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Fishing at night

Thomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe (1810-1861) arrived in Sydney with his family in 1824, his father having been appointed the Colonial Treasurer of NSW.

Thomas Balcombe [Aborigine fishing by torchlight, ca. 1853]
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In September 1830 Balcombe joined the Surveyor-General’s Department (led by Thomas Livingstone Mitchell) as a draughtsman, before being promoted to a field surveyor; a position he held for the rest of his working life. In this role he travelled along NSW coastal areas, the Murray River, Bathurst and Goulburn regions during the 1830s and 1840s.

It was during the 1830s that Balcombe started to realise his artistic ambitions; building a reputation as a prolific and competent painter, lithographer and sculptor. An active member of the Sydney art scene, Balcombe became famous for his skill in depicting Australian landscapes, settler life and economic activity as well as Aboriginal people, communities and customs.

This extraordinary painting, recently acquired by the Library, draws on much of what Balcombe would have witnessed in his travels as a surveyor. This work, oil on canvas, features a small group of Aboriginal people fishing in an idealised natural environment. Though the people and the exact location depicted are unknown, this wonderful image is very valuable for its finely painted details. The viewer can see canoe construction, equipment and clothing as well as fishing methods and the way in which fire was managed for night-time expeditions. Also, incorporated into the picture are many of the topographical details for which Balcombe was so well regarded. The group, fishing in an inlet, is set against a beach with a headland in the background, under a beautifully captured moonlit sky.

This painting also documents a shift, in the mid-1800s, that saw Australian art move away from graphic portraits of Aboriginal people to a more romanticised, idealistic view of Aboriginals in their pre-Contact setting. Such scenes focused on illustrating the customs and lifestyles of the First Australians, with the most popular types of images depicting the hunting of various native animals. These images were, of course, in sharp contrast to the experiences of Aboriginal peoples struggling with the upheaval and trauma of colonisation.

Paintings such as these are rare and so this work represents a significant addition to the Library’s collection of colonial art.

Balcombe’s last artistic works are dated 1857. Sadly, this celebrated colonial artist took his own life, in 1861, at the age of 51.