Plymouth, Devon, England 1805 – Camden Town, London, England 1876
The River Barwon, Victoria
Geelong district, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, paper; watercolour painting in watercolour Support: paper
Australia Illustrated was the most popular illustrated book produced during the period of colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century and was a clear demonstration of Australia’s developing nationhood. Intended as a comprehensive survey of the southern colonies, the volumes were published in England between 1873 and 1876 by Edwin Carton Booth and were adorned with steel engravings of landscape views by John Skinner Prout and Nicholas Chevalier.
English watercolourist and drawing master John Skinner Prout was born in 1805 in Plymouth, Devon, and worked in Australia from 1840 to 1848. On returning to London he took with him a number of sketchbooks and many of his Australian watercolours, which later featured in Australia Illustrated. The recently acquired Break of Day Plains, Tasmania c 1845 and The River Barwon, Victoria c 1847 were both subjects of engravings by E Brandard, accompanying chapters on Tasmania and Victoria respectively.
After sketching Sydney and its environs for over three years, Prout moved to Hobart Town, Van Dieman’s Land, in 1844, where he gained recognition as one of the most progressive artists working in the colony. He was instrumental in arranging the first art exhibitions in Australia in 1845 and 1846, delivered a number of subscription lectures on painting, and was a stimulating influence on amateur artists through the sketching clubs he formed.
Prout explored the rural and urban landscapes of Hobart from May to December 1844, working on material for the lithographs that appeared in volume one of Tasmania Illustrated. It was during this period that Prout became the centre of an extensive amateur sketching culture based on the Bristol sketching club he had been a part of from 1832 to 1837. Following the principles of plein air painting, the Hobart Town club was formed in 1845 and included artists GTWB Boyes, Francis Simpkinson de Wesselow, Louisa Anne Meredith, Ellen Burgess and Jeanie Louisa Stewart Dunn, Bishop Nixon, colonial treasurer Peter Gordon Fraser and architect William Porden Kay.
In December 1845, the club set out from Hobart Town on an excursion up the east coast of Van Dieman’s Land to St Mary’s Pass, the Fingal Valley and Launceston. Painted during this trip, Prout’s wonderfully fresh watercolour Break of Day Plains, Tasmania features a pastoral staffage in the foreground, heightened with body colour, opening out to the wide expanse of the Mt Nicholas Ranges and the South Esk River. This view across the valley displays Prout’s facility with the watercolour medium. He excelled in this technique, favouring rapid sketches rather than highly finished paintings, which resulted in a number of small atmospheric works.
Accompanied by Francis Simpkinson, in mid December 1846, Prout travelled to Port Phillip to paint and sketch Melbourne and its surrounds for the lithographic folio Views of Melbourne and Geelong. By early January, the artists had moved on to Tallarook and Goulburn Valley, returning to Melbourne via Geelong and the Barwon Valley. In the deftly painted The Barwon River, Victoria, Prout has positioned a couple in the foreground, looking out over the river towards a homestead nestled in a rural landscape. This quiet impression of everyday life is further emphasised by the inclusion of two men fishing off a punt on the river and the haze of smoke from the emerging settlement of Geelong in the distance. Rather than the more precise topographical views of Simpkinson, the largely self-trained Prout preferred a lyrical vision of the landscape, championing the right of the artist to interpret freely rather than merely imitate. Capturing the valley’s cool light, The Barwon River, Victoria is among the earliest depictions of the region and certainly the earliest in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection.
These two lively sketches depict a significant aspect of Prout’s Australian oeuvre. Until now the National Gallery of Australia only held the highly finished exhibition watercolour, Aborigine stalking—Willoughby Falls, New South Wales c 1850, completed after the artist’s return to London in 1848.
Australian Prints and Drawings
in artonview, issue 60, summer 2009
in artonview, issue 60, summer 2009