Where were the Hunterian Museum Kangaroos Painted? Why Does it Matter?

The National Gallery in London defines Provenance:

‘Provenance refers to the history of the ownership of a painting or other work of art. Information about the ownership of a painting can come from a range of sources, including contemporary descriptions, inventories of collections, inventory numbers on the paintings themselves and auction sale.’

It has been suggested that the two London paintings depict kangaroos that had been brought to English zoos and parks from Australia in the early 1800s. But this was never stated to be the case by the Hunterian Museum’s cataloguer when they were acquired or over the following decades when he was still in post. Is it possible that John Lewin was painting in the Picturesque style in Sydney? And that there were parts of the Australia that was being progressively explored that did look like English parks?

Why is it important to confirm the Provenance of an historic work of art? If the two London paintings are indeed the earliest extant oil painting made in Australia by a European settler how would this affect the historical and indeed monetary value put on them?

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 UK 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.

Discuss – Would the two London kangaroo paintings be more or less important than Stubbs’ painting of a stuffed kangaroo pelt in London in settler Australian art history if they are the earliest surviving example of European settler oil painting?

Apply – Students can work in groups to reach a view on this question and present it in a short IT presentation to the class to assess the prevailing opinion and reasons.

Thomas Watling, A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove, 1794. State Library of New South Wales.
John William Lewin, Kangaroos. The Royal College of Surgeons of England;
John William Lewin, Kangaroos. The Royal College of Surgeons of England;
Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews;
John William Lewin, View from Governor Bligh’s Farm, Hawkesbury, New South Wales c.1806-10;
John William Lewin, The Plains at Bathurst
[River bank, Bathurst?, ca. 1815 / attributed to J.W. Lewin] State Library of New South Wales
James Ward, R.A., An Oak Tree in Richmond Park with a Herd of Fallow Deer Beside It
Chatsworth Park from the Garden. Photograph by Matthew Bullen.
A herd of fallow deer in Richmond Park, Surrey, UK. Nadia Isakova / AWL Images.