Here is a cat among the fishes, looking out at us, with a sly grin on its face. It is in seventh heaven among this cornucopia of fish. Painted by colonial artist WB Gould, it is full of character and of humour. It highlights the artist’s eye for composition and his charming, decorative and ‘primitive’ style. It is one of only three known works by Gould containing cats.
The title refers to the unpopular method of convict punishment by a whip of nine ‘claws’, as well as to nineteenth-century slang in which a cat was also known as a ‘long-tailed thief’. Gould himself was a convict and was repeatedly tried for theft and punished by ‘the cat’. These references would have been well understood by Gould’s contemporaries and particularly by his convict friends.
Gould is best known for his oil paintings of still lifes. He first arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in December 1827, after being convicted of theft and sentenced to seven years transportation. He earned favour on board the convict ship by painting portraits of the officers. Soon after his arrival, he was assigned as a house servant to surgeon Dr James Scott, an amateur botanist, for whom Gould painted detailed watercolour studies of indigenous plant life. He taught himself to paint in oils after arriving in Australia, although he had received some previous training as an artist in London. Gould was emancipated in 1835 but remained in Van Diemen’s Land and earned a modest living from his paintings.
The acquisition of this painting is made possible by funds generously provided by the Jarrett Bequest. The painting is in a Tasmanian Huon pine frame from the period.
Anne Gray Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 73, Autumn 2013