Menzies Art Brands



Early European settlers tended to look at Australias Indigenous population with a mixture of curiosity, pity, disdain or fear. Although first-hand contact was limited, Aboriginals were invariably seen as an inferior race and their long-standing connection with the land was actively challenged rather than being appreciated or better understood.

Thomas Balcombe regularly came in contact with Aboriginal tribes in his capacity as a surveyor and later as a fine artist. His legacy of paintings, drawings, lithographs and sculpture depict a more rounded understanding of Aboriginal people, communities and customs. He also explored the aspirations of white settler culture and its use and development of the land. The rare collection of paintings and drawings assembled here encapsulate Balcombes strengths as a colonial artist and exemplify some of the broader artistic and cultural conventions used to depict the intricacies of mid-19th century Australian life.

Thomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe arrived in Sydney in 1824 as a 14-year-old boy. He had a privileged upbringing as the son of the colonial treasurer. After sustaining head injuries from a riding accident, Balcombe joined the Surveyor-Generals Department under Thomas Mitchell in September 1830. According to art historian Joan Kerr, Balcombes dedication to his new role as a draughtsman did not seem to be great. However, he eventually recovered though from his head injuries, was promoted to field surveyor and remained in the Department for the rest of his life.1

Many of the subjects that Balcombe encountered on field trips around the New South Wales coast and inland to the Murray River, Bathurst and Goulburn during the 1830s and 1840s formed the basis for paintings and drawings that he completed later on. Aborigines fishing by torchlight, Aborigine Fishing and Aborigines fishing on a Lake are all accomplished small works from the 1850s period (possibly 1853) when Balcombe had become known as one of Sydneys best artists.

In June 1849, Balcombes depiction of Talambee, a native of the Bogan River was singled out by the Sydney Morning Herald as without exception the best attempt in this style and on this scale that we remember to have seen from the hand of a colonial artist.2 The following year Balcombe received similar praise and an award for Aboriginal Native in Search of Game for its admirable drawing and colouring. Balcombes second entry titled Australian Stockmen won the first prize of 30 pounds and a silver medal.3

Thomas Balcombes work is admired for its topographical accuracy and attention to detail. In the three aforementioned works these aspects are visible in the realistic depiction of the setting from the shallow coastal inlets, lakes and inland rivers, in which Aborigines fished at night, to the canoes made from bark tied at the ends, four-pronged spears and fire torches used for light. There are vestiges of an earlier attitude that marvelled at how primitive a vessel could stay afloat, along with a newer, perhaps more enlightened, appreciation of the skills of the boat makers and the intense concentration that Aboriginal fisherman invested in their task.

In the same works we see European pictorial conventions used to depict Aboriginals ranging from a deliberately unattractive and unkempt appearance through to the popular idea of the noble savage. It was not uncommon for classical poses and physiques drawn from classical antiquity to be imposed upon the torsos of the native subjects, such as is the case in Aborigine Fishing. In Aborigines fishing by Torchlight the central figure wears what resembles a Roman Centurions helmet.

Balcombes approach also stood out for its more painterly style and technique. The single trees silhouetted against a moody ink-black sky, the piercing light of a slit moon and the framing of each scene by rolling hills deliver romantic connotations. In 1796 John Hunter expressed this idea in a nascent form in his admiration for the Hawkesbury River: The different views & Landscapes which appear from the Bank of this River are extremely beautiful and would much arouse a good painter.4

Thomas Balcombe did not neglect the emergence of white settlement either. His Pastoral scene with stockmen and cattle and Coastal scene with tall ships (both undated) deliver a similar sense of realism cloaked in a romantic veil. In the first of these, a mob of cattle find sustenance in a river pool. It is a scene of tranquil harmony allied to a purposeful use of the land a gap in the range and shaft of light in the distance beckon the mob further on. In Coastal scene the ships are anchored in a coastal inlet and smaller sailing boats and ketches industriously scoot in and around them as a sign of activity and progress. Like his depictions of Aborigines, such scenes recorded his contemporaries entrenched attitudes as well their hopes and aspirations for the new land.

1. Kerr, J., The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers
and Engravers to 1870, Oxford University Press, 1992, p.40
2. Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 1849
3. Herald, 20 July 1850
4. Quoted in Neville, R., A rage for curiosity: Visualising Australia 1988-1830,
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997, p.61

Rodney James BA (Hons), MA


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