This extraordinary collection of natural history illustrations, purchased with the generous support of TAL & Dai-ichi Life and the NSW Government, is the Library’s most significant addition of early colonial material since the 1930s.
Containing 745 watercolours in six volumes, the collection conveys Europe’s naïve yet genuine sense of wonder at Australia’s unique natural history.
... the whole appearance of nature must be striking in the extreme to the adventurer, and at first this will seem to him to be a country of enchantments. The generality of the birds and the beasts sleeping by day, and singing or catering in the night, is such an inversion in nature as is hitherto unknown.
Letters from an exile at Botany Bay (1794)
What was it about New South Wales that produced such curiosity, excitement and zeal in natural historians?
In 1788, with the arrival of the First Fleet, the newness and differences of New South Wales turned the world upside down for the colonists.
The piercing screeches and flashy colours of birds overhead, black swans, flowers without scent and strange new animals were both fascinating and disorientating. As the seasons changed, it wasn’t autumn leaves that crunched underfoot but long strips of flaking tree bark. Trees oozed red or yellow gums and vexingly, their heavy timbers, rather than floating, generally sank like stone.
Some were captivated and delighted by these contrasts. Others could not wait for it all to end.
And at home in England, natural historians like Aylmer Bourke Lambert simply could not get enough of these new discoveries.
Born in Bath in 1761, Lambert was part of the privileged and wealthy elite. With the leisure and the means to pursue his passion for natural history in an extravagant and all-consuming way, his salons and personal library became the backdrop for the spoils of his collecting mania.
With a keen eye for detail and an almost childlike enthusiasm, Lambert relished the thrill of natural history collecting and was particularly interested in the drawings coming out of Australia.
Lambert became known as one of Britain’s leading natural historians and though he never left Europe, he amassed over 700 drawings and countless specimens from New South Wales.
After his death in 1842, Lambert’s library was auctioned by Sotheby’s.
The 13th Earl of Derby, a great friend of Lambert, purchased his collection of Australian watercolours from the sale. A passionate naturalist and collector himself, the Earl of Derby had begun assembling one of the finest natural history libraries in England at his family seat of Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool.
The drawings remained in the Knowsley Hall family library for over 150 years, rarely opened until the State Library’s purchase of the collection in 2011. Undiscovered, the watercolours have barely faded or deteriorated over the years and feature bold and striking examples of Australian birds, plants, fish, a handful of mammals and a single scene of Norfolk Island.
The collection of 745 drawings was bound into six volumes, three of which have been referred to in historical literature. However, until the Library’s purchase, the other three had never been seen or described before.
Obtained through the generous support of TAL & Dai-ichi Life and the NSW Government and known today as the TAL & Dai-ichi Life Derby Collection, these extraordinary watercolours are the Library’s most significant addition to the First Fleet collection since the 1930s.
Below is a just a small selection of the Australian flora and fauna that was discovered within those six volumes.
Drawings were an integral part of the way natural history was discussed, processed and circulated. While we may today be charmed by their apparent naivety, naturalists at the time took these drawings very seriously and trusted them to determine species' names.
Treated as working documents, the reproduction and dissemination of these drawings was pertinent. The common practice pre-mechanical reproduction was for naturalists to engage an artist to reproduce original watercolour copies of their drawing. These copies, often commissioned by such men as Lambert, could then be added to their collection, sold or lent to publishers of natural history books for inclusion in their texts.
‘Copying’ in this context however, was not about recreating identical drawings. Drawings were considered copies if they shared a strong correlation between some or all the elements of another drawing.
A copyist might break down elements of an image and create several drawings to reflect the various elements in the original, or take several smaller drawings and combine them into a single work. Backgrounds would often disappear or reappear elaborated and embellished, whilst details were sometimes substituted or eliminated all together.
The extent of the copying that took place, both in London and in Sydney Cove during the 1790s, is not often fully appreciated. We now know that it was very common for artists to work together or in reference to each other.
This became particularly evident when very similar images of Australian animals recreated by different artists were found in different collections all around the world.
A further difficulty encountered by early colonial artists when creating natural history drawings was that birds and fish would have to be drawn quite quickly. It wouldn’t take long for a bird to move or a fish to lose its colour and sheen.
For artists living in England, the limitations were even greater. Having never seen these animals in their natural habitat, artists were forced to draw from stuffed specimens or skins sent from the colony. If specimens were damaged or the taxidermy had been done inaccurately, the resulting drawing could differ vastly from the real animal.
Similar to a game of Chinese whispers, these inaccurate drawings would then be copied and disseminated throughout the natural history community.
In the collection, an excellent example of this problem can be seen in drawings of the masked lapwing. In reality a squat bird, Lambert’s watercolours show an elongated version of the bird, most likely matching the distorted taxidermies sent from the colony.
Materials analysis and technical knowledge of the drawings have helped the Library resolve many of the mysteries and confusion that surround this collection. Working directly with conservators, we can now place many of the watercolours in time or location, often identifying whether images were made at Sydney Cove or drawn back in the United Kingdom.
The emergence of the TAL & Dai-ichi Life Derby Collection has prompted new, detailed art historical analysis of the traditions of botanical art production and the conventions of copying and trans-Pacific dissemination.
Most importantly however, the drawings help demonstrate that the colonisation of Australia was not just a physical and cultural occupation of the land but also an intellectual engagement with it.
Taking us directly back to the Sydney basin in 1788, these watercolours are evidence of the fascination Europe and early colonists felt for the natural world in Australia, a world that was startlingly new and unfamiliar.
Drawings were the tool by which colonists could document the world around them, but also the way in which knowledge about Australia could be sent across the seas. Collected voraciously by men such as Lambert, it was these glimpses of Australia that found their way into books and museums, and from there, the European consciousness.