Last updated: 25 June 2024
  • Collection Guide

One of Australia’s most significant historical and documentary collections, featuring historical paintings and drawings from the 18th century through to contemporary pictorial works and includes over 170,000 works on paper. 

Research guide
Summary of format

The Pictures collection ranges from 18th century pieces to contemporary works across a wide variety of formats. These include:

  • watercolours
  • drawings
  • silhouettes
  • sketchbooks
  • oil paintings
  • miniatures
  • framed works (including oil paintings) and prints
  • black and white drawings
  • objects.  

The collection documents the lives of Australians and peoples from the Pacific region, their societies, cultures, built environments, as well as natural history and landscapes. 

What the Library collects in this format

The collection’s strengths include:

  • topographic views of early European settlement of Australia
  • portraits
  • landscapes
  • natural history illustrations.  

The Library collects pictorial material for its documentary, informational value. These works are visual records of our history. They’re primary sources for historical research and can be ‘read’ like a written work. 

They’re not neutral recorders of events, but are influenced by the creator, the words that describe the works and the society in which they are generated.  

Information can be gained from the subject matter in the work, but also about their creator – their biases and beliefs and evidence of societal trends.  

Interpretations of images often change with generations, and one image can have may interpretations and readings. 

Scope and content

Pacific voyages

The Library holds some of the first images made by Europeans of exploration in the Pacific. These include pictures from Captain James Cook’s voyages by artists such as John Webber, William Hodges and Henry Roberts.  

Works held by members of the First Fleet include those by William Bradley, Arthur Bowes Smyth and George Raper.  

Natural history drawings

The Library has collected early and highly significant collections of natural history drawings over many decades.  

These range from the first European depictions of Australian flora and fauna – by First Fleet artists – through to precise, scientific renderings by 21st century illustrators.

First Nations people

The Library holds examples of 19th century works by First Nations artists Mickey of Ulladulla and Tommy McRae. It proactively collects work created by First Nations people who have contributed – and continue to contribute – to the life of New South Wales and its communities.

The Library also holds significant, early depictions of First Nations people, their culture and customs, portrayed by non-Indigenous artists such as Joseph Lycett.

Australian settlement

Other key collections include sketchbooks and drawings produced by early explorers and artists who participated in expeditions into the interior of the country, or on coastal voyages.  

Others documented the development of Sydney, regional towns, and settlements, along with the natural environment.  

Artists include John Lewin, George William Evans, John Eyre, S. T. Gill, Eugene von Guerard, Conrad Martens, John Glover, William Strutt and Sir Oswald Brierly.  

Growth and development

The Library’s 20th century pictures depict the growth of urban centres such as Sydney and its suburbs, the construction of major infrastructure such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the development of regional cities.  

These works record the people and places of New South Wales – people at leisure, their working lives and environments – streetscapes, modes of transport, fashion and design, creative endeavours and domestic spheres.  

Artists include Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Jessie Traill, Thea Proctor, May Gibbs, Norman and Lionel Lindsay, Sydney Ure Smith, Roland Wakelin, Herbert Badham, Norman Carter, George Washington Lambert.   

How to access this format:
How to search for this format in the catalogue

In the catalogue search, type the name of the artist, if known, or a specific location or subject and refine your search to Pictures to discover material held by the Library. Once you have your results, you can further narrow your search to a particular pictorial format.


How to search for pictures collection in the catalogue


From the results page you can also browse collection hierarchies and subject headings.

For digitised material enter your keywords in the Digital Collections catalogue to find images and other digitised content of interest in Library collections. Click on an image to lead you to more details in the catalogue. 

Significant stories or interpretative content