He landed in Sydney, a conventional natural history artist, steeped in European traditions, but quickly developed his own unique and lively style. Specimens were clearly located in their natural habitat and strong diagonals animated his compositions. The challenge of confronting the new environment – where he found everything ‘contrary to our knowledge in England’ – inspired his beautifully observed illustrations, which are undoubtedly Australian.
In the second half of 1807, John William Lewin, the first free-born professional artist in New South Wales to make a living from painting, appears to have received a series of private commissions for natural history drawings of local species from the Governor, William Bligh. After January 1808 when Bligh was deposed in the Rum Rebellion, these commissions from him to Lewin seem to have ceased.
Saturnia feeds on Eucalyptus by John William Lewin
Orgyier-Ocks by John William Lewin
Like a number of the officers who came to administer New South Wales in its first decades of European settlement, Bligh was intensely interested in the colony’s novel fauna and flora and sought to have visual records made of these exotic species for his private collection. From his arrival in Sydney in January 1800 until his death in August 1819, Lewin’s artistic services were employed by all three Governors and the Lieutenant-Governor of the period, as well as merchants (eg. Alexander Riley) and military and administrative officers (eg. Surveyor-General John Oxley; Lieutenant Alexander Huey) for both official and personal commissions.
Lewin died in Sydney on 27 August 1819 leaving a widow and a son. His tombstone can be found at Botany Bay Cemetery
Koalas by John William Lewin
Banksia serrata (detail) by John William Lewin
Platypus by John William Lewin
The State Library of NSW holds the largest, indeed an unrivalled, collection of Lewin’s art and books, with some 400 works. He is also represented in other Australian and British collections. This exhibition will bring together, for the first time, Lewin’s work from these major collections.
This promises to be a gem of an exhibition if you love wildlife art and botanical illustrations. If anyone is lucky enough to visit, we would dearly love you to comment below on your opinions of Lewin’s work.