From Terra Australis to Australia

In May 1787 the British government sent the First Fleet 20,000 kilometres around the world to establish a  British colony in New South Wales.

Voyage of the Rattlesnake

The marine Hydrographers of the British Admiralty wanted desperately to chart a safe passage through the Great Barrier Reef and the gap between the northern tip of Australia and Papua New Guinea, which would open up the new colony to the East Indies trade.

They commissioned the Rattlesnake, a 28 gun frigate of the Royal Navy, whose captain was a keen amateur artist and whose name, Owen Stanley, was given to the mountain ranges of PNG.

Owen Stanley - Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake : Vol. I

After the passage out, Stanley brought aboard Oswald Brierly, later to be the marine painter to Queen Victoria, and together these men made two voyages through the Great Barrier Reef, painting and sketching all the while.

They produced an unparalleled visual record of 19th century contact between Europeans and the indigenous people of Northern Australia and New Guinea. The Mitchell library holds hundreds of images from the Rattlesnake's voyages.

A selection is below:

Voyage of the Rattlesnake


Upon a painted ocean

Sir Oswald Brierly, a young marine artist, arrived in Sydney in 1842 on the yacht Wanderer. He left us with an extraordinary visual and written record of early colonial Australia.

Settling at the whaling station of Boyd Town in Twofold Bay, he painted extensively and left a vivid account of the whaling life during the five years he spent there. However it was the open sea and adventure that lead Brierly to accept a position on the HMS Rattlesnake as shipboard artist.

Sailing in April 1848 under Captain Owen Stanley, the ship charted the Inner Passage of the Great Barrier Reef before returning to Sydney nine months later. Brierly remained with the ship and sailed on, this time to survey the southern coast of New Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago.

Brierly was a prolific artist, confessing in his journal to 'an irresistible urge to sketch'. On most mornings he could be found somewhere on deck well before dawn, sketchbook in hand as he captured the changing sea. He was intensely curious about all aspects of the survey, and among his works are detailed cloud studies, panoramas and coastal profiles, as well as drawings of ships, flora and fauna, shipboard incidents and Indigenous artefacts.

Bernard Smith succinctly summarised the nature of Brierly's art when he wrote that Brierly sought

'... to represent the adventure and romance of life on the high seas. Yet ... the overriding consideration was the accuracy of the individual facts recorded.'

The late Sir Oswald Walters Brierly, R.W.S., Marine Painter to the Queen / [photographed by] Elliott & Fry [London]