About John Lewin

Lewin: Wild Art was curated by Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian, State Library of NSW. Richard's new book Mr JW Lewin, Painter & Naturalist, Sydney: Newsouth Publishing, 2012 is on sale in the galleries.

The artworks displayed in each section are listed in the exhibition guide (3MB PDF).

Exhibition sections

1. Life in England

John Lewin was born in London in 1770. His father, William, was a fabric designer who became a natural history illustrator and author. William’s books were well regarded, but he was considered a ‘practical naturalist’ — a talented artisan and collector rather than a scientist. Although almost nothing is known about his education and training, young John presumably learned his skills helping his father.

In 1798 he decided to travel to Australia to paint and publish its natural history ‘on the spot, and not from dry specimens’. He wanted to avoid the great problem of natural history illustration: that specimens arriving in Europe from across the world were often damaged or poorly preserved.
A wealthy goldsmith and entomologist, or insect collector, Dru Drury, sponsored Lewin to travel to Australia. He provided £51 of supplies such as guns, nets, specimen jars and printmaking equipment, to be repaid in insect specimens.

2. Tragedy and triumph

John Lewin arrived in Sydney on 11 January 1800. His wife, Maria, preceded him by eight months. They had both been waiting on the ship when John left to go ashore, meaning to return. The wind suddenly sprang up, and the ship set sail without him, with Maria still onboard. They did not see each other again for 18 months.

Despite this trauma, the watercolours Lewin painted in 1800 are an extraordinary achievement, and a striking record of his intense scrutiny of Australian nature. His designs, showing birds on clearly identifiable plants, employed unusual compositions such as the off-centre placement of the subject and strong diagonals.

These images, created in a distant colony isolated from fellow artists and naturalists, were completely at odds with traditional English natural history illustration.

3. Going exploring

In his first years in NSW Lewin was keen to explore the colony. In mid-1801 he ventured to the Hunter River with Captain William Paterson, a committed collector and important patron. The expedition also satisfied Governor King’s desire to survey the colony’s resources.

In late 1801 Lewin left for Tahiti to look for gold. It was a disaster. Wrecked in Matavai Bay, he and his companions were caught in a vicious civil war and were in fear of their lives. They retreated to the island’s missionary settlement.

Lewin told his patron Dru Drury: ‘For the nine months that we was on the Island we were continually alarmed with the Dreadfull Ideas of having our throats cut.’ He resolved to ‘set down my pencil and never to go any more in search of gold pearls or anything but Insects and that not out of sight of land’.

4. Celebrity natural history

The announcement of ‘An animal whose species was never before found in the Colony’, in the Sydney Gazette in August 1803, was the first published description of a koala.

Governor King immediately commissioned Lewin to paint it. But Lewin’s patron William Paterson dismissed the drawing as ‘very bad’, and botanist Robert Brown pronounced it less accurate than an unfinished illustration by Ferdinand Bauer — a supremely talented natural history illustrator who was in Sydney with Matthew Flinders’ expedition.

Regardless of these criticisms, Lewin made a number of koala portraits. Europeans were eager to see this extraordinary new animal. Many were sent as skins, skeletons or preserved in spirits, for it proved impossible to keep one alive through the voyage to England.

5. Press print!

John Lewin had left London with paper, copper etching plates and ink, intending to publish books on Australian natural history. His supplies did not survive the voyage out, and in New South Wales he struggled with paper shortages and had to make his own ink. He was Australia’s first printmaker.

At first the artist could not find specimens. Insects, he complained, are ‘not to be got here as att home’. He decided to concentrate on moths, and chose ‘a number of beautifull moths and [they] are all new’. Because he was not capable of classifying them scientifically, the text had to be written in England.

Lewin’s originality shone in his first book, Prodromus Entomology. His preparatory watercolours and final etchings are triumphs of observation and design. It was not unique to illustrate the stages of development — from the caterpillar to chrysalis to moth — but there was little precedent for showing them in their specific environment.

6. Colonial exotic

William Bligh, the governor of NSW between 1806 and his overthrow on 26 January 1808, was also a major patron of Lewin’s. He commissioned a number of works from the artist in the second half of 1807, many of which have been reassembled here.

From landscapes to exotic natural history, many of them — like Gymea lily or the Variegated lizard — are large dramatic watercolours designed for framing and display. These images do not attempt to extensively record natural history; they celebrate the potenital of the colony through the selective and elaborate depiction of its most extraordinary and curious flora and fauna.

7. The artistic milieu

John Lewin was one of a small number of professional artists in NSW during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The majority were convicts, but the most competent artists — Lewin and surveyor George William Evans — were both free men. Each artist — convict and free — responded to the colony in different ways depending on their training, interests and their patrons’ requests. Few colonial artists made art for themselves, as a way of engaging with an idea or thinking about nature and landscape, like modern artists do. The output of colonial artists was very much driven by the needs of their patrons.

8. A major patron

William Paterson, captain of the NSW Corp and lieutenant-governor, was one of the most enthusiastic natural historians in the colony: much more interested in science than administration. He had been elected to the Linnean and Royal societies, and regularly corresponded with Sir Joseph Banks.

Until he left the colony in 1810, Paterson was an important patron for Lewin. The artist appreciated ‘that protection which [Captain Paterson] and Mrs Paterson extend to his extraordinary exertions and talents’.

From around 1809 Paterson assembled a collection of artworks by a number of colonial artists, including Lewin and the surveyor George William Evans. The collection included landscapes of Sydney (principally by Evans), Port Dalyrmple in Tasmania (where Paterson had been commandant) and natural history illustrations, which he probably intended to turn into a book once he returned to England.

9. Painting to order

Governors and their families were important patrons for Lewin. Colonial officials sent natural history specimens and illustrations to Europe to ingratiate themselves with their patrons or political masters.

Philip Gidley King, governor of NSW between 1800 and 1806, regularly sent specimens. Colonial botanist George Caley was suspicious of the governor’s motives: ‘I cannot contrive what he wants such articles for unless they are designed as presents, whereby his name may be accorded in the annals of natural history’. Caley also noted that there ‘is a person here by the name of Lewin whom the Governor has had collecting for him, but I believe they now disagree, as he has not been able to collect him as much as he expected’.

King owned a substantial collection of botanical drawings by Lewin — around 300. They were sold to the Library by King’s descendants in 1911.

10. Making a living

After the failure of his two books, Prodromus Entomology and Birds of New Holland, around 1808 Lewin began to diversify his business. He advertised for art students and took portraits. His wife, Maria, opened a shop.

Having abandoned his publishing projects, Lewin now concentrated on large, complex watercolours of exotic flora and fauna. These were as much works of art to be hung on a wall as natural history illustrations. With their striking compositions, they are some the most original artworks created in the young colony.

During Governor Macquarie’s residence at Government House between 1810 and 1822, Lewin’s paintings were said to have decorated its best rooms. Drawings of the Gymea lily and waratah were sent by another patron to Calcutta as a gift to a fellow businessman. Lewin charged £12.12s for the two drawings, which were said to be ‘worthy of the palace of a prince’.

11. Mystery of the missing books

Lewin’s second book was Birds of New Holland, a selection of birds he had shot. Most had appeared in earlier accounts of Australian natural history.
He began preparing the book in 1803. By 1806 he had completed 18 plates, which he sent to England so the text could be written by experienced naturalists and the plates professionally coloured.

In Sydney, Lewin had attracted 55 individual subscribers to the book, some for multiple copies. Six copies were set aside for London subscribers, but the books destined for his local subscribers did not make it to Sydney! What happened to them is a mystery, but it is most likely they were irreparably damaged on the voyage. Lewin gave up his publishing ambitions after this disaster.

12. Australia’s first illustrated book

In 1813 Lewin produced his own version of Birds of New Holland — the book lost on its way to the colony. He called it Birds of New South Wales, and it is the first illustrated book published in Australia.

Of 13 copies known to have survived, four are held by the State Library of NSW. Because Lewin compiled the books from spare or discarded prints, none are identical.
The text, written by Lewin, demonstrates his lack of skill in ‘writing science’. It was printed by George Howe, the government printer.

13. Art or illustration?

Governor Macquarie employed the ‘Masterly Hand of Mr Lewin’ to make watercolours of plants and animals discovered on John Oxley’s journeys of 1817 and 1818 into the north-western districts of NSW.

Macquarie sent these watercolours to his English superiors, along with specimens, as evidence of the expeditions’ success. The governor was so enthusiastic about Lewin’s work that he proposed to engage him ‘in the Service of Government Exclusively’.

Lewin developed a new style for large-format watercolours, with bold and balanced compositions, underpinned by strong diagonals. They are works of art, for display on walls, rather than illustrations for scientific examination. He changed his signature block for these works. Discarding his neat ‘J.W. Lewin A.L.S.’ — often accompanied by an exact date — he adopted a variety of more theatrical styles: signatures of an artist rather than an illustrator.

14. Painting in oil

In 1812 Lewin wrote excitedly to a friend: ‘You have Often heard me say I should like to paint or that I would paint such a thing in Oil — but at every attempt it was attended with some difficulty or other — behold the Charm is broke & now I am painting in Oil.’

In the 1810s Lewin began to present himself as a fine artist rather than a scientific illustrator. He was working in oils, the preferred medium of masters of the painting profession.

His first oil painting — an ambitious allegorical work about the civilising impact of Christianity on Aboriginal people — reportedly measured 15 by 18 feet. Governor Macquarie claimed he displayed this painting in Government House, but it is now lost.

15. Crossing the Blue Mountains

John Lewin’s illustrations of his 1815 journey across the Blue Mountains reveal his ability to observe and record Australia’s often straggly and irregular landscape. The Library acquired these 15 watercolours in 1937, in the condition you now see them.

As the colony outgrew the Cumberland Plain, pressure to investigate the other side of the Blue Mountains intensified. In 1813 this land was reported to be bountiful and ripe for European occupation. A road was carved across the Mountains in 1814, and the next year Governor Macquarie set out to travel across it in triumphal procession to the newly discovered Bathurst Plains. Lewin volunteered to accompany the expedition.

Macquarie was excited by the potential of these new lands. The Blue Mountains were ‘majestic, grand, immense’, while the Bathurst Plains were ‘truly grand, beautiful and interesting, forming one of the finest Landscapes I ever saw in any Country I have yet visited. The soil is uncommonly good and fertile, fit for every purpose of Cultivation and Pasture.’

16. ‘Died, Yesterday morning, after a severe illness …’

Lewin died on 27 August 1819 from unknown causes. He had been living on Brickfield Hill (near the southern end of Hyde Park) in a new two-storey house with a substantial garden. His wife, Maria, and their only child, William Arden, almost immediately returned to London.

Lewin did well in NSW. He told a friend in 1812 that it was one of the finest countries in the world. Despite his real and original talent as an illustrator, he had not succeeded as a naturalist. But he established himself as a respected colonist. He was the town’s coroner, was friendly with Government House, and took part in colonial society.

John Lewin began describing himself as a gentleman, or adding ‘Esquire’ to his name, which was also engraved on his tombstone. While it is unlikely the colony’s elite would have agreed, this implied he saw himself moving out of the artisan class into the middle class, an early aspirational Australian.