THE SYDNEY BIRD PAINTER, Hook-billed Shrike (grey butcherbird) Enlarge 1 /1

THE SYDNEY BIRD PAINTER

Hook-billed Shrike (grey butcherbird) c.1792 Place made: Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, graphite; ink; paper; watercolour painting in watercolour and pen and ink over black pencil Support: medium weight blue-tone laid paper
Manufacturer's Mark: water-mark, running vertically down centre

Primary Insc: Inscribed lower centre in black ink over black pencil, 'The Natural Size'.
Tertiary Insc: Inscribed verso upper right in black ink, '24'.
Dimensions: sheet 47.5 h x 30.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2012
Accession No: NGA 2012.1366
Provenance:
  • At auction, 'Australian and European Paintings, Prints and Photographs', Melbourne: Christie's, 6-7 December 1994, lot 64, part of group of ten works, lots 62-72, 'Attributed to the artist of volume ZPXD 226 (Mitchell Library Reference)';
  • Christie's note the following provenance:
  • 'From a Canadian collection.
  • Christie's have been advised that the collection belonged to an Englishwoman who migrated to Canada in the 1950s, and who in turn inherited them from a 'seafaring relative' in the 1920s'.
  • Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, from Sotheby's Australia, Melbourne, August 2012;
  • From the auction, 'Important Australian & Intenational Art', Melbourne: Sotheby's, 14 August 2012, lot 1.

Perched delightfully upon a branch, poised to take flight, this watercolour drawing is one of the earliest representations of the Australian grey butcherbird (also known as the hook-billed shrike). It is one of a remarkable series of works produced by the so-called Sydney Bird Painter, an intriguing artist of ornithological subjects of the late eighteenth century.

Following his discovery of the eastern coast of Australia in 1770, Captain James Cook returned to England to a scientific community amazed by his expeditions and the flora and fauna that had been collected. The Sydney Bird Painter is the name attributed to possibly three different unknown artists believed to have arrived with the First Fleet in 1788.

This is a particularly exquisite example of the Sydney Bird Painter’s work. It is marked by acute scientific attention to detail. The inscription ‘The Natural Size’ indicates the specimen was likely drawn from life and to size. At the same time, the artist captures a sense of the personality of the feathered subject. The butcherbird’s gleaming eye and upraised hooked beak convey an almost cheerful disposition, and its slender, elongated neck reveals an inquisitive nature.

Delicately ruffled feathers are masterfully rendered with minute brushstrokes in pale blue and black. Very fine ink drawing has skilfully been applied over the watercolour, revealing the work of art was likely to have been produced by a highly accomplished professional based within the colony, or worked up from sketches in England or India.

Such beautifully rendered colonial watercolours are exceedingly rare, as only ten other examples are known to exist. The charming Hook billed-shrike (Grey butcherbird) is a welcome feathered companion to The white gallinule c 1791–92, the Gallery’s only other work by the Sydney Bird Painter.

Rebecca Edwards Gordon Darling Intern, Australian Prints and Drawings


in artonview, issue 72, Summer 2012/13

Perched delightfully upon a branch, this watercolour drawing is one of the earliest known representations of the Australian grey butcherbird (also known as the hook-billed shrike). The work forms part of a remarkable series of works produced by the so-called Sydney Bird Painter, a late-eighteenth century artist of ornithological subjects.

Following his discovery of the east coast of Australia in 1770, Captain James Cook amazed the scientific community in England with the flora and fauna that had been collected during his expedition. The Sydney Bird Painter is the name attributed to possibly three different and unknown artists who are believed to have arrived with the First Fleet in 1788.

This exquisite example of the Sydney Bird Painter’s work is marked by acute scientific attention to detail: the inscription ‘The Natural Size’ indicates that the specimen was likely drawn from life. At the same time, the artist captures a sense of the personality of the feathered subject; the butcherbird’s gleaming eye and upraised hooked beak convey a cheerful disposition, and its slender, elongated neck reveals an inquisitive nature.

Delicately ruffled feathers are rendered with minute brushstrokes in pale blue and black. The hand of an accomplished professional is indicated by the very fine ink drawing that is applied over the watercolour.

Such beautifully rendered colonial watercolours are exceedingly rare, and only 10 other examples of work by the Sydney Bird Painter are known to exist.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014