Colonial Art in the Illawarra, NSW

Updated: Apr 8


The initial colonial expansion in NSW was to the poorer lands close to the small settlement at Sydney Cove.


Wheat was grown around Sydney Town and its densely packed suburbs, and then at Ryde and Parramatta, to help meet the urgent food needs of the small population.

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.


The herds of cattle in these districts had increased considerably by the time of Governor King, and with periods of drought, feed became scarce, so locating fresh land for pasture was critical.

In the Sydney Gazette of 18 March 1815, the following item of news appeared: “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; and between Port Aiken [Hacking] and the Five Islands a fine stratum of coal shews itself for the extent of several miles.” From the years 1803-4, to at least 1858, many cattle were brought to Illawarra from the north by boat.

Landowner Charles Throsby of Bong Bong arrived in the district from the west via Appin and Bulli, with the assistance of Joseph Wild and two local Aborigines, where he established the first cattle station at Wollongong,


It is probable that, in seeking fresh pastures using the tracks or trails of the local Aborigines, Wild may have found a way down the mountain from Bong Bong, and succeeded in getting stock into Illawarra from that direction, before a passable route for stock was made from Campbelltown, Appin, etc.



Cedar cutting had also become an important industry in the young Colony, and it was inevitable that the more adventurous of the cedar cutters would overcome the mountain barrier on the northern approaches to Illawarra in search of this valuable soft wood.


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.


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.



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.


It was in the later years of Colonial history, after 1850, that the Illawarra began to become industrialised, with the introduction of coal mines, coke ovens, smelting works and jetties.




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

Most Colonial art, particularly during the first half of the century, focused on the picturesque nature of the region.

In the early part of the century, artists most frequently used small sketchbooks and produced drawings and watercolours as these were the easiest 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. Many of the artists of the time used these few colours, combined with pencil and ink, to great effect.



Whilst it's impossible to determine who may have been the first European artist to paint in the Illawarra, one of the first artists was Edward Charles Close - his work was attributed to Sophia Campbell until 2009, on the basis of family tradition, but it was later determined that it would have been the work of Close, who was the husband of Sophia Campbell’s niece.


Close came to Australia as a Military Officer in 1817 and and within months he was leading parties to the cattle pastures around the Illawarra looking for escaped convicts.

He had time to produce a number of watercolours, and he seemed to have an interest in the Aboriginal people in the area. His body of art is so extensive, he's now known as a significant colonial painter.

Augustus Earle (1793-1838) was a travel artist who arrived in NSW in 1825 and briefly visited the Illawarra in 1827.

He was probably the first professionally trained freelance artist to tour the world – as he wasn’t painting on commission, he had the freedom to choose what and how he painted.


During 1826, he became well known for his portrait paintings, and opened an art Gallery in Sydney where he not only sold artists’ equipment but also gave lessons in painting and drawing.

In April 1827 Earle undertook a sketching trip in the Illawarra district, travelling down the Bulli Mountain, along the coast past Wollongong to Kiama.

He left Australia in 1828, continuing both his paintings, and his voyages until the 1830s.




London born Conrad Martens (1801-1878) followed Earle as perhaps the next most prolific and recognised artist to paint in the region. He is perhaps most well known for his watercolours.

Similar to Augustus Earle, Martens spent some time as a travel artist (both were resident artists on the ship Beagle - Earle was forced to leave due to ill health in the early 1830s).


Martens visited the Illawarra just three months after arriving in the colony, and his early works were reflective of tropical South American scenes.

In 1860 he visited Coolangatta, and the property of his friend Alexander Berry.


Whilst the majority are landscapes, there are also sketches of native flora such as figtrees, cabbage palms, ferns and flowers. Figures and portraits as primary subjects didn’t interest him, although he did include figures in his landscapes.


Captain Robert Marsh Westmacott (1801-1870) was an amateur artist and draftsman who lived in NSW between 1831-47. His officer training would have included training in draughtmanship, surveying and topographical drawing. These skills also extended into the making of pictorial records of the flora, fauna, and the local population.


He is chiefly remembered for the production of two series of lithographs which date from 1838 and 1848 and present topographic and ethnographic views of New South Wales.










In 1840 John Skinner Prout (1805-1876) emigrated from England, where he'd established himself as a professional artist and teacher at the age of 21, teaching drawing and exhibiting watercolours. He was elected as a member of the new Society of Painters in Water Colour.

He became a member of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts and in 1841 gave a number of lectures on painting.

Prout visited the Illawarra for only a short period from late 1883 to early 1884.


He delighted in the effects of mist and mountain, and free renderings of sea and shore.

Prout was a strong champion of the right of the artist to interpret freely rather than merely to imitate the scene before him.

Prout brought a lithographic press with him when he came to Australia from England and began making prints upon his arrival in Sydney - he was prolific in producing prints and engravings based on his watercolours.

Georgiana Lowe (1813-1884) initially visited Illawarra in 1843 when she and her husband rented a house in Wollongong. Her sketches depicted local flora, the landscapes of the Illwarra region, settlers' huts, a stockade, and a view of Wollongong.

A commercial landscape gardener, Georgiana was especially attracted by the exotic flora of the district, and she relished the picturesque mountainous landscapes near Wollongong and in Kangaroo Valley.

Her views of Illawarra were executed in pencil, sepia wash, and watercolour and the shades of greens and blues she used in her watercolours were particularly distinctive.

She continued to travel to Illawarra intermittently until leaving the Colony early in 1850.



George French Angas (1822-1886) was essentially a naturalist, and also a gifted draftsman, painter, lithographer and engraver. In his Australian landscapes he took care to depict native vegetation accurately.


He visited the Illawarra area between 1845 and 1954, taking the opportunity to paint rainforests, scenery and local aborigines.

He emphasised that his works were 'drawn on the spot' but in fact his practice was to draw rapid pencil sketches on the field, adding colour notes, and filling out the landscape when he came to 'finish' the picture in his studio.

In 1853 he was appointed secretary to the Australian Museum in Sydney - a position which he held until 1860.




Louisa Atkinson (1834 – 1872) was an early Australian writer, botanist and illustrator. She was born at Oldbury near Berrima, where her mother taught her to draw plants, flowers and animals. Her mother, Charlotte, wrote the first children's book in Australia, to support her orphaned family.

At the age of 23 she was the author of the first novel written by a locally born European woman to be published in Australia.


She was also a keen naturalist, whose close observations and detailed knowledge of the natural world were published in articles she wrote for Sydney newspapers.

Unfortunately many of her paintings and illustrations were lost when they sent to Germany to be prepared for an illustrated book on fauna and flora of New South Wales.










The mid century marks the beginning of a physical transformation to the landscape as it becomes settled (and therefore denuded) and more industrialised, which is represented in both paintings, and the newly introduced photography.


The most well known artist to visit the area during the 1850s and 60s was Eugene von Guérard (1811–1901) - who was one of Australia’s most important landscape painters.

He was born in Vienna and learnt to paint, initially, from his father who painted miniatures. In Rome, von Guérard studied in the tradition of the great seventeenth-century landscape artists such as Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin, and then later at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art in Germany, one of the leading art schools in Europe.

The Romantic movement, which emphasised emotion and feeling over reason and order, had a significant influence on many aspects of art and culture – including landscape painting – during the nineteenth century. Von Guérard’s interest in the beauty, mystery and grandeur of nature has links to Romanticism.

In 1852 von Guérard travelled to Australia, lured by the anticipation of finding gold, and an interest in the geography, geology and vegetation of the Australian ‘new world’. He visited the Illawarra on several occasions before returning to Europe in 1882.


In 1868, at the age of fifty-one, Samuel Elyard (1817-1910) retired from the public service and moved to the Nowra district where he rented a small farm.

Elyard was initially he was taught drawing by Edmund Edgar, and engraver and portrait painter, who'd been convicted of robbery in London and was assigned to the artist Augustus Earle.

Elyard also studied miniature and oil painting and became acquainted with Conrad Martens - painting his portrait and purchasing a number of his landscapes.

From his twenties, when he studied under John Skinner Prout, he specialised in painting picturesque buildings, street scenes and landscapes in water-colours and oils. He 'always painted his studies directly from nature in colours, and of a large size'.

He also often made sketches of a scene as well as a watercolour before painting in oil. Elyard was also a keen photographer.



During the 1880s, there was at least one notable Aboriginal artist in the area who was painting using paper, pencils, watercolours and pastel; Mickey of Ulladulla (1820s - 1891).

Not much is known about his early life, though the words 'Drawn by “Mickie” an old crippled blackfellow of Nelligen, Clyde River, NSW 1875' inscribed on some of his pencil drawings in the State Library of NSW provide a few clues.

It is known that from the 1840s Aboriginal men from Ulladulla were employed by settlers to fell and mill cedar, as well as in fencing, fishing and farming.

Mickey had a patron, Mary Ann Gambell, the wife of the Ulladulla lighthouse keeper, who lived close to the Aboriginal Reserve at Ulladulla, who was kindly to Indigenous people. It's also understood that the local postmistress provided Mickey with art materials.

It is known that Mickey was crippled, but not the cause of his condition. His language group was Dhurga.


Five paintings by “Mickey” were exhibited at the Chicago Exposition in 1893 by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines and two local officials.

Ironically, one of those officials George Ilett of Milton, was awarded a bronze medal for exhibiting two of Mickey’s works as valuable specimens of ‘primitive art, uninfluenced by the white man’.

However, Micky’s drawing are an accurate representations of their subjects.


We are now looking at the art of the 1880s, and by this time both the Illawarra and the art environment had changed.

The Illawarra had established itself not only as a area of industry but also of tourism, with both harbours and train line providing access through to Wollongong and Kiama by 1888.

The colony itself was transforming from a penal colony (the last convicts arrived in 1868) to one focused on building wealth - through meat, sheep gold and coal.

With wealth and degree of stability came more of an interest in leisure activities, and cultural pursuits.


As a consequence, art began to be ‘organised’ with schools, galleries and exhibitions. See the work by Julian Ashton below, whose art school still exists in Sydney.


Artists such as Tom Roberts, Charles Condor, Jessie Scarvell and Albert Henry Fullwood were now painting the Illawarra in a new Australian style, Impressionism, and whilst many artists' styles were still unchanged, the high period of Colonial art is considered to be over from the late 1880s.


This blog introduces a number of the artists painting in the Illawarra during the 1800s.

You will find more detail, more artists and more images on the following page https://www.australianarthistory.com/colonial-art-in-the-illawarra

I would like to acknowledge the significant research of Michael K. Organ, University of Wollongong into the history and art of the region. Other sources include Early Land Settlement in Illawarra (1804-1861) by Benjamin Lindsay, The History of Illawarra and its Pioneers by Frank McCaffrey, Trove, the State Library of NSW and National, State and Regional galleries.

#ColonialArt #Illwawarra #Wollongong #Kiama #MickeyofUlladulla #EdwardCharlesClose #AugustusEarle #ConradMartens #RobertMarshWestmacott #JohnSkinnerProut #GeorgianaLowe #GeorgeFrenchAngus #LouiseAtkinson #EugenevonGuerard #SamuelElyard #JessieScarvell #australianarthistory

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