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David Coombe 


Identifying one of South Australia’s Earliest Colonial Paintings | Bank of South Australia


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Click on this link to a Trove list: Bank of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia to see all the resources for this article, including the paintings. (Or take the easy option by clicking the article’s inline links to just the main works.)




IMAGE (and detail): Nixon, F.R. 1898, [Homestead, South Australia], National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135267381


When I saw this painting I immediately knew something was wrong. The National Library of Australia (NLA) catalogue (viewed 7 May 2018) titles this work “[Homestead, South Australia]” – it looks like a homestead – and gives the date as “July 1898”. The watercolour is signed “F.R. Nixon” – in the middle of the sweeping dirt track – where it is also dated.


The problem was the artist, Frederick Robert Nixon (1817–1860), left South Australia for good in 1846 and died in 1860. Were the signature and date authentic?


I took advantage of NLA’s high resolution image and closely examined the writing. The signature and date looked to be in his hand, but the last two digits in the date were unclear (see detail at right); the decade could easily be mistaken for a “9” but it looked more like a “3”. This was exciting.


July 1838 would make this a very early painting indeed in South Australia, then barely 18 months a colony, at a time when there were still many tents and few substantial buildings. So what could this significant building be? By comparing with other early South Australian works, its identity emerges. It is the same subject as a painting by Colonel William Light.


F. R. Nixon was a surveyor under Light and his view is almost identical to that of his boss’s “Bank of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide” [Art Gallery of South Australia, AGSA 0.37]. And another watercolour is very similar: “South Australian Company's Bank, Adelaide” [State Library of South Australia, SLSA B 10504] by Mary Hindmarsh (married name Mary Stephen, 1817–1887) who dated her own work “25th July 1838”. That's the same month as Nixon's painting.


Was something going on in July 1838 to prompt such specific dating – not just the year – by Mary Hindmarsh? Very much so.


Late in June 1838, the Colonization Commissioners’ brig “Rapid” arrived at Port Adelaide with fresh orders. Governor John Hindmarsh – Mary’s father – was recalled to England and surveyor-general Colonel William Light was told to perform a fast “running survey” of country land instead of an accurate trigonometric one. Failing that, Light would be replaced by George Kingston. Light refused to comply with the direction and resigned, as did nearly all his surveyors (including Henry Nixon who was possibly F. R. Nixon’s father).


Exceptions in the mass resignation were two recent arrivals – probably also aboard “Rapid” – on engagement to the survey department and who were therefore not in a position to resign. It is likely Frederick Nixon was one of these but he too resigned in writing to George Kingston on 19 July 1838, partly on justification that he had been given a boring desk job. On 25 July Nixon copied his correspondence to the newspaper.


So perhaps it was on this day – 25 July 1838 – free from the bonds of his employment, Fred Nixon went painting with Mary Hindmarsh, both single, both 21. Their subject was the new bank building high on North Terrace. The freshly resigned surveyor-general Colonel William Light may well have accompanied them that day to paint his own version. (Postscript: Light diarised his sketching and painting of the bank – see “Art of William Light” in references.)


The views of Nixon, Hindmarsh and Light are all similar. But there is a unique feature in Nixon’s. Prominent in the foreground is a highly unusual tree stump. In the context of Nixon’s resignation this anthropomorphic stump could have been a cryptic message to George Kingston!


Addendum: A couple of hours after posting this I was in the NLA Special Collections reading room looking at this and some other paintings. An attached card suggests Nixon’s painting has always been known in NLA as “Homestead, South Australia” since its accession into the library’s collection. However, on the back of the picture, written in ink, probably in the artist’s hand is:


Bank of South Australia
(Front View)
F.R.N. July 1838


Image (right): NLA catalogue entry before update.


An 1861 View


The Bank of South Australia on North Terrace was a popular subject for artists and another watercolour held by NLA is of interest.


Angas, George French.  1863,  Bank of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135269970


Although unsigned, it has been “attributed to George French Angas by the Art Gallery of South Australia 2005”. But Angas was more a natural history and scenery painter; I don’t think he painted other Adelaide buildings and I doubt this one is by him.


However one aspect of this painting’s origin is evident – it is based on a photograph:


North Terrace, West, State Library of South Australia [B 13795]


The photographic and artistic views are identical. Even the front trees are at exactly the same stage of advancement! What is different is that the painter has taken licence and omitted the entire left wing of the building, seemingly to give a more rustic feel!


Noted as being possibly 1860, the photograph may well have been one commissioned by the government in 1861 for display at the Great Exhibition in London.


The HON. SECRETARY ... then read a letter from Mr. Skipper, of Port Adelaide, stating that he had nearly completed a picture of the old Government House of 1837, to forward to the Exhibition, and suggested that it should be accompanied by photographs of the present Government House and of the Railway Goods Shed, to show the progress the colony had made. His EXCELLENCY thought the idea a good one, and suggested that photographs of the banks and other public buildings might also be sent. They might pass a motion authorising the Miscellaneous Committee to incur the necessary expense.

The South Australian Advertiser, 2 September 1861


The painting cannot be dated exactly because it could have been executed any time after the photo; but it is 1861 or later.


Skipper’s “Old” Government House


Oh! and one more thing: that newspaper mention of John Michael Skipper’s painting of Old Government House as it was in 1837, but painted twenty-four years later in 1861? A watercolour in NLA may be Skipper’s reference for his 1861 Great Exhibition work:


Skipper, John Michael.  1837,  Governor's House, Adelaide, South Australia, September 1837, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-151574579


Catalogue Updates


Suggested updates to the NLA catalogue follow (and will be communicated separately).


Nixon, F. R.  1898,  [Homestead, South Australia] [picture] / F.R. Nixon  <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135267381>
Title: Bank of South Australia
Location: North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia
Date: July 1838.
Note: On the back of picture is written “Bank of South Australia / (Front View) / F.R.N. July 1838”


Angas, George French.  1863,  Bank of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide [picture] / George French Angas  <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135269970>
Author: Unknown
Date: c. 1861.
Note: Was attributed to George French Angas by the Art Gallery of South Australia 2005. The work is unsigned. When received by NLA in 1969 the work was recorded as “artist unknown”.


Suggested update to the State Library of South Australia catalogue:


North Terrace, West [B 13795], <https://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+13795>
Title: Bank of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide
Note: This may be one of the photographs to be commissioned in 1861 for the
Great Exhibition in London. (The South Australian Advertiser, 2 September 1861, p. 3)



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David Coombe
11 May 2018


CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2018, Identifying one of South Australia’s Earliest Paintings | Bank of South Australia, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/research/BankOfSouthAustralia.htm>


11 May 2018 (original), 11 December 2019 (updated)