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.
(1832) by William Buelow Gould