Flagging a mystery in Canton

The French and United States factories at Canton, c1841. ANMM Collection 00015750. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

The French and United States factories at Canton, c1841. ANMM Collection 00015750. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

History in art

When I visit maritime museums, I am always drawn to the ‘China trade’ paintings of Canton (now Guangzhou), the southern Chinese port to which all foreign trade was restricted from 1757 under the Qing dynasty’s Canton System. There is something about their composition that is so intriguing – the merging of Chinese and European artistic traditions, the bustling river crowded with boats, and the detailed architectural rendering of the Western merchants’ hongs (factories) with their national flags proudly displayed out front.

Recently I have been researching one of the museum’s China trade paintings as part of a broader project on the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Cantonese settler Mak Sai Ying in Sydney in 1818. Our oil painting depicts the French and American hongs on the western side of the Thirteen Factories district along the Pearl River. It has been dated about 1841, or the latter stages of the First Opium War (1839–1842) between Britain and China, which would result in the abolition of the Canton System and the opening of five Chinese treaty ports to foreign trade. What I really wanted to know about our painting was: why would the British Red Ensign be flying in front of the Spanish factory?

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Who was John Watt?

<em>'Daisy, I am sending the basket tomorrow. Bill'.</em> Despite the atmospheric picture, the message on the back of this card from the Watt collection is short. For years 'Daisy' and 'Bill' were strangers to the museum. ANMM Collection ANMS0410[048].

‘Daisy, I am sending the basket tomorrow. Bill’. Despite the atmospheric picture, the message on the back of this postcard from the Watt collection is short. For years ‘Daisy’ and ‘Bill’ were strangers to the museum. ANMM Collection ANMS0410[048].

An enigmatic collector

Over the years, the museum has acquired various collections that have taken the dedicated owner many years (or often a lifetime) to compile. The time, energy and cost required to gather together this type of comprehensive material can be enormous and so part of the unseen value of these collections is the story of the donor themselves.

In 1993, a collection of hundreds of photographs, drawings, postcards, papers and memorabilia featuring and related to ships was donated to the museum. It was clearly a collection that had taken a lifetime to accumulate by a dedicated and passionate individual. We were given the name Mr John Watt of McLean, New South Wales, as the collector.

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Meeting the descendants from a disaster at sea

Samuel Elyard, Burning of the Barque India, c 1841. Watercolour on paper, 41.7 x 55 cm. ANMM Collection 00004246

Samuel Elyard, Burning of the Barque India, c 1841. Watercolour on paper, 41.7 x 55 cm. ANMM Collection 00004246.

One of the museum’s most-requested paintings for public viewing is a dramatic watercolour by Sydney landscape artist Samuel Elyard (1817–1910) titled Burning of the Barque India (c 1841). Recently we arranged a viewing for cousins Catherine Bell and John Grant. Their great-great-grandparents John Scott Grant and Ann Grant (née Kilpatrick) were survivors of the ill-fated migrant ship, which caught fire and sank in the South Atlantic Ocean on 19 July 1841.

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Anzacs and surf lifesavers

Installing the Souter murals in the Australian National Maritime Museum's Navy gallery

Installing the murals in the Navy gallery, March 2015

A few weeks ago we installed a series of murals in the museum that were painted by David Henry Souter for the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Lifesaving Club (BSBLC). In January 1921 a ceremony was held to unveil an honour roll listing the names of the club members who had served during World War I and died far from their beloved Bondi. Also unveiled that day was this series of murals. The local sporting gazette The Arrow reported on the unveiling and made brief mention of the paintings:

The interior of the clubhouse is now distinctly attractive. The walls are panelled and Bulletin artist Souter has supplied a series of friezes done in his own inimitable style. (21 January 1921, p.6)

Souter (BSBLC President, 1920–21 season) completed the series in 1934 when he painted an additional two works.

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Waves of migration returns on Australia Day

The museum’s award-winning digital projection Waves of migration returns this Sunday, Australia Day, to once again illuminate the museum’s iconic roofline with a rich tapestry of migration stories drawn from our collection.

Waves of migration illuminates the roof of the museum in Darling Harbour

Waves of migration illuminates the roof of the museum in Darling Harbour

Waves of migration explores the history of migration to Australia and the compelling stories of those who’ve come across the seas – from British convicts and early settlers, to Jewish refugees and displaced persons; from post-war European migrants and Ten Pound Poms, to Indochinese boat people and seaborne asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Continue reading

Fish… finishing this weekend

Has the Australian National Maritime Museum fetishised fish? and is fetishised even a word?

This weekend is your last chance to find out, and to view what I think is one of our most inventive readings of Australian art from a maritime perspective.

Entering the ‘Fish in Australian art’ exhibition guided by Deborah Halpern’s ‘Fish’, neon lighting and perspex, 2010

Fish in Australian art  is an exhibition of watercolours, prints, publications, drawings, paintings, multimedia, artefacts, and artifice… all of which feature Australian stories of fish or fishing. Through artist’s eyes you see the wonders of fish,  fish as characters in dreaming or creation stories, as objects of European curiosity, science, charm, fantasy, nature, and the sublime. You see fish as decorative or design elements, and you see fishing as a way to while away the hours, for musing, sport or industry, and above all for cooking, eating, or serving at the table.

The exhibition includes works from important Indigenous artists like Yvonne Koolmatrie, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan, Micky of Ulladulla and Roy Wiggan, and many household names of European Australian art like Arthur Boyd, William Buelow Gould, Conrad Martens, John Olsen,  Margaret Preston and Anne Zahalka, in an exhibition which is both thematic and broadly chronological. I especially like the luminous drawings from the natural history painters who worked with pencil and brush to document all they saw around them – here, the fish and the fishing techniques of Indigenous Australians, and their watercraft.

Richard Browne watercolours

There are a number of works by the Port Jackson painter, Ferdinand Bauer and Thomas Watling on loan from the British Museum of Natural History which are truely sensational and here in Australia just for this exhibition.

These works show Indigenous people fishing from their nawi and cooking their catch.  They are beautifully drawn. There are so many nuanced details, like the moon rays floating to the water in the ink and watercolour sketch A N. South Wales native strikg fish by moonlight while his wife paddles him along with a fire in the Canoe ready to broil the fish as caught attributed to the Port Jackson Painter, 1788-97. These details remind you that these painters were not just about picturing science and are worth a really good look.

Artists of Port Jackson works in ‘Fish in Australian art’

The exhibition blends media and artefacts, and in this early colonial section you see a canoe of bark with tied ends, made by Albert Woodlands from the west Kempsey region, built before 1938, and on loan from the Australian Museum. This Indigenous canoe is used to interpret the fishing drawings and to add texture and meaning – together they become a delicious viewing experience for those interested in Aboriginal watercraft. The canoe – similar in style to the nawi used by Sydney Aboriginal people – forms such a refined shape that it is almost sculptural.

There is much to see in this exhibition and I can only suggest you make it to the museum this weekend to catch it before it goes…

Canoe and watercolours from Fish in Australian Art

Remembering Adam Cullen

Adam Cullen, well-known Australian artist, worked at the Australian National Maritime Museum for six years from 1994 and all his friends and colleagues here would like to say how saddened we were to hear of his death.

Adam came to the museum from the Museum of Contemporary Art and worked in our conservation and design areas as a preparator, forming the creative backbone of exhibition construction and installation.  Sculptor Stephen Crane, his supervisor, remembers Adam’s good humour and gentle nature in the workplace, often spiked with observations on life’s underbelly, and how many laughs were had when spacking, painting and finishing.

Wall in Commerce exhibition featuring Adam Cullen’s work.

Painting was what he did and sadly one of the core exhibitions which featured his gestures, some words scrawled on the wall about  the history of Trade Union movement, has just been bumped out, this week of his death.

Photo of

Adam Cullen’s Mark Occhilupo. ANMM Collection

Adam worked part time and left the museum after he won the Archibald Prize in 2000. The museum holds a startling portrait of surfer Mark Occhilupo in its collections and many stories of Adam in its soul.

Adam and I shared an interest in Eastern Long-necked turtles and I am very sad to hear that he can no longer enjoy them at his property in the bush.

Eighteen months on a leaky boat

 ‘Southern Pygmy Leatherjacket, Brachaluteres jacksonianus’

‘Southern Pygmy Leatherjacket, Brachaluteres jacksonianus’, by Ferdinand Bauer, lent by Natural History Museum, London

There is something intriguing about natural history illustrations. The plants look as though they are sprouting from the page but the animals appear slightly on the edge of reality, with blankly staring eyes and stiffly posed limbs. Perhaps this is because the immobility of plants permit them to be drawn from life whereas animals do not generally allow the painter that luxury unless they are in a more, well, deceased state.

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Restoring hope and a fishing boat called ‘Freedom’

With all the rain in Sydney recently, you could be forgiven for forgetting what blue sky looks like. But for the Lu family, who arrived in Australia in 1977 on the Vietnamese refugee boat Tu Do, the colour sky blue is forever etched in their memories as the colour of freedom.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, South Vietnamese businessman Tan Thanh Lu pooled resources with friends and built a fishing boat, Tu Do (meaning Freedom), to escape Communist Vietnam. Mr Lu painted the boat sky blue to blend into the ocean and to evade authorities and the notorious Thai pirates who preyed on boat people. Continue reading

Object of the week: The horrors of the deep

ANMM Collection, purchased with USA Bicentennial Fund

Art has the capacity to evoke a range of emotions from the viewer, whether it be religious fervour, nostalgia, romance or even horror. Valentine Green’s engraving, Youth rescued from a Shark (1779), is designed to portray what was seen as, and to a large extent is still considered, one of the most feared aspects of the ocean – a shark attack.

In 1749, the fourteen-year-old English sailor, Brook Watson, was swimming in Havana Harbour, Cuba when he was attacked by a shark. Watson had been serving on board an American merchant ship before he decided to take that fateful swim. His shipmates spotted him struggling against the shark and rowed to his aid. Watson managed to disentangle himself; however the shark had severed his right foot at the ankle and he later had his leg amputated just below the knee.

This image captures the moment just after Watson loses his right foot and before his crew mates managed to hoist him into the boat. The engraving is a copy of the 1778 oil painting by American artist John Singleton Copley. Almost 30 years after the attack, Watson, then a successful businessman, commissioned the well-known portraitist to depict the event. Immortalised in paint, Watson and the Shark caused a sensation when it was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in the same year. A London newspaper provided a detailed description of the attack, though it is believed that Watson wrote it himself. It is dramatic and stirring in its tone concluding, ‘after suffering an amputation of the limb…the youth received a perfect cure in about three months.’

While Watson’s motivations behind the commission are unclear, six years after the painting shocked London viewers, he entered politics. An entry into this sphere brought with it the usual drawbacks of politically-motivated derisive commentary from his peers. The Rolliad (1812), a British satirical publication designed to poke fun at politicians, penned this scathing critique of Watson and the story that made him famous:

‘“One moment’s time might I presume to beg?”
Cries modest Watson, on his wooden leg;
That leg, in which such wondrous art is shown,
It almost seems to serve him like his own;
Oh! had the monster, who for breakfast ate
That luckless limb, his nobler noddle met,
The best of workmen, nor the best of wood,
Had scarce supplied him with a head so good.’

Worlds away from the shark attack these cutting remarks were attacks of a different kind, designed to thwart Watson’s political ambitions. What it demonstrates, however, is how Watson’s public persona became synonymous with the terrifying tale of his struggle against the shark. The fact that the painting was reproduced in this engraving also lends itself to this idea, as it would have been printed and distributed for buyers interested in obtaining a copy of it. Below the engraving is a small blurb in English and French detailing the ‘Loss of the Flesh & Foot, torn from the Right Leg’ and Watson being ‘sav’d from the Jaws of the voracious Animal’.

Green’s engraving demonstrates the popularity of Copley’s painting, but it also hints at the range of possibilities for what it may have represented for its viewers. An orphan from the age of six, perhaps Watson commissioned the work out of more than a self-indulgent desire to record this significant chapter in his life. In this light, the painting acts as an 18th century parable of survival in the face of adversity. Watson’s will, dated 12 August 1803, echoes this sentiment as he concluded he would donate the painting to Christ’s Hospital in London. In praise of their charitable efforts for disadvantaged children, he hoped it would stand as a ‘most usefull [sic] Lesson to Youth.’

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

Fish in Australian art opens tomorrow

Tomorrow, our new exhibition Fish in Australian art opens to the public and runs until 1 October. As a keen lover of visual arts, I’m particulary excited about this exhibition. I can’t wait to spend some time exploring the show! The exhibition features over 100 works of art and design, including pieces by celebrated artists such as William Buelow Gould, Conrad Martens, Rupert Bunny, Margaret Olley, William Dobell, Arthur Boyd, Yvonne Koolmatrie, John Olsen, John Brack, Michael Leunig, Craig Walsh and many more.

Over the past week I dropped by the exhibition space to see how the installtion was going. Here are a few snaps, with more available for viewing on Flickr.

Preparator installing fish sculpture

Above: Trevally dance machine, 1993, Ken Thaiday Sr, born c 1950.

Four small fish sculptures

Preparator installing small fish sculptures into cabinet

Neon Fish, 2010, Deborah Halpern. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Above: Neon Fish, 2010, Deborah Halpern. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.