National Library of Australia

George Raper, First Fleet artist

Attributed to George Raper (1769–1797)Waratah

watercolour on paper; 40.0 x 30.5cm

National Library of Australia

When the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788, the convict and naval artists aboard were immediately set to work. Their artistic talents ranged from serviceable to advanced.

These images are from a collection of 56 watercolours discovered in 2004 during a routine art valuation. Hidden from view for more than 100 years, their colours are in an astonishingly vibrant state.

The watercolours, attributed to George Raper (1769–1797), midshipman aboard HMS Sirius, show birds and flowers of the Port Jackson area between 1788 and 1790—probably between June to November 1789, when Sirius was isolated for repairs at Careening Cove, now Mosman Bay.

Raper’s talent was not altogether rare in the Royal Navy. Officers who had to record coastal profiles and create maps were taught the basics of drawing and painting.

The artist was clearly fascinated by the brightness of the birds’ plumage. To capture the sheen on the feathers of the Bronzewing Pigeon, Raper, alone of all the First Fleet artists, used a glittering bronze paint.

Many of Raper’s images bear a remarkable likeness to the watercolours of Sirius’s second-in-command, Captain John Hunter, who probably copied Raper’s work.