National Library of Australia

Thomas Watling’s Sydney Cove

[possibly] Thomas Watling (1762–c.1814)A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove 1794

oil on canvas; 91.0 x 121.0cm

Presented by Sir William Dixson, 1929

Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales
A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove 1794

Although his time in Australia was brief, Thomas Watling (1762–c.1814) left an extraordinary legacy: the single largest collection of early colonial art.

Sentenced to 14 years in Australia in 1792 for forging a bank note, Watling is best remembered for his natural history drawings and portraits of Aboriginal people, though he preferred landscapes.

A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove depicts the colony in 1794, just seven years after settlement. It is the earliest oil painting of Sydney.

The inscription on the back of the canvas is unequivocal: Painted immediately from nature by T. Watling. But Watling is not known to have painted in oils. Indeed, there is no record of any colonial artist using oils until 1812. Despite the inscription, it might have been painted later from drawings by Watling.

Watling was rarely enamoured of the scenes before him. In a letter to his aunt, later published in a collection entitled Letters from an Exile at Botany-Bay to his Aunt in Dumfries, Watling said: ‘The landscape painter may in vain seek here for that beauty which arises from happy-opposed off-scapes.’

Watling left for Scotland in 1800 after receiving an absolute pardon in 1797.