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Baudin: the view from Géographe and Naturaliste

Because we live on an island, we are inevitably exposed to the coastline, especially as we live in the path of the roaring 40s which are highly influential in the weather we experience. Many of our contemporary artists use the coast as inspiration, some of them becoming quite obsessed with it as evidenced by Bea Maddock’s work Terra Spiritus in whose 51 parts she attempts to share with the viewer her depiction of the entire coastline of Tasmania. Phillip Wolfhagen is another artist who looks to the coast for inspiration, along with many other painters and photographers.  The coast presents various aspects to the viewer, sometimes dark and brooding and at other times bright and open just as it must have done to these early visitors.

Last Friday, as I sat on a rock at Castray Esplanade watching the sail past of the tall ships that were here for the wooden boat festival and to commemorate Tasman’s voyage of 375 years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what the aborigines thought at the sight of the tall sticks that sat on dark-bodied structures and the white that flapped in the breeze. I also wondered what the sailors were thinking. Did they see the land that Tasman had named VDL as an ugly place too unlike the Europe that they had left behind, or did they see it as beautiful and exotic? The commemorative exhibition currently on at TMAG describes how Tasman was here at the behest of his government to look for lands to conquer, lands which could make money for the Netherlands as the Americas had done for the Spanish and the Portuguese. As he didn’t think there were spices and gold to be had, his reports were not very glowing, and later events conspired to deter the Dutch from returning to establish a settlement.

In the following years mariners of various countries visited, although with the changing tide of economic fortune they were mainly French and English, culminating for Australia with the visit by James Cook in 1770 which preceded the establishment of Sydney in 1788. By the end of the eighteenth century more was known about the coastline of Australia, and Flinders had proved that VDL was an island.  However, the French were still curious about this great southern land. As a result, here at QVMAG we have the words and renditions of French explorers who visited in 1802. In contrast to Tasman, the spur for their expedition was twofold. On board were a number of scientists responding to the curiosity about the world which had been engendered by the Enlightenment, and they were quietly checking out what the British, with whom they had been at war for several years, were up to in this great south land — and to use a bit of slang, to see if they could cash in on it. Both Joseph Banks, who supported the expedition, and Nicolas Peron, who was the naturalist on board, wrote that this could be an underlying reason for the voyage.

But what was the actual view that these various explorers had? What did they see from the Géographe and the Naturaliste? Tasman had arrived on the west coast; some of his coastline drawings show a series of mountain ranges.  He then sailed south and viewed and named the area around Tasman Island and further east past Storm Bay and Marion Bay, filling in the detail on the maps, which were blank until then.  He then headed farther east to map New Zealand. Because Baudin was here to study the land, he and his men spent more time exploring the coast, mapping it in more detail and sending scientists up rivers and onto the land. Consequently they met members of the local tribes and drew their buildings,  as can be seen in this exhibition.  They drew profiles of the coast, most particularly of the land from the DeWitt Islands, Tasman Island and across to Cape Huay, and then farther up the coast around Maria Islands and on to Bass Strait, the Kent group and King Island.

The medium the artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit were using was watercolour. This had been in use for hundreds of years, and was popular for artists working en plein air. In the case of Leseur and Petit it was used in conjunction with black or brown ink or pencil, as sketches could be made quickly and detail added later. So what did they do? Apparently they produced about 200 coastal profiles which are held in the national archives in Paris, so we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg here. They reported seeing many fires, and assumed that these were from the indigenous population. They also noted the rough and rocky nature of the coast. We also have here the sketch of the scientists camp on King Island, where Governor King had sent a party to plant the British flag and to inform the French that the British were about to establish a settlement in south east Van Diemen’s Land. Apparently Baudin found it all a bit amusing, assuring King later that they weren’t interested in settling a land already inhabited by savages, and that the flag had been erected upside down.

Within other parts of this exhibition there are drawings of the local people and of the flora and fauna that were encountered. Altogether we have been presented with a wonderful array of images rendered in soft colours and with a deft hand. We are grateful that we are able to share these.


– Sally Coltheart, QVMAG Guide



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