Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Sketch­book of Fishes, 1832. Col­lec­tion All­port Li­brary and Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Tas­ma­nian Ar­chive and Her­itage Of­fice. On dis­play, All­port Li­brary and Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Ho­bart.

IN the re­mote and hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment of one of Aus­tralia’s most no­to­ri­ous pe­nal set­tle­ments, con­vict artist Wil­liam Buelow Gould pro­duced some of the most in­tri­cate and del­i­cate wa­ter­colour sketches of fish.

Th­ese sketches are so ex­cep­tional that Gould’s Sketch­book of Fishes is now re­garded as a doc­u­ment of world sig­nif­i­cance. In 2011 it was in­cluded on UNESCO’s Mem­ory of the World Reg­is­ter, the equiv­a­lent of a world her­itage list­ing. The sketch­book is also renowned as the in­spi­ra­tion for Richard Flana­gan’s award-win­ning novel Gould’s Book of Fish.

The Sketch­book of Fishes il­lus­trates 36 fish and marine crea­tures, such as the weedy sea dragon, the parrot fish, the ser­pent eel, the sil­ver dory and the pot-bel­lied sea­horse. In his draw­ings, Gould also de­picted species found in Tas­ma­nian wa­ters for the first time, such as the world’s largest fresh­wa­ter cray­fish. So ac­cu­rate are the draw­ings that sci­en­tists still re­fer to them to­day.

Gould painted th­ese re­mark­able im­ages in Tas­ma­nia be­cause he was trans­ported there in 1827 for steal­ing a coat.

Gould was born in Liver­pool, Eng­land, in 1803, but his real name was Wil­liam Hol­land. He stud­ied art and worked at the Spode pot­tery fac­tory paint­ing scenes and flow­ers on porce­lain. But by 1826 he had taken up drink­ing and gam­bling, aban­doned his wife and child, and adopted the sur­name of Gould. He was caught steal­ing artist pig­ments, then the coat, and so sen­tenced to trans­porta­tion to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years.

On his ar­rival in Tas­ma­nia,


was con­stantly in trou­ble and in 1832 he was sent to the pe­nal set­tle­ment of Mac­quarie Har­bour on Tas­ma­nia’s west coast. While there, he was as­signed to the res­i­dent med­i­cal of­fi­cer, Dr Wil­liam de Lit­tle, a keen nat­u­ral­ist who col­lected fish and marine species from the lo­cal beaches. He asked Gould to paint them for him.

Gould’s Sketch­book of Fishes is now on dis­play at Ho­bart’s All­port Li­brary and Mu­seum of Fine Arts, and when I visit I’m shown the book by li­brar­ian Caitlin Sut­ton. Amaz­ingly, it is in pris­tine con­di­tion, but how it came to be in the All­port col­lec­tion is still a mys­tery.

Ac­cord­ing to Sut­ton, Gould is of­ten con­fused with the priv­i­leged English or­nithol­o­gist and bird artist John Gould, who pro­duced pub­li­ca­tions such as The Mam­mals of Aus­tralia and The Birds of Aus­tralia; al­though they were con­tem­po­raries, their per­sonal lives were re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent.

‘‘ Most peo­ple see Wil­liam Buelow Gould’s wa­ter­colours as his finest work, and the sketch­book it­self is an in­cred­i­ble ob­ject, con­sid­er­ing the con­di­tions it was cre­ated un­der,’’ Sut­ton says.

‘‘ The fish are so bright with char­ac­ter, move­ment and per­son­al­ity, they’re al­most hu­man, es­pe­cially when com­pared with some of his later oils. They’re im­bued with sym­bolic mean­ing around the con­vict ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘‘ It’s the only com­plete sketch­book of Gould’s wa­ter­colours held in any pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion.’’

Wil­liam Gould was made a free man in 1835 and moved to Launceston, where he worked for a coach builder, paint­ing de­signs on new car­riages. But his heavy drink­ing got him into trou­ble again and he moved to Ho­bart. He re­mar­ried and this led to a more pro­lific paint­ing ca­reer. He was adept at paint­ing fruit and flow­ers in the Dutch 17th­cen­tury still-life tra­di­tion. But he never gained re­spectabil­ity and he and his wife and five chil­dren lived in poverty. He was also con­stantly drunk and served sev­eral jail terms for steal­ing items such as a mu­si­cal snuff box and ra­zors, for which he was sen­tenced to two years’ hard labour. Gould died in Ho­bart of nat­u­ral causes in 1853, the same year Eng­land sent its last con­victs to Tas­ma­nia.

Weedy Sea Dragon Sketch­book of Fishes


(1832) by Wil­liam Buelow Gould

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