Are the Hunterian Museum Kangaroos Painted in Oils?

The Royal College of Surgeons of London classifies them as Oil Paintings but states that the Hunterian Museum acquired them between 1800 and 1806. The problem is that it is generally held that Lewin was not able to paint in oils in his early years in Australia until he produced what is thought to be the first known European oil painting in Australia – Lewin’s c1813 (or 1815 or 1817) painting Fish catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour, currently in the Art Gallery of South Australia. Note that the catalogue entry describes this painting as ‘undated’.

Oils that could be used in painting were very scarce in Sydney Cove in the first 25 years after first British settlement.

Look at Vol 4 p.754 of the Historical Records of New South Wales:

  1. If Matthew Flinders ordered linseed oil in May 1802 it probably would have arrived at Sydney Cove in early 1803. This fits with the notation in the  RCS England catalogue that the Hunterian Museum acquired the two paintings of Kangaroos that we have looked at before 1806.

2. The assumption that Lewin didn’t paint in oils in his first decade in Australia depends solely on his letter to Alexander Huey dated November 7, 1812, now held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

3. Ensign Huey spent twenty two months in Sydney from December 1809 until October 1811 and became Lewin’s pupil. Lewin wrote “You have often heard me say I should like to paint or that I would paint 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).”

4. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Lewin didn’t 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, although one that didn’t materialise while Huey was in Australia.

Discussconsider the strength and weakness of each of these points in the case for recognising that the two kangaroo paintings that have hung on the walls of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London for more than 200 years are in fact the earliest extant paintings in oil made by Europeans in settler Australia.

Apply – students could be asked to work in groups to develop short IT presentations that evaluates the evidence.