The Conundrum of the London Kangaroos

Sue Rabbitt Roff

Published September 2020

When researching early Australian settler art, I came across these pictures online of two paintings of kangaroos. I assumed that they were watercolours since the first known European oil painting in Australia is generally accepted to be John Lewin’s c1813 (or 1815 or 1817) Fish catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour, currently in the Art Gallery of South Australia. It was only when I asked my colleague, Alan Stewart, to look at ‘these watercolours’ that he said, pointing to the annotation of the online photos from the Hunterian catalogue “They’re not watercolours. They’re oils.” And so it seems to be the case.

As we shall see, it seems indisputable that these two paintings were donated to what is now the Hunterian Collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1807. They have always been catalogued as ‘oils on canvas’, and attributed – but only attributed – to John Lewin. The conundrum is that John Lewin has not hitherto been known to paint in oils until around 1813. If these prove to be oil paintings by John Lewin they would be the earliest European oil paintings made in Australia.

In 2013 George Stubbs’ paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo, made from stuffed pelts brought back from Botany Bay by Sir Joseph Banks in 1790, were sold for Aust $10,000,000 to the National Gallery of Australia. But the sale was prohibited by the UK government and the paintings purchased for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Stubbs’ kangaroo (or wallaby) became the meme of the animal for the next fifty years, despite the advent of live kangaroos to London from the 1790s.

When John Lewin arrived in the colony in 1800, the untrained artists working there were producing rather inept depictions of an animal they saw and ate regularly. Back in London, William Clift (who made the entry in the Hunterian Donations Book for these two kangaroo paintings) was at the centre of a very active natural history research community in his role as the first Conservator of the Hunterian Museum that was made over to the Royal College of Surgeons of England on Hunter’s death in 1793.

Although there were several kangaroos in London (in the King’s exotica collection at Richmond Park and in other menageries) Clift never thought these two paintings were made in London and amended the catalogue entries in 1816 and 1820 to say they were made in New South Wales and probably by Lewin – a view he held throughout his forty years in post.

Lewin was a natural history illustrator of flora and fauna, but not always a good landscape artist as we shall see, which may explain why the trees in these two pictures look more English than Australian. But probably most the most conclusive evidence for agreeing with Bernard Smith, the eminent Australian art historian who saw the paintings in the 1980s, that they are Lewin’s, are stylistic issues such as the use of shading in other animal paintings known to be made by him.

The fact that Lewin wrote to his acolyte Alexander Huey in November 1812 that he was ‘now painting in oils’ does not necessarily mean that he wasn’t painting in oils before he met Huey in early 1810 but wasn’t able to obtain the materials to make and paint in oils until after Huey left in October 1811.

In 2013, the sale of Stubbs’ paintings of the kangaroo/wallaby and the dingo to the National Gallery of Australia for nearly Aust$10,000,000 was prohibited by the UK government and the paintings purchased for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.


Apart from Parkinson’s drawing (and putatively Bowes Smyth’s) the first images of live kangaroos made in Australia were drawings and watercolours by the early untrained artists who reached the colony as convicts, gaolers or ships’ crew in the last years of the eighteenth century. George Raper was a seaman and artist with the First Fleet. His “GUM-PLANT, & KANGOOROO of NEW-HOLLAND ~ dated 1789 is in the Natural History Museum in London.

The Port Jackson Painter or Painters were probably crew members of the First Fleet ships and there are drawings of kangaroos and a wallaby or swamp wallaby in the First Fleet Collection in the Natural History Museum in London.

Kangaroo, or the Pattagorang or [between 1788 and 1797]
Kangaroo, or the Pattagorang;. Port Jackson Painter,
between 1788 and 1797 (via First Fleet Artwork Collection)

Although titled “Kangaroo, native name Bag-ga-ree” the notes in the Natural History Museum catalogue for this drawing describe it as “Wallaby in profile” and note the four foot scale at the bottom of the image.

The convict Richard Browne’s image of a Kangaroo was included in Thomas Skottowe’s Select Specimens from Nature of the Birds and Animals of New South Wales published in 1813.


The first professional artist to work in Australia arrived in 1800. John Lewin was a trained natural history illustrator. His 1819 oil painting (from an earlier watercolour) of two red kangaroos are of a different order of competence than those of his untrained predecessors, particularly in the rendering of the proportions of the body, the slope and hang of the shoulders and the long arms, and the set of the heads and necks.

In fact, these two kangaroos were not drawn from life but from specimens brought to Lewin’s studio in Sydney.

But are two oil paintings that have been hanging for two hundred years in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London also by John Lewin?

If they are, they would be the earliest known oil paintings of kangaroos painted in Australia, and in fact the two earliest Australian oil paintings.


The first Curator of the Hunterian Collection was William Clift, who had worked with Sir John Hunter in the year before his death in 1793. He was highly regarded for his meticulousness and dedication to the collection for the 45 years he was in post.

The 2017 SurgiCat online catalogue of the Hunterian Museum states

Donations Book 1810-1817
Entry for 1807, by William Clift.

287. Two small paintings representing Kangaroos in their native wild state. Painted in New Holland. They now hang in the Museum Hall. There is no painter’s name, but they are supposed to have been painted by Mr Lewin, who was a Draughtsman and resided many years in the Colony and I believe died there. W.C.

It is unclear why an entry for 1807 would be in the Donations Book 1810-1817 but the possibility that ‘1807’ was an error for a later date, perhaps 1817, seems disqualified by the report of a Librarian of the Museum, William Lefanu, who noted in 1960 that “two manuscripts lists of paintings in the College have come to hand, which were written by William Clift, the first Conservator of the Museum, in 1816 and 1820 in his careful script. Clift added notes to his second list about 1840, he recorded much traditional knowledge, and his lists have proved invaluable, particularly for the cataloguing of the Museum pictures.” In 1816 Clift annotated the entries for these two kangaroo paintings: ‘Painted in New South Wales’ and in 1820 ‘Painted in New Holland from the life shewing them in their various natural attitudes.”

Since Clift was at the fulcrum of the interest in exotic animals, in close contact with Sir Joseph Banks and Sir Everard Home throughout his forty year tenure, it seems unlikely that he – and his associates – would not have been aware if the paintings had been made from the animals kept in London’s parks and exotic animal collections, as has been suggested by a later Hunterian Principal Curator, Dr Caroline Grigson. The dominant kangaroo meme even after live animals reached England was the Stubbs image of 1790. The Hunterian was at the centre of London studies of the kangaroo – Richard Owen, Assistant Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons published in 1834 (while Clift was still Curator) a report On the Generation of the Marsupial Animal with a description of the impregnated uterus of the kangaroo.


It has been suggested that Lewin was too good a botanical painter to have been responsible for the ‘English’ foliage in the two RCS paintings. But while he was good at painting Australian flora for his studies of birds and flowers and insects, Lewin was less adept at painting the Australian landscape.

Lewin’s painting of Riverbank showing the Casuarinas

Paintings held by Dixson Galleries of State Library of New South Wales


In 1988 the then Librarian of the RCS, IF Lyle, wrote to the State Library of New South Wales about the provision of photographs of the two paintings. “These two kangaroo pictures have created some interest recently. Sotheby’s were engaged on a routine evaluation of the College pictures earlier this year and in the course of this it was realised that they were very early representations of kangaroos as they must have been painted before 1807, when they were presented to the Hunterian Museum, here at the College. Sotheby’s asked [the eminent Australian art historian] Professor Bernard Smith, to look at them and he pronounced them to be the work of John Lewin, although at the time he was only known to have worked in water-colour and these two paintings are oil on canvas.” A copy of this letter was kindly supplied to me by Richard Neville, currently the Mitchell Librarian at the SLNSW.

However Mr Lyle himself very oddly formed the opinion, when he was shown Lewin’s Fish catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour (variously dated as c1813 to 1817), that “this painting which Professor Smith has not seen, is very similar in style to (sic) watercolour of kangaroos that Lewin painted in 1819, but quite different to our own kangaroo paintings.”

Perhaps the Librarian was not aware of Lewin’s paintings of the koala, echidna, platypus, and other animals. Note Lewin’s use of white and beige shading in his study of the Opossum, the Tasmanian Tiger and A Bengal cow and her calf. And indeed in Fish Catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour. Note especially the use of white in depicting ears, especially in e.g. Coola and Opossum.

Lewin did draw and paint (in water colour) Australian fauna – the lack of kangaroo paintings before 1816 is an interesting lacuna that would be neatly filled by the RCS paintings.


The assumption that Lewin did not paint in oils in his first decade in Australia depends solely on his letter to Alexander Huey dated November 7, 1812, a digital copy of which was kindly supplied by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Ensign Huey had spent twenty two months in Sydney from December 1809 until October 1811 and had become Lewin’s pupil. Lewin wrote “You have often heard me say I should like to paint or that I would paint [emphasis added] such a thing in oil – but at every attempt it was attended with some difficulty or other to deter me – behold the charm is broke (sic) & know (unclear)… I am painting in oil two large pictures – & from time to time I shall lett (sic) you know my prog(unclear).” This does not necessarily mean that Lewin did not paint in oils PRIOR to Huey’s arrival in Australia – “I should like to paint or that I would paint in oil” may refer only to discussions about work in progress and prospect in 1810 and 1811. The phrase “or that I would paint in oil” seems to suggest that it was a possibility to do so, albeit one that didn’t materialise while Huey was in Australia.

Lewin also wrote to Huey “You must remember me having a transparency to paint for the birth night [Queen Charlotte’s birthday celebrations] & it was to be a great secret well that secret must out. I behold it was a Co-ro-be.ra (sic) of the natives in a transparency for dame Macquarie and from a transparency it as (sic) become a fine picture after two years labour at different times & really I have gained more knowledge by painting it than ever I gained before – the size of it is fifteen feet by eighteen the figures as big as life & portraits… it is painted in distemper [emphasis added].” Unfortunately this painting has been lost. Perhaps there are notes from the 1952 restoration of the two kangaroo paintings in the Hunterian that should be checked as to their exact medium.

The Hunterian Museum is closed until 2022 for refurbishment. This could be a timely opportunity to conduct some pigment tests on the two RCS paintings to establish if they were ever in Australia and indeed if they are painted in oils. I was kindly facilitated to see the two small paintings as the Museum was being packed up in May 2017. They are behind heavy old glass and they could be done in oils, or distemper or tempera – or a colonial workaround for any of these.

They have hung in the Hunterian in London for over two hundred years without it being established whether or not they are the earliest extant oil paintings made in Australia. If Stubbs’ paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo made from stuffed pelts were worth millions of pounds to both the Australian government that bid for them and the British government that paid as much to keep them, how much might these two paintings be worth – a tour of Australia?