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Through new eyes: How Baudin and artists looked at Tasmania

When I thought of a focus for talking about this wonderful exhibition, I imagined the scientists and artists finding and looking at things for the first time in New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land possibly being amazed by what they saw and indeed seeing them through new eyes.

When I entered this exhibition the other evening I was unprepared for my own reaction. I was astonished and delighted by the drawings and paintings I was looking at. (I was in fact looking through new eyes!)

They were so utterly fresh—the vividness of the colours and the clarity of line and form. I noticed the lovely paper and velum the works were on. How did they bring so many sheets of paper with them on the ship and keep them fresh and dry?

The artists’ mediums, the paint boxes and the pencils; imagine the sharpness of the pencils to be able to create such fine and detailed work!

Along with all the artists’ medium, many quires of white wove paper were stored on board. (A quire is, I believe, a bundle of 24 sheets of paper of the same size.)

What powers of observation these artists must have had to be able to look with such obvious interest and with such new eyes and create such exquisite and detailed and often tiny and delicate drawings and paintings of the subjects.

You will possibly know the story of the artists, Charles- Alexander Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit. They were 22 years old when they signed up to join the exciting and wonderfully promising voyage commanded by Nicolas Baudin.

Two ships, the Géographe and the Naturaliste, were being outfitted at Le Havre as research ships to sail to southern waters on a scientific discovery voyage.

Lesueur and Petit did not join as artists, although both had experience. Lesueur was naturally observant and from a young age had collected and drawn from nature, with no formal training. Petit had studied at David’s studio at the Louvre.

They both signed up as assistant gunners, but were quite quickly noticed by Baudin who assigned them to work as artists on his personal diary.

As fate would have it, and thus created as part of this story, the three eminent assigned artists, along with 7 seven scientists, left the voyage for various reasons in Mauritius, then the Ile de France. They had disputes with Baudin, and at least one of the artists stayed in Mauritius and had great influence years later when the final formal commemorative atlas of the voyage was prepared and printed back in France.

However, back in 1801, Lesueur and Petit became the official artists to work alongside the scientist and record all the specimens to take back to France, where they were to be used for engravings for the production of the wonderful books and documents as records of the voyages.

Many of the works are indeed the sketches and works drawn quickly with as much detail as possible to be the great resource for this publication.

Lesueur worked closely with the young zoologist Francois Peron and Petit concentrated on drawing the Aborigines; it was a task spelled out very concisely by Cuvier, the director of the Museum of Natural History in France.

This was to record very carefully the reality of the indigenous people and not to be distracted by clothes or body decoration but concentrating on the physical attributes only.  At this time of the Enlightenment, a great interest was being shown in finding out as much as possible and classifying the physical aspects of different races.

From my perspective as an art gallery guide I would like to talk about a few of the works and look at the artists’ techniques and context of the subjects.

It is a bit difficult to move us all around to look at each one so I will try hard to describe them and then hopefully you will look closely at them and maybe even say ‘WOW!’

As you walk into the exhibition you will see the sea star group of drawings. They are done with watercolour, wash and pencil on paper. The drawing is comprised of three sea stars arranged on a large piece of paper.

The composition really is startling in its apparent simplicity, but as you look more closely the detail is exquisite.

The colour of this little starfish, the scientific name of which is Tegulaster sp., is various shades of red or orange.

Lesueur has drawn these in pencil and then used watercolor to create the liveliness of these invertebrates, which are still lively after about 214 years.

It is possible that he drew these straight from life; they live on the sea beds. On the scientific excursions with Péron, nets would drag the sea bottom, bringing all sorts of sea creatures onto the boat where Lesueur would be able to draw them. Otherwise they would be preserved in alcohol and would lose the freshness and the colour.

A good example of this is the elephant fish. The scientific name for this is Antarctic chimaera. It has an elongated fleshy snout used to probe the sea bottom for food.

There is a preserved specimen nearby which is a contrast to the drawn and painted work on blue tinted paper.  The fish seems suspended as though still in the water; the eye is bright and the colours fresh, loosely painted in watercolour wash. If you look closely you can see creases in the paper as though it has been folded at some stage.

Many birds were observed during the voyage and in the protected waters of the mouth of the Huon River. Péron and Lesueur went in a boat, noticing the trees growing closely together and in amongst them such bright birds were seen flying about in the branches.

The green rosella, or Tasmanian rosella, was drawn and painted in vivid colours by Lesueur. This may have been one of the birds shot down for observation, as the colours are so bright and the detail so carefully drawn. It is on blue tinted paper.

An interesting aside about the blue tinted paper is that only a few years later Turner used blue-tinted paper a lot during his travels. Apparently the shade of the paper allows the artist to be more adventurous than is possible with white paper.

On the wall behind me you will have seen a number of portraits of indigenous people. These are all done by Petit, remembering Cuvier’s guidelines that ornaments, clothing, and scars be eliminated so that the physical features could be clearly seen; this satisfied the demands of the expedition and Cuvier’s direction.

But Petit certainly painted these and let the engraver do the retouching later on in France.  On one portrait he has written instructions for the engraver.

So we certainly see real people. Some of these are of Aboriginal people they encountered on Bruny Island, and with whom they were able to have a reasonable rapport and thus were able to draw them. Some of the other unnamed portraits seem rather like caricatures.

However, there is one of a man named Paraberi done in watercolour, gouache, black ink and pencil on blue tinted paper. Here Petit certainly painted the cicatrices, the symbolic scars, the piercing of his ear, and his distinct facial features. You will notice dark patches, as was a custom, to crush charcoal and rub it on the forehead and cheeks as decoration.

Another portrait is of a young woman and her baby. She also has a name, Arra Maida, and is naked except for the kangaroo skin she is carrying her baby in. She is drawn with black pencil and he has drawn her closely cropped hair and wide nose. Péron noted that her eyes were very expressive and Petit has captured this so that her expression seems interested and thoughtful.

Another portrait shows a young man from Maria Island wearing a single-strand choker style shell necklace.

This and another drawing by Lesueur of a shell necklace are the earliest representations of Tasmanian shell necklaces.

In a case next to this is a modern necklace which is virtually identical; it is a verification of the ongoing culture of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

On the back wall you will see a small drawing titled Shell necklace and a detail of the snail used for their shells. He must have used a very sharp pencil to have drawn this in such fine and beautiful detail. The single shell, a king maireener shell, is about real size, while the threaded shells are less than half size and form a circle around the single shell.

On this same wall are a series of drawings by Lesueur depicting wind shelters. These he may have used as a device for setting a scene for showing the Aboriginal people and their culture.

One in particular has the bark wind shelter used by people on the east coast of Tasmania. A man with a long spear is standing and a woman seems to be tending a fire.

A Xanthorea, or grass tree, is drawn at the left hand side.

The detail in this tiny pencil drawing is remarkable.

And don’t forget that the instructions from France required all these details.

Landscapes drawn from on board ship shows the coastline and there is one that shows Eddystone Point and De Witt Island, which is a profile sketch using brown and black ink and pencil on paper that may have been done by Petit or Lesueur working closely together.

Another immediate landscape is a pencil sketch called The  scientists’ camp at King Island.  

You can almost imagine Lesueur standing in the shallows sketching the scene quickly. It shows two French tents farther along the beach from a pulled up small boat.

The very gestural pencil lines show the reflections and movement of the water and has a great feeling of the moment.

This is almost an illustration of a story which was written next to this work and is worth reading.

Finally I must mention the animals, in particular Lesueur’s small finished painting of the platypus. This was done with watercolour on vellum, which is made from calfskin and has a very fine surface. This would have been done from sketches when back in France.

He has painted the platypuses with rather strange bills: this is possibly because the preserved platypus he would have drawn from would have been less plump. You will notice this difference when looking at the preserved platypus on display next to the painting.

Lesueur sketched the wombats with such delight and was so obviously intrigued by them. In the exhibition catalogue there is an essay showing how the sketches were transformed into the engravings.

An interesting point is that the works represent changes in philosophical and aesthetic attitudes, from the first sketches to the final pictures shown to the public years later.

I think it is so exciting to be given the opportunity to see the original and spontaneous but accurate drawings of Lesueur and Petit.

They took back over 1500 drawings to France and only 42 of them were transformed into prints and shown to the public in the form of the wonderful published accounts of the expedition.

Lesueur and Petit kept all their works, as they needed to refer to them and prepare them for the engravers to transfer them to the copper plates for printing the official account of the voyage.

By wonderful chance and luck these finally ended up with their families, who later returned them as a whole body to the Museum in Le Havre.

Annie Robinson, QVMAG Gallery Guide

Click here to view the Short Talk Series: Lunch with Baudin talks

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