The rescue of William D’Oyly 1841 is a finely painted view of a tropical paradise bathed in a warm golden glow. It includes a hazy sky, shimmering water, exotic vegetation and mountains, conveying the visual experience of intense tropical heat. It is the earliest known depiction in oil of the Queensland landscape and the first European image of the Torres Strait Islands; and it tells the dramatic story of two ‘lost’ boys.
The story had captivated the nineteenth-century British public, who learnt about it in news reports. The ship Charles Eaton, an English bark, had been wrecked in 1834 en route from Sydney to Canton. Two months after setting out, it struck a reef near the entrance to the Torres Strait and sank. It was at first thought that everyone on board had perished but, almost two years later, rumours of survivors had begun to circulate. Late in 1836, a young boy, William D’Oyly, the son of a captain in the Bengal Artillery, and a teenager (a former cabin boy), John Ireland, were discovered on Murray Island. It is said that that they had been sold to a Murray Islander, and that when they were found they both were in good health, and it is reported that D’Oyly wept for days at being parted from his Murray Island family.
John Wilson Carmichael (1800–1868) was one of the foremost nineteenth-century British marine painters. He never travelled to the Torres Strait, but he painted a number of imagined scenes of exotic places such as this.
Here, he depicted the moment when the boys were rescued from the island. The recovery vessel, the Isabella, a Sydney-based schooner, lies in wait in the distance, while in the shallows a large group of Murray Islanders crowd onto a barge, holding the pale young William D’Oyly high above their heads. Carmichael conveyed both the joyous recovery of the boys and a sense of triumph against adversity.
Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 68, summer 2011