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A Guide’s Perspective: Out of the Paint Box – Lesueur in The Art of Science

My talk, being entitled ‘A Guide’s Perspective’, I feel has given me permission to take a somewhat more subjective tack, to illuminate some of my interests in The Art of Science, especially the  sketchbooks, watercolour and natural history illustrations.

While my use of watercolour has been somewhat peripatetic over the years, I have always had my own box of paints to hand, which I feel gives me a little insight into the work of Charles Alexandre Lesueur and his role in the 1800-04 French expedition to Terra Australis.

One of the quotes from Baudin in the exhibition that I noticed is ‘There was not a soul to be seen who was not sketching’. I must confess, when I had the chance to see The Art of Science on its last day in Adelaide, it was the work of Lesueur and what was referred to as the ‘fair copy of Baudin’s Journal ‘ that stayed in mind as we embarked on our own family adventure into Central Australia.

Amusingly, the experience of that trip had many parallels to Nicholas Baudin’s expedition two hundred years before. While there was not an outright mutiny, ‘les savants’ (scholars), who were enthusiastic upon departure, soon resisted any attempt at order, ‘travaille’ (work) and of sailing at ‘dad speed’. We found our own Bays of Misanthrope (hater of humanity) and Melancolie (melancholy)  and I observed many moments of comparison in an unfamiliar land.

During the three weeks, as I (idiotically) wanted to draw everything in sight under somewhat (mildly) challenging conditions, I often wondered how the artists/ naturalists fared from day- to-day on board the ship or in the field trying to create the works I had seen in Adelaide: quick sketches of fellow travellers, dramatic cloud studies and finely wrought pencil drawings and watercolours of sea life, fauna, coastlines and portraits of Australia’s original inhabitants.

I recalled Lesueur’s beautifully observed pencil and ink drawing of a Rosenberg’s Goanna from Kangaroo Island, whilst the goanna I spotted at Kings Canyon was barely still long enough for a quick sketch. So much for life drawing then – better get out the camera/phone.

By the time we returned to Launceston, The Art of Science had shed a skin and reappeared, beautifully formed on the opening night here at QVMAG. Most

markedly, upon walking through the doors to the coloured walls and legible layout, it felt like I had opened a Reeves paintbox for the first time – and this was before I knew the colours were indeed based on those contained in the watercolour box included from South Australia.

As I looked closely at works in this exhibition I found myself still trying to unravel a few mysteries. The first pertains to the paint-box itself: a Reeves & Inwood box was included in the exhibition as an example of watercolours available at the turn of the century.

Remarkably, many of these beautifully presented artists’ boxes exist today because they were often gifts or aspirational objects of their age, too beautiful to use or lucky to see the light of an English country lane, let alone survive rigorous journeys to the other side of the world. A complete box of this type box would have included 12-24 ‘cakes’ (pigment and a water soluble binding agent eg. gum arabic), port crayons, charcoal, sponge, brushes, water dish and possibly paper, depending on the fit out.

While I subscribe to the romantic notion of this type of paint box at use in the field I wonder whether Lesueur would have used one; the inventory for Baudin’s expedition included mention of four boxes of colours, and additional paint colours. Lesueur, in a letter to his father prior to departure, reassuring him that he would be working as an artist whilst on his journey, requested his ‘boîte de couleur’ be delivered. Was he referring to this type of boxed watercolours or other similar (French) products?

While similar water-based mediums have rich histories on other continents, water-soluble coloured pigments were used on manuscripts in the Middle Ages and by artists in Europe from the 15th century. Famous historical examples include German Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare and French master Claude Lorraine’s monochromatic landscapes. Modern watercolour, however, has its roots in cartography, where ‘stained drawings’ in pencil and ink were enhanced initially using washes of ink and, then with plant based watercolour mediums, to add further detail and legibility to maps being published in the greater Age of Exploration.

Lesueur’s education as a hydrogeologist would have included the art of rendering coastlines and geographic and cartographic details to produce such drawings using watercolour, his skill being such that Baudin himself sanctioned his inclusion on the expedition, ostensibly as an assistant gunner.

Le Havre was Lesueur’s home town and given the proximity to English trade, the aspiring artist would have been well positioned to try out the Reeves Brothers’ new products. Marketed as early as 1780, the paint cakes were highly transportable: ‘Superfine Water Colour -The Best Quality for Wholesale, Retail and Exportation’.

The Reeves Brothers’ various companies, with many beautifully boxed sets of colours, pigments and accessories, positioned themselves as meeting the need of every artist from professionals, privileged classes, and increasing amateur requirements. The company can even claim that Napoléon Bonaparte was furnished with a similar set during his exile on St Helena in 1814.

As watercolour became popular on its own terms, and as a transportable medium outdoors and travelling abroad, its use by prominent British artists, including John Constable, Thomas Girtin, Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman and JWM Turner furthered the British craze, with The Old Watercolour Society forming in 1805. Such was the medium’s burgeoning popularity that the basic enamel tin, readily available from the 1830s, sold more than 11 million units from 1853 to 1870. Tubes of watercolour were developed in the 1840s by Windsor & Newton but the solid cakes remained useful and recently have undergone a bit of a renaissance, with many contemporary ‘urban sketchers’ buying or adapting the medium to drawing ‘en plein air’, in spite of the digital age.

Several examples exist of Lesueur’s use of the medium, possibly ‘en plein air’. One in this exhibition is the Elephant fish, caught off Tasmanian east coast. We can easily imagine Lesueur in the moment, rendering the quivering, flailing flesh of the sea creature, in quick fluid puddles of watercolour and gouache. Perhaps this represents a new confidence in the medium one year into the voyage.

If Lesueur did indeed have a similar box I expect it would have been used to its best advantage in a consistent environment, where the artist could have control over the medium to produce the detailed work evident in this exhibition. On the former part of the expedition, this meant work on Baudin’s journal along with Nicolas Martin Petit, who studied under neoclassicist Jacques Louis David. They worked closely together on the Géographe initially illustrating Baudin’s journal, Lesueur concentrating on fauna and Petit on people. It has been difficult to attribute many specific drawings to each artist.

One example that springs to mind is a series of cloud studies in white chalk and pencil on coloured paper attributed to Lesueur, only one of which is included here. To my mind, being so early in the trip and crossing the equator, on their way south, these works seem so remarkably removed from Lesueur’s other sketches that I would have thought them to be by Petit, who was familiar with such techniques and mediums from David’s studio. Perhaps they had a bonding session of shared skills and mediums or even swapped sketches with the cloud studies remaining in Lesueur’s possession?

My next mystery concerned Baudin’s ‘long time lost’ journal, which was dragged from the basement of the National Archives in Paris only about 20 years ago and transcribed by the French curator and historian Jacqueline Bonnemains. This journal is not to be confused with Nicholas Baudin’s Journal de Mer, a sea log which was translated into English in 1974 by Christine Cornell from Adelaide.

What has become known as the Fair copy of Baudin’s journal was exhibited in The Art of Science for the first time ever: in the South Australian Maritime Museum warehouse space the huge A3-sized book seemed at home. Initially I thought ‘fair copy’ meant ‘facsimile’ but itis more like a revised or final draft. This, along with the very officious-looking title page, which can be found in the catalogue of The Art of Science on p. 57, indicates Baudin’s intention for the journal to become a document recording and celebrating the expedition.

Baudin had employed a similar process with his scientists on an earlier voyage to the Caribbean on the Belle Angeliqué that included head gardener Anselme Riedlé and zoologists Stanislas Levillain and René Maugé, This journey that was well received upon its return to France in 1797 and produced a significant collection and respected body of knowledge.

The journal lay open on a double page that included an illustration by Lesueur or Petit of a funerary monument in Timor marking the grave where Riedlé was buried next to Bligh’s botanist David Nelson. The remainder of the double page spread was covered in handwritten journal entries in more than one handwriting style; Baudin was given to dictating the content, including transcripts of correspondence, details of daily issues and descriptions of new discoveries – hence ‘fair copy’.

On this current expedition, a necessary stopover in Timor proved disastrous with many crew contracting fever or dysentery. Of Baudin’s most loyal friends, Levillian also died and was buried at sea in December 1801. Maugé made it to Van Diemen’s Land, died and was buried on Maria Island in February 1802. Maugé had been responsible for devising a net to trap sea creatures, Baudin then decided which extraordinary specimens were to be included in his journal.

The journal is described by the Naturaliste’s zoologist Bory de Saint-Vincent as ‘an immense bound volume, lying open upon a table in his (Baudin’s) apartment…contained a multitude of molluscs, fishes and other objects of natural history…painted with a perfection and a truth to which nothing can compare…’

Criticism too was levied at the journal, with the illustrations dismissed as being of aesthetic value only and Baudin belittled with the inference that he ‘got lucky’ in his choice of crew. The criticisms prompted this response from Baudin: ‘The coloured drawings done by Citizens Petit and Lesueur leave nothing to be desired when it comes to precision, attention to detail, consistency and a perfect resemblance’.

I too am particularly drawn to his jewel-like fish, luminous jellyfish studies and shells that can almost be picked off the page. The criticism, seemingly spiteful, however was truthful and necessary for Lesueur to move towards the next stage of his artistic development. Especially as Bory de Sant-Vincent and official artists Milbert, LeBrun and Garnier left the expedition at Mauritius along with other malcontents.

It is likely that in the earlier stage of the journey Lesueur’s skills as an assistant gunner or hydrogeographer may not have been required and he had plenty of time to spend on his many illustrations. An example can be made of the sea snake in this exhibition, one of my favourite paintings. After it was fished aboard the Geographe in warmer waters, it is likely that Lesueur had it in front of him as a direct reference, used pencil to lightly sketch the beautiful sinuous form on to the journal page, then built up layers of coloured washes with watercolour before allowing it to dry and then adding the scale detail in brown ink with a fine nib pen.

If he was aware of the developing scientific illustrating conventions he might have, for purposes of scientific classification, included other details, such as the scale pattern on the snake’s head and the underside – although history shows us many of these drawing and prints from this period were sought after solely for their aesthetic qualities.

This may have been the only snake Lesueur painted despite the comprehensive survey and sampling of the coasts, islands and Swan River region. He could have been a bit snake shy after being bitten on a riverbank in Timor whilst chasing monkeys. His swollen leg caused considerable agony until he was promptly was treated by a doctor, who cut a sizeable chunk cut out his heel and cauterised it, with Lesueur immobilised, in recovery, for several days.

Incidentally, Austrian Ferdinand Bauer, one of the greatest artists of the period, scientific or otherwise, was employed on the concurrent Flinders expedition. Bauer was well known for developing a complex and thorough system of numbering his drawings according to colours, allowing much work to be completed upon his return. I wonder if he and Lesueur swapped notes at some point.

Baudin’s journal is in two volumes, the second apparently incomplete, and in total covers only the first part of the expedition. At some stage, work on the journal waned and ceased entirely, possibly signifying a change in instructions or preoccupation, with Lesueur working more closely with Peron, who had quickly assumed Mauge’s position as zoologist. During this time in southern waters, Peron and Lesueur’s work is focused on more ephemeral species such as the jellyfishes and sea butterflies, whose forms, colours and conditions deteriorated rapidly upon leaving water and would not have travelled well, unlike a sea snake or a chiton in a bottle.

Lesueur’s enthusiasm, untrained style and keen powers of observation made him an ideal student for Peron; he trained the young artist as a naturalist and their collaboration produced many scientific drawings on the latter half of the voyage. They even developed a frame to reproduce, scale and to transfer the proportions of the fish to Lesueur’s latter drawings, though there’s not a lot of evidence of this technique in this small sample of Lesueur’s work. It is possible that Petit used a similar technique to transfer some of his Aboriginal portraits into the journal without too much redrawing: for example, the grid visible on the portrait of an Aboriginal boy, which also could have been drawn by engravers to copy the work for reproduction.

The journal as it exists today has had many of its drawings removed. It is thought many of the watercolour works on blue-tinted paper on display in the exhibition are from the journal. The photograph in the excellent catalogue of the exhibition of the journal’s title page also has the bluish tint. The open page I observed did not appear to have the bluish tint; perhaps this is due to factors of lighting etc. It did have a similar grain of laid paper (made from a fine grid of wires that make up the paper mold,as can be seen on projection, with mesh used later on). I wondered if this type of blue-tinted paper was commonly used.

Blue ‘toned’ papers were developed in Italy in the mid-to-late 15th century from indigo and woad-coloured rag content in paper manufacturing. Turner used this type of toned paper for loose works and in sketchbooks. Essentially, the use of a mid-toned paper enabled the artist to render both light and dark tones more readily. Body-colour, or gouache, was used to produced light tones and highlights.

Many of David’s figure studies use this technique and a sample of this type of paper can be seen in some of Lesueur’s cloud studies (the blue ones sadly exhibited in Adelaide only); the rag fibres are quite visible and the use of white chalk and pencil are readily effective on the blue tone.

By the late 18th century however, French and English papermakers were using Prussian blue and smalt (made of ground blue potassium glass with cobalt oxide) respectively to produce consistently light blue tinted papers for letters, printing, albums and drawing paper. Blue failed to have the effect of countering the yellowing of the paper in manufacturing or with age and some pages ended up with a greenish tinge.

More than likely, Baudin selected the journal and the artists had to learn to work with its blue cast, which looks fabulously ‘old worldly’ with elaborate brown script and suits the fish paintings but which may have been somewhat challenging for portraiture. It is possible that the expedition also had a supply of this type of paper to hand in sheets. There is a delicate rectangle of colour on one of Petit’s drawings that appears to show some hesitancy either by the artist or in the processing by the reproducers.

Apart from the artists’ location, style and contents, there are some formal similarities to be observed with many of these works on blue-tinted paper by Lesueur and Petit which I can visualise as being part of a Baudin’s specific instructions regarding the finished look of the journal. In particular, a considered layout and scaling, a specimen numbering/locating system, the use of the brown writing ink and ruling pen for borders. Ruled pencil frames, writing guidelines and grids possibly were utilised at this stage to enable quick and accurate copying of the day’s drawings into the journal. As mentioned by Saint Vincent, it would have been kept in Baudin’s quarters on the Géographe, a suitably appointed space moderately well-lit with a substantial reference library and a decent supply of brown ink, nibs, watercolours and preserved specimens.

In this exhibition there are also drawings produced by Lesueur and Petit that further show the development of the style and detail required for publication in Peron’s own account of the voyage, Mon voyage aux terres australes. Lesueur, upon his return to France, also produced watercolours on vellum – illustrations that I feel have an otherworldly remove from their subjects in the antipodes. After the deaths of Petit and Peron within the decade, Lesueur eventually departed for life in America, perhaps disappointed by the tepid reception the expedition received upon its return and in the ensuing years.

He eventually returned to Le Havre and became the curator at the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in 1846 and had a chance to catalogue his work. He died nine months later. In 1804 Baudin’s journal was sent to Paris as part of official documentation of the expedition, though at some stage the drawings were removed, possibly by Peron or Lesueur himself. Because many illustrations were removed from the journal, possibly quite soon after they returned to France, I expect they had different lives and exposure to light, hence their varied appearance.

Lesueur’s artwork was donated to the Le Havre Museum after his death and much of it was published in the 1900s. The museum and most of its collection was destroyed under German occupation and allied bombing in the Second World War. Lesueur’s work however was saved by a curator who moved it offsite.

Many of the species illustrated by the artists no longer exist. Several others are now on the vulnerable and threatened lists due to development, changing habitats and climate. Sea snakes travelling in warmer ocean currents were washed up on Hobart beaches. Desperate intervention is required to save two of our parrots from extinction. Our challenge now is to discover new ways to conserve.

Despite all the name-changing and politics, some of the players in this period of history still have landmarks (Capes Lesueur, Peron and Baudin) or creatures named after them: Lesueur’s velvet gecko (still common in NSW), the tasty Ibacus peronii (Balmain bug) and Calyptorhyncus baudinii (WA Baudin’s black cockatoo). Baudin might not get the last laugh but he definitely gets squawk in.


Figure 3.1:Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Sketches of clouds made on board the Geographe at or near the Equator. Le Havre, Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, Collection Lesueur, n° 13002-13007.


Vicki Dewsbury, QVMAG Guide

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