John William Lewin
UK Public Institution
As Richard Neville has noted, “few images seem to have been made by any colonial artists in the first two decades of the 1800s”. Until now only four such original drawings by Lewin have been recorded: a graphite drawing of two distant figures on rocks dating from 1808 in the National Library of Australia, Canberra, two watercolours in the British Museum dated 1810 (both carefully finished standing figures, their names recorded as Blueit, native of Botany Bay and Towwaa, a native of Jarvis Bay), and a small pencil with grey wash half-length study in the State Library of New South Wales of Yango Mungo Y’eyango wearing a possum cloak, “taken from the life…on Bathurst Plains, N.S. Wales” most likely in 1815 during an expedition with Governor Macquarie. The two new drawings by Lewin are consequently a particularly important addition to the existing iconography because they date from 1801, the earliest surviving portrait studies done by Australia’s first professional artist, and they are all the more so as they are such individually conceived portraits rather than conventionalised images of ‘native types’. Both are very spontaneously drawn, the inscribed and dated present drawing identified as O.ra.maa is particularly remarkable for its finely articulated pose, reflective sensibility and sophisticated modelling. The other is less densely drawn, but the way the subject’s gaze engages with the viewer creates a lively impression and the features convey his animated character as well as recording the specific details of the man’s facial markings. These are wonderfully dignified iconic images invested with artistic authority and respectful humanity towards their subjects. As likenesses they are self-possessed and expressive, and they show how far Lewin had advanced in portraiture well before he advertised for miniature and portrait commissions in the Sydney Gazette in 1808.
The two Aboriginal portraits may very well be the two drawings which Lewin is known to have made when he accompanied Lieutenant James Grant’s expedition to explore the Hunter River district in June and July of 1801 (see Note 8). In his account of the voyage Grant mentions two drawings made by Lewin of an older Aboriginal man and a younger companion. He must have thought highly enough of them to have included a reference to them in the first place, and to have added that he never received the copies of them that he was promised. Without an exact description of the two drawings Grant records it cannot be proven beyond any doubt that they and the two portraits published here are certainly the same, but it is very probable that they are. The 1801 date on the image identified as Or.raa.ma supports the likelihood that it and its companion drawing are the two that Grant reports. If that is indeed the case, the two new drawings are exceptionally important as the earliest known fully documented portraits of Aboriginal subjects by Australia’s first professional artist.