The Courier Mail, July 1981
Intriguing early Brisbane
 
By ROBIN BAYES
 

When Susanna Evans first decided to research a book on the history and early artists of Brisbane, some were surprised that the former convict colony should have much of a cultural background, let alone enough to fill a book. With the enthusiasm of the novice explorer, she immersed herself in Brisbane history for nearly three years and emerged with a factual, sometimes amusing document.

Her book Historic Brisbane traces the growth of Brisbane from a prisoner’s hell hole to its present status.The author discovered a lot more than she bargained for, namely the first known painting of Brisbane, The Moreton Bay Settlement, New South Wales, by Henry William Boucher Bowerman, done in 1835.

The painting was found in Christies auction rooms in London in 1981, after being sent in with a pile of old postcards and engravings for evaluation. It was snapped up by a Queensland dealer who realised Moreton Bay was the site of the first colonial settlement in Queensland. Signed and dated works by the artist, who was the top administrator of the British Treasury at Moreton Bay, have not appeared in Australia for more than 100 years.

The painting is of major historical significance: a delicate, intri­cate and architectural sketch drawn from southern Brisbane showing convicts yoked to carts, the treadmill where they worked 14­hour shifts and a whole panorama of the settlement. The painting, in pen and grisaille wash drawing, is exceptionally detailed…. The settlement had an unenviable record as a penal colony, with more than double the death rate of other settlements ‑ a combination of excessive heat, disease, and hours of labour which would have exhausted animals, let alone humans. It was, according to the author, Australia’s own Deep South.

The treadmill on Wickham Terrace, on the top left‑hand corner of the painting, is in itself a horror story. Convicts worked in all weather for 14 hours a day. Many became en­tangled in the machinery and were crushed to death. “The brutality of this piece of ma­chinery is beyond the power of a human being to describe,” said one convict.

The book is im­mensely readable and rich with the lives of personalities such as the squatter artist, George Fairholme, who had the dubi­ous title of “the most handsome man ever to pass through Cunning­ham’s Gap”. After exploring the Darling Downs and developing sheep properties, the apparently charming Mr Fairholme, took off to greener pastures, married a baroness and idled his life away in the Austrian Alps.

The renowned artist Conrad Martens also made a series of Bris­bane drawings, and one particularly excep­tional painting of Bris­bane, interestingly, he gave to the author of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin. Conrad Martens arrived in Australia after serving as official artist on the Beagle where Charles Darwin was also on board. During the trip Martens explored and docu­mented the Santa Cruz River where he helped the crew of the Beagle search for the corpse of the governor of the Falkland Islands, who had been murdered. Martens’ drawings of the coasts and harbours of the Falkland Islands were so accurate the British Admiralty used them for reference during Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands conflict with Argentina.

Martens’ work in Australia includes scenes of Sydney, the Blue Mountains. Brisbane and his magnificent work, Storm over the Darling Downs, an exclusive photograph for the book as the painting has been in England for over a century. Martens was followed by a string of colourful disciples. There was Lady Eliza Hodgson, “the first resident white woman on The Downs” and Queens­land’s first emanci­pated woman in the field of art.

There was then the young Lord Henry Douglas Scott Montagu, sent to the colony for his health, who exe­cuted a series of excellent wash drawings, most of which have unfortunately been ig­nored by art references in England and Aus­tralia.

One of Australia’s more famous sons, Julian Rossi Ashton, also left his mark on Bris­bane with finely detailed watercolors, with one in particular, Parliament House and the Botanic Gardens from River Terrace, capturing another colorful side of Brisbane history, The painting shows the gunboat ss Gayundah bought by the Queensland Government to ward off the feared 1880s Russian invasion. The book shows an amusing side to history.

NOTE: In the year 2004 Susanna and Jake de Vries reissued an updated version of the book with many of the paintings in colour and published it through their own press and called it HISTORIC BRISBANE: FROM CONVICT SETTLEMENT TO RIVER CITY.

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