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Colonial art in Australia            Settlement in the Illawarra

Colonial Art in the Illawarra, NSW

Andrea Hope

Please note that most artworks on this page are those painted by the artist in relation to the Illawarra 

Quick Overview

➢Most artists born overseas & often paintings reflected their own familiar        landscape colours

➢Many artists were either trained as draftsmen, were convicts, or amateurs

➢Drawings and watercolours (with a limited palette) were most popular          because of cost and portability

➢Mainly focused on the picturesque - landscapes and early settlement

➢Either a ‘Realist’ or ‘Romantic’ style - not contentious

➢Professional travelling artists began to visit Australia in the early 1800s,          and were often interested in making prints (lithographs and etchings) to        increase the possibility of sales - interest in creating editions of works


The Mechanics School of Art was opened in 1833 to promote culture and the National School of Art gave its first lecture there in 1843

➢The 1st exhibition of colonial art held at the Chamber of Commerce in 1872

➢The Academy of Art was founded in the 1870s - it was later to become AGNSW

The Art Society of NSW was formed in 1880

Settlement in the Illawarra

Settlement in the Illawarra

Although the Illawarra area had been discovered by the early explorers by ship, settlement in the Illawarra didn't begin until the early 1800s - the initial colonial expansion in NSW was to the poorer, but more accessible,  lands  close to the small settlement at Sydney Cove.

Wheat crops were grown around Sydney Town, and then at Ryde and Parramatta.

Subsequently the richer lands of the Hawkesbury and Nepean, and the rich pasture lands about Camden were discovered - leading to settlement along the edge of the Blue Mountains on the west, opening up the districts of Windsor, Richmond and Penrith; and in a south-westerly direction, opening up the districts of Liverpool, Campbelltown, Camden, etc.

Cattle were also introduced into these areas, but with their increasing numbers, and periods of drought,  feed became scarce, so locating fresh land for pasture was critical.

As a result, from about 1810, to at least 1858, many cattle were brought to Illawarra from the north by boat for grazing on the grassed lands surrounding Lake Illawarra, extending along the Coast from Red Point (Port Kembla) southerly to the Minnamurra River, and in a westerly direction along the Valley of the Macquarie Rivulet.

JH Carse, Bulli Pass, Wollongong.jpg

JH Carse, Bulli Pass, Wollongong, 

The Sydney Gazette of 18 March 1815, reported that:
“A considerable extent of fine grazing ground is described by late travellers to be about the Five Islands, to which, however, it would be thoroughly impracticable to convey cattle by land.”

Boat harbour, Gerringong.PNG

Gerringong Harbour

Conrad Martens, Boat Harbour Wollongong

Conrad Martens, Boat Harbour Wollongong, 1835

Landowner Charles Throsby of Bong Bong arrived in the district from the west, cutting a track from Appin and Bulli, with the assistance of two local Aborigines and his employee, Joseph Wild. He established the first cattle station at Wollongong in 1815.

In the same year, Wollongong harbour was first used for the shipping of cedar.

Cedar cutting had also become an important industry in the young Colony, and it was inevitable that the cedar cutters would find a way to reach the Illawarra to access of this valuable soft wood.

photo of cedar trees.PNG

In his book,  A History of Illawarra and Manaro, published in 1872,  Judge McFarland reported:

"Cedar was carried from the inner shores of Lake Illawarra, in small craft, during convenient periods to Sydney in 1810 - and bullock teams used to haul cedar logs and planks to the edges of the Lake”.


Mr David Smith, of Kiama, who first came to the Illawarra in 1821, was one of the early cedar cutters. He wrote


"there was scarcely a creek or stream, valley, ravine or gorge between Bulli and Broughton Creek, that was not dotted with cedar trees, many being of great size and beauty".


In particular, the country about Kiama seems to have been specially prolific in cedar timber, for Mr Smith mentioned that the site now occupied by the town of Kiama "had some noble cedars upon it".

So, pioneers of these two important industries were seeking access to the Illawarra at about  the same time - the cedar cutters for its wealth of Red Cedar and the cattlemen for its pasturage.  It is mainly through their combined efforts that the difficulties in reaching Illawarra across the northern mountain were ultimately overcome. 

Development was fairly rapid from the 1830s as convict labour was used to build roads and more settlers moved into the region, and crops such as wheat and corn were introduced.

Abraham Lincolne, Waugh-hope, Jamberoo,

Wollongong and Port Kembla were considered to be the ‘hub’ of the Illawarra and in June, 1829, a Gazette notice announced that the Five Islands, Kiama, Gerringong, Shoalhaven, Coolangatta, and Ulladulla were proclaimed post towns. 

Abraham Lincolne, 'Waugh-hope', Jamberoo, Illawarra, 1840-45

However, by the 1840’s most of the available cedar had been removed and with the large areas of land cleared by timber getting, unsuitable for any large-scale production of agricultural products the area began to give way to a growing dairy industry.

Coal was first discovered in the Illawarra in May 1797.  A group of shipwrecked sailors found coal and made a fire near Austinmer. They were making their way to Port Jackson on foot along the east coast after their ship had been driven ashore in the Bass Strait. They were  soon rescued by a fishing boat near Wattamolla. 


Governor Hunter sent Dr. George Bass to the area in August of that year in the company of one of the survivors to confirm the discovery. Bass reported sighting coal seams at Coalcliff and Austinmer. 

coal mines.PNG
Louisa Atkinson, Coal Mine Mt Kiera c184

Louisa Atkinson, Coal Mine Mt Kiera c1849 - 72

Wollongong Harbour 1887

Wollongong Harbour, 1887

However, more than 50 years passed before the first coal mine in the Illawarra opened at Mount Keira in 1849 - then more collieries opened to mine coal seams which outcropped along the escarpment.

From this period, around the 1850s, the Illawarra began to become industrialised, with the introduction of coal mines, coke ovens, smelting works and jetties. The population continued to grow steadily.

Earliest Colonial Art

Earliest Colonial art in the Illawarra

The first art Colonial painted in the Illawarra, which is still in existence, appeared around 1817.

The earliest European artist known to have worked in Illawarra was surveyor-explorer George W. Evans, who travelled overland from Jervis Bay to Appin, via Wollongong, in 1813. Unfortunately none of the works he noted in his journal as having made during this expedition survive.

Although this article focuses on art produced by colonial artists working in the Illawarra, historian Michael Organ has made an interesting discovery - that it is likely that the first European discovery of the Koala was made at ‘Hat Hill’ (Mount Kembla) in the Illawarra district  between June-September 1803. 


Specimens were taken to Sydney during August that year and were immediately drawn by botanical draughtsman Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826), a member of the HMS Investigator survey and scientific expedition under Captain Matthew Flinders.


The drawings, descriptions and portions of the deceased animals were sent to England shortly after, between 1803 and 1805. A number of watercolours by Bauer dated c1811 are housed at  the Natural History Museum in London, but they may include original 1803 drawings.


It was not until Bauer's watercolours were included in a 1997 Australian exhibition that it was noticed that the accompanying catalogue noted in passing that they were of a specimen "Shot at 'Hat Hill', New South Wales, June-September 1803".

John Lewin (1770-1819) is another Australian naturalist and artist who is likely to have seen the Koala specimens and made his own drawings at that time.

Lewin was Australia's first free-settler professional artist. He arrived in Sydney in 1800 and remained in Australia until his death.

Source: Michael Organ, The Scientific Discovery of the Koala: Hat Hill (Mount Kembla), New South Wales 1803, 9 March 2006

 Colonial Subject Matter

Subject Matter

Most Colonial art, particularly during the first half of the century, focused on the picturesque nature of the region. Landscapes, beach and river scenes, flora and fauna, settlements, homesteads,  and paintings of local inhabitants were common.


There are very few paintings of hardships, or disputes, for example pictorial records of convicts or aggression towards aboriginals are difficult to find. However, according to Michael Organ from the University of Wollongong, "it has been estimated that in 1820 there were some 3000 Aborigines in Illawarra, including the Shoalhaven. This number had dwindled to 98 at Wollongong by 1846"1. The causes for the significant decease includes disease (introduced by the Europeans), land grants to colonialists from 1816, and direct Government aggression which led to massacres and  aboriginals being driven out of the area 2. There is not a significant pictorial record of these events, with most paintings of aboriginals showing them in native settings. 

1. Michael Organ, Illawarra Aborigines - An Introductory History, 1977

2Butlin, N.G. Our Original Aggression - Aboriginal Populations of Southeastern Australia 1788-1850. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983

 Colonial painting techniques

Painting Techniques

In the early part of the century, artists most frequently used small sketchbooks and produced drawings and watercolours as these were the easiest, and cheapest art supplies to procure.

The earliest watercolours used were generally limited to two greens, two browns, crimson, blue and black, similar to those used by naval chartmakers and topographers.  


Many the artists of the time used these few colours, combined with pencil and ink, to great effect.

Paintings by surveyor, Robert Hoddle, demonstrating early water colours.

Scientific inventions which revolutionised the way in which artists were able to transport  paint to use away for the studio largely occurred from the mid 1800s, although Reeves invented a 'paintbox' for watercolours in 1766 - but at considerable cost.

Oil paints were expensive, and therefore not used extensively until the second half of the century, when paint tubes had been invented.

Reeves watercolour 1700s.PNG
paint tube.PNG

 Colonial artists in the Illawarra

Colonial Artists

Edward Charles Close

Whilst it's impossible to determine definitively who the first European artist was to paint in the Illawarra, one of the first artists was Edward Charles Close (1790- 1866). 


His work was initially attributed to a relative Sophia Campbell (Close was the husband of Sophia Campbell’s niece). This was based of family tradition, until about 2009, when other sketchbooks by Close came to light. 1.

Close came to Australia as a Military Officer in 1817, and his wartime diary reflects an observant and curious young man with an interest in architecture. He is mostly likely to have received training in drawing and observation as an army officer, as was common practice. 


Close brought with him several sketchbooks from London and he appears to have completed most of the sketches and watercolours within them between 1817 and 1840.  These sketchbooks include views of Sydney and other areas within New South Wales, including the Illawarra, when he was he was leading parties to the cattle pastures in the area looking for escaped convicts. 


Working both front and back, he turned the sketchbooks around to suit his needs, annotating in pencil with abbreviations. Some of the works are preliminary sketches for works in other sketchbooks. 

Stylistically, there is a strong emphasis on perspective in many of his works - with carefully composed foregrounds that lead the viewer into, and around, the picture. 

His limited colour palette is that similar to early cartographers of browns, blues, greens, white and ink, which he uses very effectively to create mood. 

Close resigned his Commission by 1821 and was later appointed Engineer and Inspector of Public Works in Newcastle.

1. State Library of NSW