View of the entrance into King George III Sound

Beyond Sydney

Michael Rosenthal investigates four watercolours that a midshipman, John Sykes, made of King George III Sound in Western Australia, when the Vancouver expedition spent time there in September 1791, and which are now in the King's Topographical Collection at the British Library.

View of the entrance into King George III Sound

View of the entrance into King George II Sound

Among George Vancouver's expedition crew was midshipman John Sykes, the creator of these four watercolours of King George Sound

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John Sykes’ four watercolours, which now sit in the King's Topographical Collection at the British Library, gave a first vicarious glance of the territory of King George Sound to various parties, including George III, as they circulated within the complex global economy of the British Empire.  Studies of the earliest art of colonial Australia have focussed on the work produced in Sydney and its surrounds from the earliest days of settlement.[1] This is understandable: there is a great deal of it, and it is of fascinating interest as pictorially documenting the first encounters of colonists who had arrived entirely innocent of them with a strange and intractable place, its inhabitants and natural history.

Nevertheless the settlement at Port Jackson had an international outlook from the beginning.  The East India Company – alert to trading logistics – chartered the First-Fleet transports, Alexander, Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn, and Scarborough to go on to China from Australia and pick up cargoes for Britain (which the three latter vessels did).[2]   

In November 1791 the prominent colonist, Phillip Gidley King, was writing to the Marquis of Buckingham and founding Governor, Arthur Phillip, to Lord Grenville about Sydney's prospects as a base for the Pacific whale fishery.[3] Indeed, in September 1790, Phillip learned that the minister responsible, Lord Grenville had floated 'the idea of supplying the settlement...wholly, or at least to a very great extent, from Calcutta.'  A dispatch of July 1791 (received the following March) informed him that the transport, Daedalus, after delivering supplies to the Vancouver expedition expected by then to be in north-west America, would arrive 'early in...1793... her commander will then follow your orders, either for going to Calcutta or elsewhere, for the purpose of procuring supplies.[4] That London was, as we shall see, pretty accurate in its predictions, testifies to the efficiency with which it managed the logistics of empire.

The wider context of the Vancouver voyage was the European rivalry enacting in the Pacific theatre.[5] George Vancouver was charged with acquiring 'a more complete knowledge than has yet been obtained of the North West Coast of America', discharging the Spanish return of the settlement at Nootka Sound, and evaluating 'any water communication which may tend in any considerable degree to facilitate an intercourse for the purposes of Commerce between the North West Coast and the Countries upon the opposite side of the Continent...occupied by His Majesty's Subjects'.[6]

Sir Joseph Banks was prominently involved, and instructed his naturalist, Archibald Menzies, to 'examine the nature of the soil', of various places and likewise to assess the climate, 'enumerate' and collect samples of plants and seeds, all which latter 'you are to consider as wholly and entirely the property of his Majesty'.  He was additionally to size up terrain, evaluate whether it yielded 'oars [sic.] of metals, coal, or limestone, or any other things...usefull', and get acquainted with local fauna and the habits of any natives, with whom he was to 'procure a friendly intercourse'.[7] Following instructions, he recorded all this in a 'regular journal', which Banks subsequently owned.  Menzies additionally corresponded with Banks as the expedition proceeded.[8]  

On September 29 1791 it landed at 'a harbour which' Vancouver later wrote to Arthur Phillip, he 'honored with the Name of King George the Third's Sound', in south-western Australia.  Menzies' writing to Banks that the harbour 'obtained the name of King George's Sound' [author’s emphasis] intimates that until then it had been non-existent, only getting slotted into global geography once the British encountered it. This was 'one very excellent port' which, 'from its situation, the fertility of the country...may be worthy some further attention'.  Therefore Vancouver sent Phillip a survey along with 'some views of the surrounding country, which though not executed with any degree of neatness, the positions of the different harbours, &c., as also the different head-lands, &c., as also their appearance [are given], without, I believe, any material error.'  He was, then, actively assessing territory with a view to it being incorporated into Empire (although David Collins in Sydney considered it to lie 'without the line prescribed as the boundary of British possessions in this country'), and the watercolours to which he referred offered a first glimpse of the area. John Sykes' watercolours tie in closely with what members of the expedition wrote about the spot.[9] Despite Vancouver's reservations, they are, compared with others of his works, notably finished, suggesting that they were seriously meant.[10]   

Together, they offer a pictorial narrative where, after sighting the coast, the expedition sails in and makes landfall.  The first two watercolours are about topographical information and bearings, recognising the site from the sea – hence the detailed inscriptions.  The View of Part of the SW Coast is a standard coastal profile, but the ship-to-shore prospect, View of the Entrance into King George III Sound fits the format of Elisha Trapaud's 1788 S.W. View of the Island of Tappanooly, or William Hodges's painting of Cape Town from the sea.  Hodges' view was 'taken on the Spot', to associate it with eye-witness verisimilitude, and is an exercise in a genre of imperial topography.[11] 

S. W. view of the Island of Tappanooly

John Wells (active 1788-1809), after Elisha Trapaud (1750-1828), S. W. View of the Island of Tappanooly on the S. W. Coast of Sumatra, 1788, aquatint and etching printed in sepia, British Library, Asian and African Collections, P496.

Tappanooly (or Tapanuli) was the name of a fortified British outpost located on a small island in what is now Sibolga Bay (Central Tapanuli Regency), on the west coast of North Sumatra, Indonesia

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Sykes' landscape is lit by a busy sky; like Hodges', his was a dynamic meteorology.  The study of the hut complements passages in Vancouver's book and Menzies' diary. The former minutely described the construction of 'the most miserable human habitation my eyes ever beheld', which 'suggested in the strongest manner the lowly condition of some of our fellow creatures, rendered yet more pitiable by the apparent solitude and melancholy aspect of the surrounding country'.  Menzies more disengagedly wrote of:

a small hut somewhat in the form of a perpendicular section of an oblique cone about three feet high & open to the South West.  It was not capable of admitting above two people at a time & was composd of small sticks & boughs of trees joind together with loithes & carefully thatchd with grass.  From the general appearance of this hut & the fire place before it we judged that it must have been very recently occupied by some of the natives, though we could find no remains or traces of what they fed upon any where about the place.[12] 

Menzies, instructed by Banks to estimate whether those places at which they made 'a sufficient stay' would grow European crops, 'in case it found expedient to send out settlers' reported on the 'exceeding favourable climate' and surroundings 'covered with wood diversified with pleasing pasturage & gentle rising hills...well watered in many places by small rivulets', and which had real agricultural potential.  We observe something of the more open ground and a river rather than a rivulet in Sykes' View in Oyster Harbour, which succinctly communicated the character of the terrain while defusing it of local particularity: those are generic trees and wood, their refreshing greenness offers nothing repellent to British eyes. Menzies, too, considered the Sound 'well worth a more particular investigation from Government on account of its nearness & easy access to our Settlements in India'. Though he could not have done otherwise, it is still noteworthy that Menzies, like most Britons, experienced no incongruity in writing about Australia in the language of British landscape description: 'pasturage', 'hills', 'rivulets' bypass local particularities, with the party's seeing 'no natives or Quadrupeds of any kind', further deflecting any alienating strangeness.[13]   

The same relaxed appropriation of the exotic is manifested in one of the illustrations to Vancouver: John Landseer's engraving of A Deserted Indian Village in King George III Sound, New Holland after William Alexander's reworked 'Sketch made on the Spot by J. Sykes', where xanthorrhoeas confirm the antipodean locality and trees resembling oaks, Europeanize a scene conceived as conventional exploration imagery.[14]

A deserted Indian village in King George III Sound

John Landseer (1769–1852) after William Alexander (1767–1816) and John Sykes (1781/2–1837), A Deserted Indian Village in King George III Sound, New Holland, published 1 May 1798 by Richard Edwards, New Bond Street, John Edwards, Pall Mall, and George Robinson, Pater Noster Row, London, etching and engraving, republished in George Vancouver (1757-98), A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean (London: G.G. Robinson & J Edwards, 1798), 688.l.1.

This is a plate from A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean: Captain George Vancouver’s account of his expedition around the world undertaken from April 1791 to October 1795

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The first Britons to learn of this promising place were in Sydney, not London, for the Daedalus arrived in Nootka Sound as per schedule, and Vancouver subsequently dispatched correspondence to Phillip, charts of the Sound, and the Sykes watercolours to Sydney by way of that vessel, which anchored in Port Jackson on April 10 1793.[15] There, Phillip's successor, lieutenant-governor Francis Grose, enjoyed a first, if second-hand, view of King George III's Sound, and, comprehending their imperial import, had Sykes' views copied as 'absolutely requisite for my own information and future guidance', informing London that he would send on the originals by the Kitty.[16]

These were not the only watercolours to be transported back to London by that vessel.  Shortly before Vancouver's despatches arrived in Sydney the tedium of colonial life had been relieved by a visit from the 'two Spanish ships Descuvierta and Atrevida, commanded by Don Alejandro Malaspina and Don Josè Bustamente, whose probable arrival had been formerly notified'.  Menzies considered Malaspina 'a very able Navigator', and recorded that the expedition, which had sailed from Cadiz in July 1790, was 'fitted out in the most ample manner for Discoveries with Astronomers, Naturalists, Draughtsmen &c.' Grose wrote that the 'commodore presented me with two views of this place and one of the settlement at Parramatta, done in Indian ink, by F. Brambila', referring to Fernando Brambila, a professionally-trained artist from Lombardy.

View of Sydney Cove from the North-West

Fernando Brambila (1763-1834), View of Sydney Cove from the North-West, 1793, pen and black ink with monochrome and brown wash, 31.2 x 58.8 cm, Maps K.Top.124 Supp.fol.43.

Fernando Brambila was the principal artist on Alessandro Malaspina's voyage to South America and the Pacific (1789-94)

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Brambila in fact painted two sets of New South Welsh watercolours, and we only knew the pair delivered to the Spanish court, which represented the British in a less-than-flattering light, until the set mentioned by Grose was rediscovered by Peter Barber. Barber showed how those destined for George III took an opposite view.[17] Grose added that these drawings 'and a pacquet for the Spanish Ambassador' there would also be sent to London on the Kitty.[18] So that vessel returned to London with both Vanvouver's West Australian material and Brambila's Sydney views. These effectively vanished from the public space because the King took a fancy to them and kept them. He, at least, was granted a surrogate tour of the settlements at Sydney and Parramatta through the eyes of a diplomatic Italian artist, and was one of the very first Europeans to be offered an image of Western Australia. 

Each set of watercolours reveals many things, not least that British expansion into the Pacific had strategic aims, reminding us that what can appear unremarkable art can nevertheless do very significant things.  If Brambila's scenes of New South Wales signaled the importance the colony had assumed in international relations, Sykes showed his compatriots what Vancouver and Menzies represented as a very promising place actually looked like.[19]

[1] Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, 2nd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 159-87; Bernard Smith and Alwyne Wheeler (eds.) The Art of the First Fleet and other Australian Drawings (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988); Tim McCormick (ed.) First views of Australia 1788-1825: a history of early Sydney (Chippendale, NSW: David Ell Press in association with Longueville Publications, 1987); Louise Anemaat, Natural Curiosity: Unseen Art of the First Fleet (Sydney, NSW: NewSouth Publishing, 2014).

[2] Alan Frost, The First Fleet: the Real Story (Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2011) p. 93. The practice continued, see advertisement in the Observer, February 24 1799.

[3] Grenville succeeded Sydney; see F.M. Bladen (ed.) Historical Records of New South Wales (HRNSW) ser.I.2 (Sydney: 1892), pp.529, 532; also Frederick Watson, (ed.) Historical Records of Australia (HRA), ser.I.I (Sydney: 1914), pp.303, 347.

[4] Watson, HRA, pp.214-16, 255-56.

[5] See Margaret Steven, Trade, Tactics and Territory: Britain in the Pacific 1783-1823 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1983).

[6] State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) Banks Papers, ser.60.1, copy of a Letter from Lord Grenville to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, February 11, 1791.

[7] HRNSW, 1.2, pp.424-26; draft at SLNSW, Banks Papers, ser.61.04

[8] For Menzies's diary see British Library, London,  Add MS 32641; see also Archibald Menzies, Menzies' Journal of Vancouver's Voyage, April to October, 1792, ed. by C.F. Newcombe and J. Forsythe (Victoria: 1923); The letters are SLNSW Banks Papers, ser. 60.11-24, 61.26, 61.28-30, 61.32, 61.35.

[9] Menzies to Banks, SLNSW Banks Papers 61.14, HRA I, pp.428-31; see also David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1798) ed. by Brian H. Fletcher (Sydney and London: A.H. and A.W. Reed [for] the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1975), p.237. 

[10] SLNSW Banks papers, ser.61.14, Menzies to Banks, Nootka Sound, September 26 1792.  The Honeyman Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley has 65 Sykes watercolours (Collection Number: BANC PIC 1963.002:0001-1886)

[11] Elisha Trapaud, Twenty Views in India 1788, plate 1; William Hodges,  A View of the Cape of Good Hope, taken on the Spot, from on board the Resolution,  November 1772, oil on canvas, National Maritime Museum, London (Object ID: BHC1778) 

[12] George Vancouver,  A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World, 3 vols (London: 1798), I, p. 33; see also BL Add.MS. 32641, p.43.

[13] HRNSW, I.2, p. 424; SLNSW Banks Papers, ser.61.14.

[14] Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery, I, between pp.54-55.

[15] HRA, I, pp. 428-31

[16] HRA, I, p. 428

[17] Peter Barber, 'Malaspina and George III Brambila and Watling: Three discovered drawings of Sydney and Parramatta by Fernando Brambila’,  Australian Journal of Art, 11, (1993), pp. 30-55.

[18] BL Add MS 3264, p.195; HRA I pp.  427, 769; see also Robert J. King, The secret history of the convict colony: Alexandro Malaspinas̆ report on the British settlement of New South Wales (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990), p. 2; see also Barber (1993), p. 33.

[19] Barber (1993), pp. 34-37; for the arrival of the Daedalus see Collins, An Account of the English Colony, I, p.236–37. 

  • Michael Rosenthal
  • Michael Rosenthal publishes extensively on British art c.1660–1840, including monographs on John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. He was lead curator of the Gainsborough show at Tate Britain in 2002, and is currently completing a monograph, provisionally entitled The Artless Landscape, on the art of early colonial Australia.