Peter BROWN, The white phalanger (Phalanger orientalis) Enlarge 1 /1


Denmark Died

attributed to

  • Did not visit Australia, but work of historical and artistic interest to Australia

The white phalanger (Phalanger orientalis) [Cuscus; Le Phalanger blanc] between 1770 and 1800 Description: (Phalanger orientalis)
Place made: London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: drawings, drawing in brush and watercolour and gouache Support: vellum mounted on cardboard

Primary Insc: signed lower left in watercolour ,'PB'. not dated. Titled lower centre in watercolour, 'Le Phalanger blanc'. inscribed lower left in image in watercolour, 'Grandeur de l'indivu'.
Dimensions: image 32.8 h x 27.0 w cm sheet 32.8 h x 27.0 w cm backing 52.6 h x 45.7 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1986
Accession No: NGA 86.1139
  • Purchased by the Australian National Gallery, from Anthony Dallas and Sons, London, March 1986.

This highly finished work, executed in watercolour on vellum, has not been traced to any books known to have been illustrated by Peter Brown, but it was almost certainly intended as the basis of an engraved plate for a natural history text. The image conforms to all of the natural history illustration conventions of the late 18th century and the pose of the animal suggests the taxidermist’s hand. The artist almost certainly worked from a preserved specimen, yet he managed skilfully to give the creature a sense of life. The phalanger is observed in remarkable detail and imagined with real vitality. The tree and the suggested landscape are entirely conventional, yet the skill of the artist has brought out the softness of the animal’s fur, suggested agile movement and convincingly portrayed its liveliness of eye.

The identity of the artist is unclear, the most likely candidate being Brown, a natural history painter active in Britain in the latter part of the 18th century. Brown is best known for his 1776 publication, New Illustrations of Zoology, which had texts in English and French. Little is known of him besides a fleeting reference in the memoirs of the naturalist Thomas Pennant, who described him as ‘a Dane by birth, and a very neat limner’.1 Pennant’s use of the word ‘neat’ to sum up Brown’s style certainly fits with the precise and finely observed image presented in this natural history drawing.

The white phalanger is more commonly known as the grey phalanger, or cuscus. It is a marsupial, native to a small area of Cape York, Queensland as well as parts of Indonesia, Timor, and New Guinea. Most of the specimens described in European texts in the late 18th century were collected in Timor.

Andrew Sayers

1Thomas Pennant, The Literary Life of the late Thomas Pennant Esq. by himself, London: B. and J. White, 1793, p.25.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002