Where are the Kaurna?
William Light’s 1837 view near the site for Adelaide
In this article I consider the recent find of a picture said to be by William Light. I examine the relationship between various works that represent this famous scene. Light painted a watercolour which was engraved and published in London in 1838 as “A view of the country and of the temporary erections near the site for the proposed town of Adelaide in South Australia”. But the recently found picture leaves out the Kaurna, the Aboriginal people of Adelaide. And there are other questions.
Click on this link to a Trove list: William Light - Near the Site for the Proposed Town of Adelaide in South Australia to see resources for this article, including art works and news reports both old and new and other references.
News: 9 September 2019
On 9 September 2019 the City of Adelaide announced:
A newly-discovered 180-year-old painting by Colonel William Light will be on show today by Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor in Adelaide Town Hall at 10:00am. Created in 1837, in the same year Colonel Light surveyed and laid out Adelaide, Elder Fine Art has described the discovery of The Commencement of Colonisation in South Australia as hugely significant. The painting has been safely held in private hands for 182 years – and in a local garage since the 1980s – before its discovery and transfer to Melbourne Street’s Elder Fine Arts for valuation… The Art Gallery of South Australia owns the only other known watercolour of this scene but recent investigative work indicates this particular work was painted earlier.
The Lord Mayor tweeted a photo of the painting (see right).
Unknown Painting of a Well-known Scene
Although this is a newly rediscovered painting, its scene is familiar to many. It is near the River Torrens and the proposed town of Adelaide, then being surveyed by Light. The scene is of a clearing ringed by tents and pisé and wooden huts surrounded by tall gums. The Mount Lofty Ranges are in the background.
This particular scene has several versions, represented by a watercolour in the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA 0.670), an oil painting in the Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW DG 157), a print engraved in London in January 1838 and a reprint in 1890 in the illustrated Adelaide newspaper Pictorial Australian.
You may want to look for differences in the pictures before I reveal them below. If you haven’t already, I suggest you click on this link to a Trove list: William Light - Near the Site for the Proposed Town of Adelaide in South Australia which includes links to the pictures.
How are these Works Related?
It’s clear that the AGSA watercolour was sent to London where it was used as the basis for the January 1838 engraved print. (See advertisement at right.) The watercolour remained in London until it returned to Adelaide in December 1889 and its return prompted the January 1890 local reprint. All these scenes are the same.
The SLNSW oil differs in that it is squarer. To achieve this, the artist has removed a vertical slice from the original watercolour (about a third in from the left). The cart is gone and so is a tent. To balance the picture, a tree has been added in the foreground. Except for these changes, the scenes are much the same.
So what came first, the squarer oil or the more rectangular watercolour/print? One can’t tell just by looking at the scene. But the context gives us a likely explanation. As a military officer, Light was trained in pencil and watercolour. His sketchbook was his companion. In the hectic period of identifying and surveying the site for Adelaide, Light is unlikely to have had the luxury of time to paint in oils. So the oil was most likely executed after the watercolour. The oil omits just a cart and tent from the watercolour.
That leaves the 2019 find to consider. It differs further from the others. It too is squarer than the AGSA watercolour and London print. I first noticed how the artist has tried to create balance by framing the scene with a dead tree at right and a felled one in the foreground. It feels a bit clunky to me.
Being squarer means something has to be omitted and the left of picture has been squashed. The leftmost tent has been brought in and the artist has omitted a mounted horse and three Aboriginal people.
The Tent, the Grey and the Aboriginal Family
The watercolour and engraving show a man mounted on a grey visiting a tent. An Aboriginal man and woman – the latter with a baby on her back – are just outside the tent.
Horses were rare at the time of this scene – early 1837 – and the settlement had only two horses before the February arrival of John Barton Hack. So rare were horses that Mary Thomas reminisced:
For so long had we been unaccustomed to the sight of the animals of our own country, except that a few of the settlers had dogs which they brought with them from England, that when Mr Hack, an early colonist, rode up to our tent on a fine grey, which I believe had been imported from Sydney and was the first horse brought into the colony, we all ran out to look at it, as if we had never seen a horse before.
Some of the natives with whom we had become familiar at Glenelg seemed to follow us to Adelaide, for we often saw the same faces of both men and women, and occasionally availed ourselves of the services of the former to fetch water from the river and suchlike.
For nearly two centuries we have known this picture as a scene. But now we can actually identify some of the subjects with a good deal of confidence.
Mary Thomas, her husband Robert, and their four children arrived in November 1836 on Africaine. J.B. Hack, his family and imported stock arrived on Isabella in February 1837. All were prominent colonists.
In Light’s picture, the grey is not just any horse; its top hatted mount is not just any colonist; his top hatted interlocutor not just anyone. William Light knew who was who. He has painted J.B. Hack mounted on his newly imported grey visiting Robert Thomas outside his tent. (Thomas’s eldest son, Robert George Thomas, was a surveyor under Light.) And he has painted an Aboriginal family who likely had met the Thomases at Glenelg. These identities are a revelation. (In the above passage Mary Thomas does not mention the names of the Kaurna.)
(There is an alternative possibility that Mary Thomas’ recollections are influenced by the 1838 print. She also recalled corroborees and mentions such a painting by her later to be son-in-law, John Michael Skipper. But I think this is less likely to be the case.)
The 2019 Picture
In contrast, the 2019 picture has omitted these significant characters from the scene.
Although the grey has been retained, it has been ridiculously demoted to pulling the cart at centre of picture. (The cart is pulled by a pair of bullocks in the watercolour and engraving.)
The top hatted gentlemen – who were well known to Light – have been left out. This suggests the artist did not realise their significance.
Where are the Kaurna?
As well as the Kaurna family near the tent, there appear to be two other small Aboriginal groups. One group is towards the back of the park like area and in the 2019 picture has been replaced by grazing cattle. (Although the characters are small in the 2019 picture’s image, the third group no longer seems to be Aboriginal.)
It’s not that Light usually painted Aboriginal people – he didn’t. It’s just that in this case someone has removed them from this scene. Omission of the Aboriginal groups from the picture is not a space saving measure. It suggests the possibility that this was painted later – in the second half of the nineteenth century – at a time when Aboriginal people were being left out of colonial art.
Copied from Print?
Could the 2019 picture have been painted in 1890 at the time interest was revived in this scene by the newspaper reprint? The 1890 print seems to have retained all three Aboriginal groups. But the 2019 picture has removed them.
Or could the 2019 picture be a copy of the 1838 print? The South Australian Society of Arts competition had prizes for best and runner-up "copy of a water-colour drawing or chromo-lithotint" (at least in the 1860s and 1870s).
I have barely mentioned the style of the painting as it is not my specialty. However I don’t think the 2019 picture looks like Light. In particular the heavily outlined clouds don’t look like his, the people too are heavily outlined and the foreground axes are out of perspective. The style can be contrasted with 14 Light watercolours held by The City of Adelaide and displayed via watercolourworld.org (see the Trove list for the link) and works held by AGSA.
More to Come?
15 September: The painting is expected to be auctioned by Elder Fine Art (EFA) in November 2019. I have not seen the picture in person, nor have I seen a high resolution scan. I contacted EFA and they expect more information on this picture to become available closer to the auction. The provenance will be of particular interest. I can update this article when more information comes to hand.
14-15 November: The auction catalogue is now online and has lengthy notes accompanying the picture – see Internet Archive snapshot. The picture carries a sale estimate of $90,000-120,000. There is a stark absence of evidence and an abundance of flawed logic.
Absence of evidence: “It is quite a story and a wonderful interweaving of South Australian history.” And that’s all it is – a story and an interweaving of prominent names. A story is not provenance. Provenance requires evidence and the painting’s provenance is only to “the early 1990s”. A family tree may be the “provenance” of a person but not a painting!
Flawed logic: The auction description compares the well-known picture and the “garage find”: “The dead trees are gone.” The auctioneer concludes that because the scene looks earlier – the timber has been felled but not yet removed – the picture was painted earlier. This logic works for photographs, but not for paintings. The auction description claims “both studies were painted plein-air by Light from the same spot”. In dating the picture, the auction description’s unstated assumption is that Light painted exactly what he saw – including the felled tree. That implies the following sequence of events:
* Mid-January 1837: Light painted the “garage find” on the spot (with felled tree and a two horse cart in the scene)
* 9 February 1837: J.B. Hack imports arguably first horse
* the felled tree was removed, the Kaurna moved in, the Thomas family occupied the timber cutters tent, the cattle left, the cart returned to the exact same spot but under horse- not bullock-power, Hack rode up on his grey horse, the people outside the pise hut changed clothes and returned to their same position; then
* Light painted the scene again on the spot and sent that watercolour to England for printing.
This photographic logic is absurd.
A Cart and the Weight of Evidence
I want to return to the evidence of the cart. In Light’s original 1837 watercolour and print, the cart is pulled by two bullocks. In the January 1890 newspaper reproduction the motive power is indistinct – it’s hard to tell what’s pulling the cart. This suggests the possibility that the “garage version” was painted from the newspaper reprint and the copyist mistakenly assumed horsepower.
The auction description fails to provide sound evidence of the authorship, date and provenance (beyond the early 1990s) of the 2019 picture. Instead of evidence there is speculation.
The weight of content, historical and stylistic evidence is that the “garage find” was probably painted about 1890 by an (as yet) unidentified amateur artist, an artist not from an 1837 milieu of Kaurna, Thomases, Hacks and grey horses.
My tweet a week before the auction caught the attention of Keith Conlon whose quote tweet reached a larger audience. This led to a TV interview with Tim Hatfield on “Today Tonight”. The painting was passed in at auction "following media reports of an art historian’s doubts about the work". It was subsequently sold to an unnamed buyer for unnamed price. Jim Elder: “I am particularly disappointed that a commercial television station last week chose to air an item from an interstate amateur art historian debunking the provenance of this work.” EFA’s media campaign continued throughout. I predict this sketch will resurface one day.
CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2019, Where are the Kaurna? William Light’s 1837 view near the site for Adelaide, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <http://coombe.id.au/research/William_Light_1837_view_near_Adelaide.htm>
Original: 15 September 2019. Updated: 11 December 2019.