English caricature in printed form was at its most strident in the years leading up to the British settlement in New South Wales. Artists such as James Gillray lampooned political figures, foreign policy, fashion and the foibles of society with a vigour that today would see them charged with sedition, treason, blasphemy and perhaps pornography! Specialist print publishers such as Mrs Humphrey exhibited the latest caricatures in the windows of her shop and the public jostled daily to see who had fallen prey to the etcher’s needle. Australian subjects were part and parcel of the fray—with Sir Joseph Banks, for instance, depicted as the ‘The great South Sea caterpillar, transformed into a Bath Butterfly’.
In the late 1820s, when moves were afoot to formally establish a colony at Swan River in what is now Western Australia, the caricature was still a potent form of political comment. Cousin Thomas, or the Swan River job 1829 and Peel, Peel, Swan River Peel! Very fine Peel! 1829 both revolve around the Right Honourable Robert Peel, who was Secretary of State, and his cousin Thomas. Hearing of the rich potential of land at Swan River, Thomas led a syndicate of financiers who proposed to the Government that they would underwrite the development of the settlement if granted prime land.
The inference in both of these hand-coloured etchings is that Robert Peel influenced the decision to grant prime land to the syndicate. In Peel, Peel, the Secretary of State holds a box with a placard announcing that this is ‘A job for my country cousin’. While in Cousin Thomas, or the Swan River job, Thomas Peel is shown plucking a swan while he exclaims, ‘Cousin Bob’s letter did the job. I shall feather my nest however’.
But all did not go as planned. The Government stipulated that Peel’s first settlers had to reach the colony by 1 November 1829 to have access to the prime land. Unfortunately, their ship arrived six weeks late, and Peel and his syndicate had to make do with inferior regions and eventually the whole scheme failed. Nor did the artists A Sharpshooter and Robert Seymour get everything right; in both caricatures the swans depicted are white, not the iconic black swans that inhabit the Swan River.
Senior Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings
in artonview, issue 66, winter 2011