When he stepped off the boat in Sydney Harbor on 11 January 1800, John Lewin was about to wield his paintbrush as the first free-settler professional artist in a wild frontier land.
He’d already missed his first boat to Australia, the Buffalo, which his wife Anna Maria had boarded 18 months earlier.
So, he took the long journey to Australia alone, and he began his life in a new land amid controversy, when Anna Maria was accused in court of misconduct with the Buffalo’s second mate – a charge which she was acquitted of.
Nonetheless, once he was settled, Lewin painted some of the earliest and most valuable paintings of Australia’s fauna and flora, exhibiting a relaxed style at odds with the traditional European art, but well suited to the colonies.
Early Australian illustrated books
Lewin had chosen to relocate because he had been attempting to illustrate lifelike Australian animals from damaged and dried specimens in England – an almost impossible task.
He became one of the first professional painters and certainly one of the first free-settler artists in Australia in the first half of the 19th century, painting the first image of a koala in 1803.
He later put together a number of books, the first of which was an illustrated volume on moths: Prodromus Entymology,
Natural History of Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales. It was published in 1805 in London and so English naturalists could record the details of the rare specimens illustrated.
The lack of supplies in the colony eventually meant Lewin had to produce his own ink, and so he also became Australia’s first printmaker.
A watercolour of a faggot case moth in Prodromus Entymology perfectly “showcases [Lewin’s] capacity for strong design,” says Richard Neville, a curator at the NSW State Library in Sydney.
“To have plants running across a sheet of paper like this now seems conventional and obvious, but when Lewin developed this style it was entirely new and unprecedented.”
In 1813 Lewin produced the first illustrated book to be published in the colony itself, Birds of New South Wales (1813) – copies of this book have in recent times sold at auction for up to $500,000.