When the first bird specimens from Australia arrived in England, they ruffled the feathers of the scientific establishment. Sarah Stone’s Eastern Rosella of New South Wales is a rare watercolour of one such bird. This superb rendering of Platycercus eximius (or Nonpareil parrot, as it was then named) conveys Stone’s astute understanding of the scholarly purpose of natural history illustrations. In depicting the rosella in profile and of natural size, perched on a branch with wings partially raised, the viewer is able to discern the wingspan, as well as the idiosyncratic colouring of the species’ cheek patches and scalloped feathers.
Stone was the first female artist to depict Australian subjects of scientific interest. This work is one of Stone’s many fine watercolours of Australian birds, although she never visited the colony. This particular painting was produced from a specimen sent by John White, Surgeon-General to the First Fleet. White forwarded his diaries and natural history specimens to his friend Thomas Wilson, who employed Stone and four others—Frederick Nodder, Edward Kennion, Charles Catton and an artist whose surname was Mortimer—to illustrate the collected flora and fauna.
Sixty-five of these illustrations appeared as plates in White’s Journal of a voyage to New South Wales, published in 1790 by John Debrett just a few months after Debrett’s rival and publisher of the official account of the voyage John Stockdale released Voyage of Governor Phillip. Stone was responsible for the drawings for forty-nine plates in White’s book, including all studies of birds (although the rosella did not feature in the volume). The popularity of the journal brought about its translation into German, then Swedish and French. Stone’s work was also used for engravings in George Shaw’s 1792 Museum Leverianum and Thomas Pennant’s 1798 A view of Hindoostan.
Stone was not trained as a natural history illustrator but nevertheless established a strong reputation for depicting a huge variety of specimens and ethnographic material from the Pacific and around the world, particularly while working for the prolific natural history collector Sir Ashton Lever. She produced over a thousand watercolours from Lever’s collection, nine hundred of which survive today. This watercolour, the first by Stone to enter Australia’s national art collection, is a valuable addition to the nation’s holdings of pre-1800s works on paper.
Mary Angove, Gordon Darling Graduate Intern
in artonview, issue 82, Winter 2015