Treasures

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One Saturday morning in March 2013 Maggie and I went along to the Art Gallery to see a show called The Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie Era. It was just a short walk from her flat in Florence Court down to the gallery; and hot already as we ambled under the shade of the Phoenix palms in Nesca Park then turned the corner into Darby Street, where the smell of charred bacon mingled with the aroma of coffee from the breakfast bars packed with gorgers and loungers; while mementos of last night’s debauches lay palpable in the stains on the pavement as much as in the wear on the faces. I don’t exclude myself. It could have been, except for the cars and the clothes, a scene straight out of the Regency period two centuries before. As was the show we were going to see.

Outside the gallery the Council had cordoned off with orange tape the stumps of the arcade of grand old fig trees which, in spite of public protests, they had cut down; transforming Laman Street, twenty-first century style, into the ugly chaos of a building site. Out of a naked blue sky the yellow sun beat down upon desolated ground. Some violation had occurred which would never be accounted for; except perhaps on the books of those who would profit from it. That felt very Regency too, in the New South Wales version. It was, we were assured and did not believe, only temporary. As always it was a relief to leave behind the heat and dust and noise and splintered light to enter the cool half dark of the gallery.

Most of the ground floor was closed off for the installation of a new show; over to the right, one of the Darby Street coffee shops had established a pop-up cafe and there were plastic tables and chairs, a sofa, where was usually art space. Treasures was upstairs. I looked forebodingly at the concrete staircase we would have to climb: a Brutalist structure designed, apparently, to intimidate with its implied weight, its lowness and squatness, all-comers. I never go up without thinking of the 1989 earthquake and the Irish roadie I knew who was buried for twenty-four hours in the rubble of the collapsed Newcastle Workers Club. Ricky and his mate spent the time until their rescue singing every song they knew that had the word ‘help’ in it.

But I like the gallery and especially the upstairs; the claustrophobia always dissipates as I enter that big light-filled room. This day, as so often, I went backwards through the exhibition; as if seeking to trace time back to its source. Thus I began, not with the headline piece—Edward Close’s grand 1821 water colour Panorama of Newcastle—but before Thomas Mitchell’s two modest ink drawings from 1828, one of which shows the strange, pagoda-shaped structure built to enclose the coal-burning, ship’s warning light on Signal Hill; and followed them with three miniatures by Richard Read, also in water colour, of the Macquarie family: Lachlan, the Governor, his wife Elizabeth and their coddled darling, the unfortunate Lachlan Junior, as a child.

Apart from the panorama, there were a half a dozen other pieces by or attributed to Edward Close, a military engineer who settled on the Hunter and was one of the founders of the river town of Morpeth. His works are precise, elegant, exactly observed but to my eye somewhat attenuated. The best of them a graceful rendition of the Governor’s house with a white path curving up to the Georgian door of the low, stone building; and a view of South Head and Coal Island at the time when, in the early 1820s, the building of the causeway between them, which Close supervised, had just begun. You could make out three delicate lines of tide wrack cast up on the ochre sands of Horseshoe Beach; and the spidery construction of the flagstaff on the hill where now Fort Scratchley stands.

This was a leit-motif of the show: the then persistent within the now. For me it was most resonant, most acute, on the north wall, where four landscapes by Joseph Lycett hung. They were all views of Newcastle and environs circa 1818 and by looking into them you could recover lineaments of the original geography, and traces of its human societies, contiguous with the streets of the town yet buried beneath the assumptions, no less than the concrete and the clay, the buildings and the asphalt, of the present day.

Alongside and opposite these four oil paintings a number of heterogeneous other works hung, many of them attributed to a troika of artists: James Wallis / [Joseph Lycett] / Walter Preston. Wallis was the military officer who commanded the settlement at the Coal River, aka King’s Town, during the period when Lycett’s oils were painted. Walter Preston, another convict, transported for armed robbery, was an engraver and there were other examples of his work in the show. There were also paintings by Wallis himself, including a portrait of his dog, Fly, monstrous, like a mutant Stubbs, before an aquatic landscape. He was a competent but uninspired artist; and why the bracketing of Lycett’s name after his?

Their names recurred in the caption to an old bound book, an album, in a glass case opposite; it was closed but on the wall above a series of projections showed the works—water colours, engravings, drawings, that had been pasted, presumably by James Wallis himself, whose book it was, inside and on the front and back covers. At least half of the twenty-six images therein turned out to have been made by Joseph Lycett: watercolours of plants and flowers, mostly. Towards the end of the album six fine paintings of views around Sydney harbour appear. Five of them are inscribed, in Wallis’ hand, Drawn by a Convict.

These landscapes are all dated 1818, presumably because Wallis, and his album, departed the colony in March, 1819 and had, before he left, engravings made of these images for a book published in Sydney that year and again in London two years later; on both occasions Wallis claimed the engraver worked from his own Original Drawings. These originals were thought to have been lost until, just a few years ago, the album turned up in the back of a cupboard in Ontario, Canada, and was auctioned as part of a deceased estate. The State Library of NSW bought it in 2011 for the hefty sum of $1.8 million dollars. Wallis’ ‘original drawings’, then, were made by a convict; and that convict was Joseph Lycett.

There was another album, similarly presented, assembled by one of Wallis’ predecessors, Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe, and containing water colours of native Australian birds and animals by another convict artist, Richard Browne. I knew Browne’s work already, had seen his curiously elongated images of birds, his startling, toothy, larger than life portraits of Aboriginal people, eight of which were included in the exhibition, before. They are striking yet disturbing caricatures; you don’t know if they are meant to be satirical; or if Browne just couldn’t draw very well; or if he actually saw things this way. You can’t quite work out where to situate artist, subject or viewer.

A third book stood alone in another glass case in the middle of the room, without an associated slide show, and open upon a hand-coloured print showing an engraved and hand coloured version of one of Lycett’s four oils, the Inner View of Newcastle. This book, though I didn’t realise it at the time, was a copy of the rare and precious Views in Australia which Lycett, with others, prepared in London between 1824 and 1825. I noted the beautifully exact rendition of a two-pronged grass tree in the foreground, and the unusual way the leaves and branches on the sheoak trees were painted, before passing on. There was something else ahead, something astonishing.

It was inside a cube of what looked like thick glass but must have been perspex or some other kind of hard, transparent plastic: I could have touched it but I didn’t. This cube squatted, tardis-like, four square on the floor. It was roofed, about the size of a small room; within it, select drawers open, lid up, wings flying, stood the Macquarie Chest. Not only had I not seen it before; I had never heard of its existence. There it was, a portable wunderkammer and prodigy of unknown import. Or : conundrum.

The chest is an amalgam of an eighteenth century naturalist’s collecting cabinet and a military travelling trunk of a kind popular in the Empire, especially among officers sent out to administer the Raj. As in both of those articles of furniture, the drawers and wings and other fold-outs collapse, the four stumpy legs unscrew and fit in the bottom-most drawer, to form an oblong that could easily be stowed in a cabin, in the hold of a ship, in the freight compartment of a horse-drawn transport. A collecting cabinet was designed to transport specimens safely; while a military travelling trunk, when assembled in the officer’s tent or in his bungalow, would transform into writing desk, wardrobe, dressing table, shaving station and so forth: a portmanteau for the gentlemanly functions and pursuits enshrined within.

This one, however, built out of local timber—rosewood and cedar—had no practical function but was rather a sort of museum-cum-art gallery. Within its curiously wrought spaces there are the taxidermed bodies of eighty species of bird, all endemic to the Hunter River and environs. There are, likewise, a drawer full of beetles arranged, mandala-like, in patterns; another containing spiders and larger winged creatures such as stick insects, mantis and dragon flies, similarly disposed; two drawers of butterflies and moths; two of sea weeds and algae; two very beautiful arrangements of sea shells. These disparate specimens, with one or two exceptions, are all likewise local to the Newcastle area.

The natural history collections are only one part of this cabinet of wonders; the other consists of thirteen oil paintings on wooden panels which may be slid out of drawers or revealed when lids are opened or wings unfolded; they fall naturally into three groups: eight showing pairs of native birds and animals before exquisitely painted landscapes and dramatic skies; four seascapes copied after engravings made to illustrate Matthew Flinders’ account of his 1802 voyage in HMS Investigator round the Australian coast; and, the largest of the works, on the top lid, a selection of fish from Newcastle waters lying on a sandy beach before a rocky landscape; many of these fish also appear in the Wallis Album. The thirteen panels are unsigned but were certainly painted by Joseph Lycett.

The Macquarie Chest is assumed to have been made, its contents assembled, its panels painted, in Newcastle as a gift for the Governor whose name it bears; and its provenance suggests it returned with Macquarie to England in 1822; and later passed into the ownership of the Drummond family, who stored it for 150 years in a junk room in Strathallan Castle in Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands, where it was intermittently a plaything for children. It has a companion, the so-called Dixson Chest, a sort of mirror image, constructed either before or after (or, more likely, at the same time, as the Macquarie), which turned up in London in the 1930s sans most of the contents of its drawers; it has also, disastrously, had its Lycett panels ‘restored’ by some well-meaning vandal.

The Macquarie Chest is an amazing thing; yet I peered into the cube in a state of frustration: you couldn’t get up close to the painted surfaces and you couldn’t then step back and let them resolve; you had to perch, as it were, with your nose against the glass, looking at each work from an oblique or an acute angle. Not all of the panels were shown; just as not all of the drawers were open. It was maddening to learn that the eight bird and animal panels, which can be displayed together, make a three-part panorama of Newcastle, the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie; exasperating to have to pace around the transparent box trying to get a decent look at some of the more occluded drawers and display cases.

I could not help seeing an analogy with the artist himself, Joseph Lycett, a prisoner while he painted these illuminating works; now those works were themselves in a kind of captivity; while its guards had the untrammelled access I and other members of the public are denied. But that’s how it is with galleries, museums and libraries too—for the Macquarie Chest, and its pair the Dixson, are the property of the State Library of NSW. Newcastle folk, who believe the Macquarie Chest rightly belongs to them, have commissioned a modern day simulacrum which in this exhibition was displayed, en plein air, near its obsessively protected senior. The top features paintings by Philip Wolfhagen, including a Homage to JL; it is more art object than natural history display.

So who was Joseph Lycett? I didn’t know; but I did have, on my desk at home, a card from a previous exhibition at the Newcastle gallery, showing a reproduction of another of his paintings, the View on the Wingeecarrabee River. I had looked at it again and again over the two years since I’d picked it up: intrigued by the chunky way the rocks on the other side of the river had been—like Inca masonry—painted; and fascinated by the two tiny, bent figures in the foreground, one white, one black, running in pursuit of their two dogs, which were themselves chasing an upright kangaroo. I loved the feathery branches on the sheoak trees and, more generally, his take on Australian landscape : both exotic and familiar, a place seen through innocent eyes; as if Lycett, pace his older contemporary William Blake, had the doors of perception cleansed.

There was also, by my bed in Sydney, a book about him—one that had come to me as an unsolicited loan from a friend, one which I had not yet read. I’d leafed through it when it arrived, looking at the reproductions of paintings, which were various and not of a particularly high quality, then put it aside. Now I learned its owner wanted it back. The next day, Sunday, I took a train down to Summer Hill and, as I soon as I arrived, went and found the book; and began, using View on the Wingeecarrabee River as a bookmark, to read.

Joseph Lycett, Governor Macquarie’s convict artist by John Turner was published in 1997, the bicentenary of the European discovery of the Coal River in 1797. Turner was a historian with an interest in the local area; he taught for many years at the University of Newcastle. The inception of his book was curious: in 1982 Turner received a letter from one Michael Lycett, of Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex, a descendent of the artist, who was researching the life of his mysterious ancestor. Among the provocations for Michael Lycett’s research was the information that, early in the twentieth century, another Lycett descendent had been refused a job as butler to the Earl of Harrowby because of the recursive notoriety of his long-dead artist ancestor.

Turner’s book, still the only full biography, is well researched, detailed, often illuminating—and ultimately unsatisfying. This is because of a paucity of the kind of material from which biographies are usually written; indeed, it looks as if Joseph Lycett sought, wherever possible, to cover his tracks. To leave as little of himself behind as he could. He volunteered a bare minimum of information to those who were compiling official records; or else eluded altogether those who might have wished to document him or his activities. Towards the end of his preface, Turner writes of the inadequacy of the sources demanding a seemingly endless stream of ‘possibles’, ‘probables’ and ‘perhaps’s’.

This deliberate effacing of the self is all the more striking when you consider the rich legacy of art works Lycett left behind; one which continues to grow as more comes to light. When a major survey exhibition was curated in 2006, the catalogue featured 149 works and yet did not include, by any means, all those that the artist is known to have made; the Wallis album, for instance, had not yet been found. Most of these several hundred works were executed during a ten year period, that is, between Lycett’s arrival in New South Wales early in 1814 and his virtual disappearance from the record mid-way through the next decade, by which time he was back in England. There is a resonant silence around the life of the man responsible for this impressive oeuvre.

Turner’s research has been amplified by others, mostly professional art historians, in the nearly two decades since 1997; but very little of substance has been added to the biography. In some respects, all that has happened is a proliferation of those possibles and probables, those perhapses. After finishing Turner’s book, and then reading everything else I could find on the subject, I felt as frustrated as I had when trying to get a decent view of the Macquarie Chest locked away in that perspex cage in the gallery. There had to be some way of comprehending these mysteries, those enigmas : but how?

I returned twice more to the Newcastle gallery to see Treasures; on each occasion concentrating exclusively on Lycett’s works, whether collaborative or otherwise. One intriguing fact came to light : for most of their existence, paintings now known to be Lycett’s were attributed to others and particularly to his commandant, James Wallis, who, when he left New South Wales took with him in his baggage, along with the landscapes in the album, a number of other Lycett works, including some of the oil paintings. Still other works were assumed to be by another hand because they showed places in the colony that Lycett is not known to have visited.

There is a debate, for instance, as to whether he ever went to Tasmania, whose landscapes he painted with the same aptitude as those of his works that show scenes in New South Wales which he had, presumably, viewed. Turner, who believes he did go to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land, also mentions in one place the alleged existence of a notebook. What price this document? I considered writing a version of it myself, as a fiction that might also constitute a forgery. After all, that was the crime for which Joseph Lycett had been transported : he was a forger, a counterfeiter of money.

For a forger, anonymity is a sine qua non. The success of your enterprise depends on two things: first, that no-one recognises that what you have made is counterfeit; second that, if someone does realise, they still won’t know who did it. So Lycett’s self-effacement as an artist has a paradoxical symmetry when aligned with his other profession, that of a forger. However, even a master counterfeiter might feel pride in his work and a corresponding need for recognition; while it is rare indeed for an artist not to seek some acknowledgement for his or her endeavours. Was there some correspondence between Lycett’s art works and the money he had, literally, made? Was the fidelity with which he painted landscapes he may not have seen linked to the forensic care with which he copied the banknotes that he had? What is the connection between art and forgery?

This question has exercised me for some time; and among my books on the subject was one that is apposite. The Forger’s Shadow by Nick Groom is a study of literary forgery in the hundred or so years between the birth of Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) and the death of Thomas Wainewright (1794-1847), dubbed the Poisoner, who was himself transported to Australia for his crimes. Groom’s study investigates the peculiar qualities of Romantic poetry’s relations with literary forgery. It intends, in Groom’s own words, to put poetry back into literary forgery, and forgery back into poetry.

Lycett’s dates are 1775-1828; he was thus a contemporary of some of the poets examined in Groom’s study. He was also, in a literal if not a literary sense, a forger. Is there more to his work than meets the eye? Some complexity that might illuminate the waste ground that lies between authenticity and its shadowy other? Which are, I suggest, entwined together like the mollusc and the shell; or the convict and his keeper. Or Australia Felix and its murky shadow. Truth and seeming are the yin and yang of our contested present as much as of our rich past and equivocal future. Some intrinsic accommodation, implied in Lycett’s work, might yet be stated.

After my third viewing of the show in Newcastle, on the train back to Sydney, a strange conviction overcame me. All at once, and indubitably, I felt I knew who Joseph Lycett was. I do not mean that I understood the construction, however fugitive, in the biographies; nor exactly the artist, although I do believe an artist’s personality can sometimes, not always, be found in or through the work. No, what I felt with a certainty that still surprises me, is that I knew the man. It was as if a ghostly hand came down the years and clasped itself in mine. As if a contract was signed or a pact made. Or, more precisely, as if a summons had been issued. I knew in that moment I would have to write about him.

image : Old Ouse Bridge, York; oil on panel; Joseph Lycett, c 1811

One of just two paintings known from his pre-transportation years in England

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