A newly acquired watercolour of Sydney Harbour


Walter Godden’s watercolour on paper depicts a bustling Sydney Harbour on 30 November 1889. Its focal point is the Man O’ War Steps at Farm Cove, where a group of Sydneysiders observe the boat traffic from the wharf. Perhaps they are welcoming new arrivals, or farewelling those leaving Sydney — gentlemen and ladies, a family group, a naval officer and a dog. To the right — its rider dismounted — is that innovation in leisure and transport, the penny-farthing bicycle. Bicycles first arrived in the colonies in the 1870s and inspired great enthusiasm for cycling. A decade later, the Sydney Bicycle Club was formed and cyclists competed in races in front of thousands of spectators.

Watercolour artwork of Sydney Harbour with boats in 1889
Sydney Harbour, 1889, Walter Godden

Not only is the painting a lively visual description of Sydney’s social and sporting life, it illustrates the significance of the Man O’ War Steps jetty, which was the point of arrival and departure for ships’ crews, passengers and supplies. Built in 1810, the jetty was initially used by Governor Macquarie as a private wharf. However, it soon became the landing and embarkation place for crews of the Royal Navy and, later, the Royal Australian Navy, as well as merchant naval vessels. Indeed, several of the large ships in the foreground fly the white ensign, indicating that they are ships of the Royal Navy allocated to the Australia Station for maritime defence.

Artist Walter Godden (1861–1901) was a draughtsman, mining surveyor and sketcher. We do not know how long he resided in Sydney, but by 1895 he was living on the other side of the country, employed by the Western Australian Department of Public Works in Perth. He went on to work in the burgeoning mining industry — in 1897 he was a draughtsman in Coolgardie and later lived in Kalgoorlie, where he worked as a mining surveyor.

The artist’s viewpoint suggests that he positioned himself at Fort Macquarie, Bennelong Point. This square stone fortress with a two-storey tower was demolished in 1901 to make way for the Fort Macquarie Tram Depot. The Man O’ War Steps still stand but are somewhat overshadowed by that twentieth-century icon, the Sydney Opera House.


Elise Edmonds is Coordinator, Pictorial Collections, in Collection Acquisition and Curation.

This story appeared in Openbook autumn 2024.