began to take pleasure in, and celebrate, the Australian landscape, its timbers and decorative motifs.
John McPhee, April 2010