Ireland 1776 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 1824
Milton, Staffordshire, England 1785 – 1852
not titled [a native of New South Wales]
Collection Title: Samuel Leigh, Manuscript addressed to the Wesleyan Missionary Society, with illustrations by Richard Browne, 1821
Page: page 11
Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, ink; paper; watercolour drawing in pen and ink and watercolour Support: thin smooth cream laid Whatman foolscap paper
The life of convict artist Richard Browne endures in fragments. Newspaper clippings, notes scrawled in books and dormant curls of microform reveal a partial biography.
A series of watercolours newly acquired for the national art collection illuminates the life of this artist and his role as a seminal image-maker in nineteenth-century Australia.
Transported from Dublin to Port Jackson in 1811, Browne undertook several artistic commissions during his sentence but became best known for stock portraits of Aboriginal people which he sold as souvenirs in Sydney on his release. A similar series of watercolour drawings illustrates a folio of letters composed by the Reverend Samuel Leigh in 1821 to London-based brethren of the Wesleyan Missionary Society.
Browne’s inelegant portraits of local Aboriginal people were censured by art historian Bernard Smith, who described them as ‘grotesque caricatures’ in his renowned volume European vision and the South Pacific. Robert Hughes was more circumspect in The Fatal Shore, suggesting Browne’s apparent prejudice reflected the desperate need of a convict to believe in a social class inferior to his own. Others surmise that Browne’s portraits reflect the principles of phrenology, an eighteenth century pseudoscience that related cranial forms to predisposed behaviours. This latter link is tenuous given phrenology gained currency among the European middle-class only after 1815, but it evidences the culturally encumbered nature of these otherwise modest images.
It is difficult to assert that prejudice alone compelled Browne to paint his pictures as he did. The artist’s extant artwork fluctuates wildly in delicacy and detail, and despite the period vogue for silhouette pictures, Browne’s watercolours are stubbornly two-dimensional. Unable to execute standard technical lessons including perspective, Browne’s portraits are perhaps those of a competent yet essentially untrained artist.
Image and text together attest to the troubled relations between Aboriginal people and Europeans in the early nineteenth century. Leigh’s pious prose rests uneasily beside Browne’s subjects, who smile inscrutably from grey paper sheets. Whatever his perceived shortcomings, Browne’s interest in ethnographic detail indicates Aboriginal customs were firmly entrenched and largely resistant to the teachings of Methodist missionaries like Samuel Leigh. Only a year after having assured his London brethren of the Mission’s success, the 1822 Report of the Wesleyan Missionary Society of the New South Wales conceded, ‘the Mission to the Aborigines continues to wear an aspect not the most promising … Extensively good effects are probably remote’.
Elspeth Pitt Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings
in artonview, issue 77, Autumn 2014