Staffordshire, England 1775 – Birmingham, England 1828
Eliza Point showing Captain Piper's naval villa and garden
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, painting in watercolour with gouache Support: paper
A miniature painter by trade but banknote forger by renown, Joseph Lycett’s talents for artistry and imitation are both apparent in this view of early Sydney. The upward thrust of a sapling, an array of keenly observed she-oaks, cypress pines and acacias and the formative civic architecture of the fledgling settlement are rendered in a succession of delicate marks. However, it is perhaps the Palladian-style villa and the curious cruciform garden that adorns the hill behind it that most draw the viewer’s eye.
Sydney’s first grand residence, Henrietta Villa belonged to John Piper, a Scottish naval captain whose rapid rise to fame was matched by an equally swift decline. Arriving in the colony in 1810, Piper found an influential friend in Governor Lachlan Macquarie, was appointed magistrate in 1819 and became chairman of the Bank of New South Wales in 1825.
Piper’s legendary parties were habitually reported in the press and the luxurious furnishings of his home extolled. A garden of clover and European fruit trees assembled in the shape of Saint Andrew’s Cross, in recognition of his Scottish heritage, was described by the wife of Macquarie’s successor, Governor Brisbane, as a veritable ‘second Eden’. In 1827, however, Piper’s questionable financial transactions were exposed. Disgraced, he attempted suicide by drowning but was wrenched from the water by his crew. He withdrew from public office and retired to Bathurst, where he lived humbly until his death in 1851. Lycett’s painting is among a handful of documents that attest to the short but glittering life of Henrietta Villa, which was demolished by 1855, and to the compelling tale of its notorious founder.
Like Piper, convict artist Joseph Lycett was another intriguing figure of colonial-era Australia. He was convicted of forgery in 1811 and sentenced to transportation, arriving in New South Wales in 1814. His talents as an artist were soon grasped, and commissions from government officials in both Newcastle and Sydney ensued. The most coveted of these works were Lycett’s panoramic views of Sydney, at least three of which were undertaken for Governor Macquarie between 1819 and 1820. For these, the convict painter received absolute pardon as reward in 1821. Lycett’s painting of Henrietta Villa is possibly among the first he made as a free man, although the commissioner’s hand is still apparent—deftly rendered flora in the foreground of the work may have been a request from Piper, who was a passionate amateur native botanist.
Despite colonial art being unfashionable during the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Lycett’s watercolours were eagerly collected, and most were held in public collections by the early twentieth century. The late establishment of the National Gallery in 1982 has meant that examples of pre-1830 art and of Lycett’s work, in particular, have been exceedingly difficult to acquire. Among the last known specimens held in private hands, this rare watercolour will become a central work in the collection, providing a starting point for the Gallery’s otherwise superlative holdings of Australian landscape painting. It will also form an emotive complement to Augustus Earle’s 1826 oil portraits of John and Mary Anne Piper that have been in the national art collection since 1980.
Elspeth Pitt, Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings
in artonview, issue 80, Summer 2014