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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

The Hairy Wild Man from Botany Bay. From a pam­phlet A Tour through the Apollo Gar­dens, in Gaws worth, near Mac­cles­field, Cheshire (1802). Rex Nan Kiv­ell Col­lec­tion (Aus­tralian Rare Books), Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, Can­berra. On dis­play un­til De­cem­ber 13.

In 1802, an un­usual pam­phlet was printed in Cheshire, Eng­land. It fea­tured an il­lus­tra­tion of a rather hir­sute man bran­dish­ing a club and hold­ing a clean-picked bone. His place of res­i­dence: Botany Bay.

In the anony­mous pam­phlet, the im­age of the hairy wild man is ac­com­pa­nied by a sur­real story. The nar­ra­tor trav­els through time and space, en­coun­ter­ing mu­si­cal foun­tains and verses in the night sky, but even­tu­ally ends up in Botany Bay. There he vis­its the den of the hairy wild man. The nar­ra­tor is just read­ing the no­tice on the door when out bursts a fu­ri­ous man, his body “cov­ered with hair at least two inches long … his beard mon­strously long and black”. Luck­ily, chains pre­vent the nar­ra­tor from be­ing mauled and he man­ages to es­cape Botany Bay.

The Hairy Wild Man is cer­tainly an in­trigu­ing im­age and it is on dis­play for the first time since the 1960s at Can­berra’s Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia as part of an ex­hi­bi­tion, Por­traits of the Fa­mous and the In­fa­mous, in the Trea­sures Gallery.

At the NLA I’m shown the work by Nat Wil­liams, the James and Bet­ti­son trea­sures cu­ra­tor. He tells me this is the only known copy in the world of the pam­phlet and this im­age. He has been re­search­ing its history for nearly two years, ever since he dis­cov­ered it in the col­lec­tion. “The pres­ence of the wild man in a pam­phlet cre­ated 14 years af­ter Euro­pean set­tle­ment is cu­ri­ous,” he says. “He may re­flect the sense of in­trigue, but also men­ace, that the strug­gling early con­vict set­tle­ment ra­di­ated back to its source.

“At least in the early days of set­tle­ment, the pal­pa­ble fear of trans­porta­tion to what must have seemed the end of the earth was clearly ex­pressed. The man­a­cled hairy wild man was per­haps a warn­ing to read­ers about ex­ile to re­mote lands. But when you look at the face, it is rather more be­nign than ter­ri­fy­ing.”

Wil­liams ex­plains the im­age is an en­gag­ing vis­ual trope with a long her­itage. “Ob­vi­ously this Hairy Wild Man im­age taps into that idea of mon­sters,” he says. “Botany Bay was a pe­nal colony but you also had strange and un­likely wildlife … be­ing sent back to Eng­land, and peo­ple are mar­vel­ling at these odd things and think­ing that they have been cre­ated by a hand other than God. So … there was this idea about mon­sters and the fear of the un­known.

“I keep com­ing back to the date of it. The re­ally re­mark­able thing is that some­one in 1802 in Cheshire is pro­duc­ing some­thing as beau­ti­ful and as cu­ri­ous as this story and im­age. It sug­gests to me that the imag­i­na­tion of peo­ple on the other side of the world was be­ing stirred by this lit­tle colo­nial out­post.”

27 x 21.4 cm. Pa­per ma­te­rial

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