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Aborigine fishing by torchlightc 1853

by Thomas Balcombe

Thomas Balcombe arrived in Sydney in 1824 when his father was appointed Colonial Treasurer. Balcombe worked all his life as a draughtsman, and then surveyor, with the Surveyor-General’s Department. He was also one of Sydney’s better known professional artists.

It seems that Balcombe painted this scene from his own observation of Aboriginal life, possibly from people he encountered as a surveyor in regional NSW. This painting depicts a canoe, or nawi in the Gadigal and Dharug languages, engaged in fishing in an unidentified location. Typically one sheet of a stringybark was used to create the hull, which was tied together at each end. The sides of the craft were kept apart with braces in the middle. A pad of wet clay at one end supported a fire, which helped attract fish.

Balcombe’s work reflects the complexity of European responses to Aboriginal people in the mid-19th century, and this painting is infused with a romanticism typical of European pictorial conventions of the time. During the 1840s and 1850s, Balcombe developed a genre of painting, which seems to have been popular with his clients, of depicting Indigenous peoples as archetypes of the ‘noble savage’.