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Panoramic Views, December 2015

23 Dec 2015 3:40 PM | Anonymous

For this event, we were very fortunate to have historian Dr Alison Alexander speak to us about Hobart's early days as shown in the exhibition Panoramic Views. 

Alison has kindly given us a transcript of her talk, reproduced below. If you'd like to go back for another look at Panoramic Views before it closes on 17 January 2016, a printout of her talk would give you valued insights into the paintings, and what went on behind the scenes.

Julie Hawkins


Panoramic views

The word ‘panorama’ comes from two Greek words, ‘pan’ meaning all, and ‘orama’ meaning view. The late eighteenth century was a time when people like quirky inventions, and artist Robert Barker invented the panorama, in which people walked in into a round room and saw a 360˚ painting all round the room.  This was an exciting novelty in 1791.

                  Not everyone had a large round room, and panorama came to mean the painting from the walls laid out flat, and then merely a long painting. The question of when a painting turns from a panorama into a landscape is one I couldn’t find an answer for, but that needn’t bother us. We can concentrate on the beauty a panorama can portray.

                  And surely, of all cities in the world, our Hobart is among the leaders as the subject of a panorama, up there with Rio de Janeiro and Naples. So many cities are flat: Sydney, Melbourne, London, New York, Paris and so on. Beautiful perhaps, but flat. A panorama needs height as well as length. Real height, not just skyscrapers, the sort of height provided by mountains in the background. It also needs a mixture of subjects: not just forest or bush, not just buildings, and certainly not just sky. It’s best if it has an expanse of water in front, and an impressive mountain behind. Hobart, in fact.

                  When artists sailed up the Derwent and saw Hobart, their fingers must have itched for the brush. What a noble mount behind (in the language of the day)! Towering above the small town, so lofty and picturesque! Such a beautiful deep blue, and with its majestic dolerite columns of the Organ Pipes! Surrounded by attractive foothills of all shapes and sizes, in changing shades of blue-green, from pretty, noble Knocklofty to the gentle slopes of Battery Point, and with all sorts of bays, inlets, headlands and beaches leading to the water in such an attractive way. Then there was the town, a pretty little collection of buildings – you don’t want too much city in your panorama, because a lot of buildings tend to get a bit boring, rather bitty and repetitive. In front, the beautiful River Derwent, with little waves tossed by the breeze, and an attractive assortment of vessels, from grand sailing ships, their sails swelling in the breeze, to quaint little fishing dinghies. What more could the artist want?

                  I’m going to concentrate on the panoramas of Hobart in this talk, partly because of time, and partly because they make such a good contrast. The painting of Mauritius is fine, and fits in well, partly because its artist, Augustus Earle, also painted a panorama of Hobart, and partly because Mauritius is like Tasmania. In fact when I looked up ‘Mauritius historic’ in google images, there was a painting that looked so like Collins St with Mount Wellington in the background that I had to check the title to see it was in fact Mauritius. The other panoramas all have their attractions, but tonight Hobart is the subject.


Why do people paint panoramas? There are many reasons. For sale, to make a profit. To illustrate a book, nearly the same thing: as an attractive illustration to make the public open their wallets. To send Home (Britain), as an illustration of their new home. For the family. For their private enjoyment. For a friend or neighbour. As a work of art. The various motives affect the end result: how is the artist trying to depict the subject? As a success or failure? Beauty or ugliness? Civilisation or wilderness? With each of these panoramas it helps to understand the painting if we look at the artist’s situation and possible motives, as well as the actual subject. These panoramas were painted over a period of sixty years, during which Hobart developed enormously.  The surroundings remained the same – the hills and Mount Wellington are still just the same, of course – but the objects made by humans developed.

                  How did the artist balance accuracy and artistic endeavour?  Some of these paintings are very accurate, almost down to the last brick and leaf. Others are more concerned with general atmosphere. Again, this question is bound up with the artist’s aims, and also perhaps with how talented he or she was. A question to bear in mind. The accuracy point I judge by looking at the artist’s depiction of Mount Wellington. If you want to be accurate, there it is, its shape clearly outlined. If you get it wrong, either you want to depict it differently for some reason, or you aren’t skilled enough to get it right. After all, we’re not all Turners and Constables.

                  Hobart was founded in 1804, part of the great British Empire – though an extremely remote part, almost as far from Britain as one could travel, and highly disreputable in that it was a convict colony, where Britain got rid of the criminal element from its own shores. As a convict colony, it had a dreadful reputation in Britain, not so much because of what it was, but because of what the British thought it must be – the home of thieves and murderers. It’s another aspect of these paintings: they were done with this background. How was the artist affected by it?

                  If you’re interested, and most people are, you can pick out many individual buildings in these paintings.  Some are less accurate than others, of course, but some are amazingly so, and it’s a great sport to find what’s there and what isn’t. ‘Is that government house?’ ‘I think he’s put the barracks in the wrong place’, and so on. Just don’t get so enthralled you forget when your parking meter expires.


A digression. I recently published a book about Hobart’s first twenty years, Corruption and Skullduggery, a title that shouted at me after I had completed much of the research, because it was exactly what I found. Because I published the book myself, I could include as many images as I liked, and I tried to depict every painting of Hobart in its first two decades. The one I chose for the cover was painted by a convict artist, W.H. Craig, in 1815, and I liked it because it showed Hobart as rough and ready, rather wild-west-looking, a struggling little settlement on the edge of the world, not the prim and proper town depicted by artists like Joseph Lycett, of which more later. Lycett’s paintings are very pretty and are often chosen as covers for books (I’ve had several myself) but this wasn’t the Hobart I’d found in my research. I really enjoyed trying to show this early, ramshackle little town, and Julie Hawkins who designed it so brilliantly entered into the spirit as well – we had a great time together.  I’m saying this so you can realise the town’s background: a place of drunkenness, corruption, adultery, pubs and brothers, with ramshackle little houses, no rubbish collection, roads which were just tracks, often with tree stumps still in them, night soil flowing into the rivulet – as suggested, at least partly, by this painting. Craig painted it as a present for Governor Davey, who led the way in the drunkenness, corruption etc, and presumably revelled in the idea. No need for Craig to pretend Hobart was anything it wasn’t. In any case, he was in the not-Turner league, and probably just painted what he saw.

                  The first panorama in this exhibition was painted five years later in 1830 by George Evans. It depicts an extremely attractive little town, neat, prim, proper, tidy, without a pub or brothel in sight. Instead of being wilderness at the end of the world, it looks like an English park. There’s a very proper-looking couple who might have come straight out of Jane Austen, a gentleman in elegant clothes and a lady in a charming dress. Even the animals are tamed, a horse and cows doing what they are told by humans. The only evidence of Australianness is a couple of small, quiet, inoffensive kangaroos under a tree. No Aborigines, of course. None of these panoramas include them, and the kangaroos are a rarity; mostly, everything on view is thoroughly English (not even Scottish or anything else). This panorama is saying: isn’t this a successful transplanted English town! Wilderness tamed, a charming town built on unknown antipodean shores in under 20 years! This is what makes the Empire! Aren’t we wonderful! Evans published a book about Van Diemen’s Land in London, which said much these things, presenting a very positive picture of a colony with wonderful climate, scenery, soil, and prospects for the British. He managed to avoid mentioning convicts (although it was a convict colony) and it was the same with this painting, which might have been done as an illustration for the book, or at any rate for sale in London, showing British success.

                  The irony of this is that Evans was very much part of the scene of corruption and skulduggery of the first twenty years. He was the surveyor-general. Settlers brought letters from the secretary of state in England, allowing them so many acres free. The governor gave his permission and provided a location order; the settlers chose the land, the surveyors measured it, and the governor gave the settler a land grant. But settlers complained that they could not get their grant surveyed without paying bribes.  One bribe got the survey done, another got it done generously. Thomas Gregson even gave Evans a piano to get a larger amount of land. Evans was in the thick of the bribery, doing very nicely, thank you. In 1820 when he painted this panorama, he was right in the middle of all the shenanigans. However, hypocrisy was alive and well in Hobart, and he painted this picture of an idyllic, and therefore utterly honest and upright, English town.

                  The second panorama is a huge contrast. For a start it’s anonymous, so we can’t place it according to the artist. Probably, however, it means it was not done by an artist who lived in Hobart, since these tended to be known in the small community. Perhaps it was done by a visitor, who would see the new colony as an object of curiosity?  This would be a credible suggestion, for this painting shows Hobart as darkly Gothic: menacing, gloomy, with glowering brutal hills from which a dragon or man-eating bear might emerge at any moment. The town is small, unimpressive; there are no people. It is worth looking closely at this painting, because it’s probably the only time you will ever see the organ pipes painted horizontally. I think we’re back in the not-Turner group here. But it is certainly interesting, the way a visitor might well see a new, wild, mysterious colony from the deck of his ship. I think it’s the panorama where Hobart appears the smallest, just a few of the larger buildings.

                  Next we come to Joseph Lycett. Born around 1774 in England, Lycett was an artist, who was convicted of forgery and transported to Sydney in 1814. Once given a conditional pardon in 1819, he resumed his career of painting. He was given an absolute pardon in 1822, and returned to England. There he published books of NSW and Van Diemen’s Land views. His pictures of Van Diemen’s Land are pretty accurate, but it’s not clear if he ever came here. If not, he must have had something to copy: what? Artists were thin on the ground in Hobart at about 1820, and so are records. No detailed biography has been written of Lycett, and it is possible that he made a quick trip to Van Diemen’s Land – presumably he was planning on these views, and would have wanted to include it. He was a quick and prolific artist. He could have sailed from Sydney (about 10 days), spent a couple of days painting Hobart roughly, to be filled in later; gone to New Norfolk, travelled to Launceston, then returned to Sydney inside a month. On the other hand, his paintings are rather like Evans’s: perhaps he commissioned Evans to make him sketches, which the surveyor would do with great accuracy? However, that’s not really important, though fascinating. What is important for this talk is the end result.

                  Lycett was painting for the market. His views of Van Diemen’s Land look more like England, that English park of Evans, than Van Diemen’s Land. Also like Evans, everything is tame, obedient, law-abiding, proper – as well as neat and pretty. There are two versions of this painting of Hobart: a sketch in black and white, which looks very geographically correct, and the painting, which like most Lycetts is very attractive. It’s a sunny painting, with lots of blue and white, and surely it attracted a good price in London, Lycett’s aim. It told the British that they were successful colonisers. Only two decades, and here is this previous wilderness, just like anywhere in England!

                  Next we come to a painting by either Augustus or Elizabeth Prinsep. Augustus Prinsep was born in London in 1803 and joined the East India Company, arriving in Calcutta in 1822. He rose fast through the ranks of the civil service, and in 1828, as Commissioner of Pergunnah Palamow, he married Elizabeth Acworth, from a distinguished naval family. Augustus’ ill-health drove the Prinseps on a trip to salubrious Van Diemen’s Land, where they arrived in 1829. They remained six months, then returned to Calcutta, but Augustus died at sea. Elizabeth published his letters home with illustrations, perhaps done by her – she was an accomplished artist. The book did not include the present panorama.

                  This is a lively, cheerful painting, more of the river than the town. The ships with their billowing sails, the picturesque harbour – it makes a charming picture to hang in your drawing room. It is an early part of the strong maritime tradition of Hobart, of those who see it more as a port full of shipping and maritime activity than a city with a hinterland. However, there is Mount Wellington, more accurate than most of this period. It would be understandable if a senior Indian civil servant, the Commissioner of Pergunnah Palamow, liked accuracy. Or his wife.

                  And now it’s back to George Evans, with a panorama of Hobart he painted in 1828. By this time the new LG, upright and competent George Arthur, had managed to get rid of this dishonest scoundrel of a surveyor, who retired on a generous pension. In 1828 he was not in Hobart, having gone to England, so presumably this was done from memory, or from another painting. This is very neat and accurate, as you’d expect in a surveyor, even a crooked one. As before, it shows a very neat and orderly town, in park-like surroundings. Hobart has fine buildings for a town only 24 years old: it’s a progressive-looking colony, a credit to the British Empire.

                  What marks this panorama out from others are the humans in it. The other panoramas have no people, or small figures mostly in the background. This one has larger men in the foreground, and one of them is the surveyor at work, looking competent and gentlemanly. Certainly no bribes poking out of his pocket! It’s easy to imagine Evans enjoying putting in his alter ego, in charge of the project, making some new infrastructure vital to the colony’s development.

                  As well, Evans included convicts.  This is really rare. There are hardly any convicts in early Van Diemen’s Land paintings, as artists did not want to mention this blot on the colony’s escutcheon, so it’s interesting that Evans does.  Although they’re very neat and obedient convicts, working away as they should, and it doesn’t matter for the British market that they are convicts, because there’s nothing to show it, no uniform or brand, let along leg irons. British viewers would probably take them for ordinary labourers. Tasmanians know they are convicts, because only convicts did such manual labour, but Evans wasn’t painting for them.  

                  Earle’s Mauritius follows, a very dramatic work of towering mountain peaks. In 1827 Earle also painted a panorama of Hobart which is less dramatic, much longer, a real panorama, almost the full 360 degrees. It’s very charming, and also very accurate, so that you can stand on the place where it was painted and see the bays and headlands, an enjoyable activity.  They were for sale a few years ago, and I can tell you that a panorama is in fact very impractical because it’s hard to find a place on your walls to put it, with doors and windows occurring at inconvenient intervals. It’s no wonder landscape shapes are far more popular.

                  Now comes an anonymous panorama, entitled ‘After W.J Huggins’. William John Huggins was a sailor with the East India Company who during his voyages made many drawings of ships and landscapes. Retiring to London, he became well known for his maritime art, his paintings selling well. In 1828 the Colonial Times advertised his marine views for sale in Hobart.  Did Huggins visit Hobart and someone copied the result, or does the ‘after Huggins’ merely mean someone painted Hobart a la Huggins? Whichever it was, it resulted in a pretty view, another park-like, English image.  The next painting is similar: again by an unknown artist, again very neat, clean and tidy, with no people visible.

                  Frederick Strange was another artist who became a convict, transported for stealing a watch. He arrived in Hobart in 1838, became a government messenger, and when he obtained some freedom, started painting portraits and giving art lessons. However, he made only a miserable living. In the end he opened a grocer’s in Launceston. So he’s another in the not-Turner school. This painting, from Knocklofty, is rather impressionist and vague, the buildings just sketched in.

                  Now we come to the cream of the crop, as my husband put it: Hobart in 1848 by Francis Simpkinson de Wesselow. Born plain Francis Simpkinson, taking on the aristocratic de Wesslow when he inherited money, the lad was the nephew of Jane Franklin. Encouraged by his Uncle John, he joined the navy at an early age, and from 1844 was stationed at the magnetic observatory in Hobart for five years. An accomplished artist, he made many portraits all around Van Diemen’s Land: see the wonderful book of his paintings Max Angus published some years ago. This panorama of Hobart is magnificent – though, perhaps rather strangely, it doesn’t make full use of Mt W to bring height into the picture. However, the angle it’s painted from, on the Domain, gives an attractive blue bay at left, balanced by blue mountains at right, an unusual and striking perspective. It’s the full 360˚, stretching nearly two metres across ix sheets of paper. It’s not only the largest panorama in this exhibition, but the one which brings Hobart most to life. There are all sorts of ships in the harbour, from traditional sailing vessels to a modern steam ferry, tied up at the Old Wharf at Hunter Street. On the Domain, soldiers are marching, striking in their red and white uniforms. A vehicle is bowling along a road, and other people are busily active. De Wesselow was not painting for profit, or to prove any point, but for his own enjoyment, and this emerges in his panorama.

                  In the 28 years from the earliest panorama in the exhibition, Hobart has not developed enormously. It has grown, certainly, but de Wesselow’s depiction is not so dissimilar from Evans’ 1820 picture, from much the same spot. Now, however, for the last panoramas we jump through the decades, 20 and 30 years. Hobart is now the capital of independent Tasmania. Convicts are history. The colony’s population had doubled, from 50,000 to 100,000 and though I could find no figures for Hobart, the capital city would doubtless have doubled too. It has impressive new buildings, many built in the first heady days of independence in the 1850s. The Hobart City Council has modernising projects in hand. The Hobart of these paintings is not a small outpost of a convict colony, but a mid-Victorian city, proud of its growth and its position as capital.

First comes an 1876 panorama by E.P.B. It’s frustrating not to know the artist. Edwin Percival Browne, a visitor, from the deck of his ship? Eleanor Phoebe Butler, member of a prominent Hobart family? This panorama is more of wonderful scenery than the town of Hobart, with beautiful inlets, hills, beaches and water views. Similar is the Hobart regatta in 1868, also anonymous, full of boats, and spectators watching in herds on the shore. I can’t get too enthusiastic about the Albert Charles Cooke drawing of Hobart, which is very accurate, intriguing if you want learn about the streets and buildings, but rather boring and dingy just to look at. It’s time to move to the centre display cabinets, and look at Glover’s intriguing sketches, and the Oyster Bay painting which reminds us what a panorama was all about, with the piece at the end still rolled up. 

Alison Alexander


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