On Thursday I spent the day with a group of friends in Sydney visiting the numerous watercolour exhibitions surrounding and within the Royal Botanic Gardens. We started at the State Library of NSW with the Lewin – WildART exhibition.
It is the story of John William Lewin (1770-1819) – Australia’s first professional artist to arrive in the colony as a free man – and his startling response to our landscape, flora and fauna.
There were 159 exhibits, not all by John Lewin but the majority were. I particularly like the quote on the back of the catalogue from Alan Cunningham, Botanist, on John Lewin, 1817:
‘There is here (I mean in Sydney) a singular Character, greatly in favour at Government House, his name is Lewin, he is a Painter. He has for a series of years set himself up for a Botanist, Zoologist, Entomologist, Ornithologist, Mineralogist, Conchologist & Artist … He is certainly excellent in his Birds, Beasts, Butterflies & fishes of this country, however he excels in Birds. His botanical subjects are fair but not up to Character, more for Show, than for Correctness, botanically speaking … His paintings decorate the walls of the best rooms of the Government House.’
Left: Variegated Lizard of NSW (lace monitor – Varanus varius), 1807. Watercolour, John Lewin.
I would agree with Alan Cunningham that Lewin excelled in some areas of his work. He travelled extensively and recorded his journeys in watercolours along the way. I found his landscapes to be fairly colourless, bland and unremarkable with little or no emotion. More a factual record rather than a passion for the land.
Right: Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), 1810. Watercolour, John Lewin.
However, his fauna were wonderful portrayals of the wildlife he came across particularly the birds. It was a very stimulating and interesting collection of work.
We then visited the Watercourse exhibition in The Palm House within the gardens. Again, this was not exclusively watercolour work.. The event is a collaboration of 16 artists, most of whom live and have studied in Sutherland Shire (where I happen to live). The subjects portrayed were varied, the artists had very different styles and I found it extremely instructional to see how each used water colours in their own way. It opened my eyes to more of the versatility of the medium.
Finally we headed over to the Maiden Theatre & Moore Room also within the gardens to see Botanica 2012. This exhibition, run by Friends of the Botanic Gardens, is by invitation only and has been run several times before although not strictly annually. There were 85 artists involved, the majority from Australia but others from Singapore, India, England, Taiwan, New Zealand and more. Most had multiple works on show. There were three main categories: framed on the walls, floor standing unframed originals and prints.
If I ever had a tiny doubt about my own work being rubbish I quickly saw here that I’m correct in my original thinking – I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing when it comes to painting. These works were simply exquisite, breathtaking in their detail and mind blowing in their execution – and size. How on earth can someone reach across such large canvases and produce such wonderful art work? Here we were seeing the professionals, with professional prices to match. And why not?
Below: Beverley Allen. 460 x 410 mm Watercolour on vellum. Crataegus phaaenopyrum, Punica granatum, Camellia sasanqua, Rosa sp., Tilia europaea
hawthorn, pomegranate, camellia seeds, rosehips and linden fruit
Botanica 2012 cd catalogue and poster
Lewin WildART 2012 catalogue