writing niche history
Identifying one of South Australia’s Earliest Colonial Paintings | Bank of South Australia
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”.
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 was recalled to England and surveyor-general Colonel William Light was told to perform a fast “running survey” of 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).
An exception to the mass resignation was two recent arrivals – probably also aboard “Rapid” – on engagement to the survey department and who were 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.
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
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! However the painter has taken some 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, being based on a photograph and not an “on the spot” sketch, could have been executed any time after the photo.
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? This watercolour in NLA may be this 1861 Great Exhibition work or, more likely, a small study for it.
Skipper, John Michael. 1837, Governor's House, Adelaide, South Australia, September 1837, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-151574579
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>
Angas, George French. 1863, Bank of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide [picture] / George French Angas <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135269970>
Skipper, John Michael. 1837, Governor's
House, Adelaide, South Australia, September 1837 [picture] / John Michael Skipper
Suggested update to the State Library of South Australia catalogue:
North Terrace, West [B 13795],
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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), 24 May 2018 (updated)