The National Gallery recently acquired an important group of historical works from Western Australia: the Wordsworth Collection. Prior to this, the Gallery’s collection included no oil paintings, watercolours and furniture from early colonial Western Australia.
Marie Louise Wordsworth is one of Western Australia’s most passionate and respected collectors. For more than 40 years, she has lovingly assembled a significant collection of Western Australian paintings, watercolours, prints and furniture. Based on Marie Louise’s deep knowledge of Western Australian history and her family heritage, the collection covers the Dutch, French and British explorations of the western coast before settlement and the settlements in Albany, Perth and Australind in the mid nineteenth century through to the importation of convict labour in the 1850s and the discovery of gold in the 1890s.
One of the treasures of the Wordsworth Collection is a remarkable sketchbook by Philip Chauncy containing rare portraits of 10 Aborigines (each named) from King George Sound. The sketchbook is accompanied by a large sheet of worked-up ink drawings of these people. Chauncy was a sketcher, amateur photographer, modeller and surveyor working in the Swan River Colony from 1841 to 1853. Seven of the individuals depicted in his sketchbook were prisoners sent to Perth to be tried for various offences, mainly the theft of food. Wherever he lived, Chauncy made it his purpose to become acquainted with the local Aborigines and learn their language. He spoke of the patience and skill and ability of Aboriginal huntsman. These drawings express his empathy and admiration.
Marie Louise has followed her passion for Western Australian art with a singular intensity, actively pursuing works such as the splendid watercolour Perth, Western Australia 1862 by Edmund Henderson. It is an important image of the past, depicting Mounts Bay Road and the Steam Mills at the foot of Mount Eliza (on the left). But, more significantly, Henderson transformed the scene into a magical place, full of air and sparkling light, revealing how he had been captivated by his new world.
Many of the early Western Australian artists were engineers and surveyors, and among these was Edmund DuCane. He volunteered to go to Western Australia to superintend works for the convict establishment, designing convict buildings and supervising road construction. He also made a lively record of life and scenery in the colony, including this view of the Darling Range, near the National Park north-east of Perth, looking through to the coastal plain.
The collection includes a some fine and rare examples of Western Australian colonial furniture, constructed using local timbers. These include a circular pedestal table crafted from jarrah by Joseph Hamblin, presumed to have been made in 1848–49 for Government House in Perth, and two remarkable pieces by Hookum Chan.
The National Gallery’s Wordsworth Collection complements the rich holdings of Western Australian art held in public and private collections in Perth. The purchase of this collection enables Western Australian culture to be seen by the Australian public in a national context as part of the story of Australian art.
Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 66, winter 2011