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image icon 'Sea mouth of the Murray', 1844

'Sea mouth of the Murray', 1844
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a watercolour painting, dated 1844, by George French Angas (1822-86). It measures 26.0 cm x 35.6 cm and presents a view of the mouth of the Murray River seen from low sand hills in the foreground. Part of a whale skeleton can be seen on the sand flats near the centre of the work. To the left is a group of pelicans. Various other sea birds are dotted around in front of the rolling breakers that run in foam-streaked lines through the middle of the image. A high dune in the middle distance adds visual interest to an otherwise almost featureless stretch of coastline.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by George French Angas - Angas was the eldest son of the wealthy founder and chairman of the South Australian Company, George Fife Angas (1789-1879), who was a key figure in the establishment of the colony of South Australia in 1836; George French Angas was a naturalist and a skilled illustrator who arrived in Adelaide in 1844 when the colony was just eight years old; he immediately began a series of inland and coastal trips, sketching images of Indigenous Australians and their customs, the landscape and native fauna, and Adelaide scenes; his intention was to use these sketches as the basis for a series of (lithographic) print albums, which would provide British people with information about the new colony, its natural features and progress
  • captures the isolated and ever-moving atmosphere of the river-mouth landscape - in March 1844 Angas travelled south from Adelaide down the Fleurieu Peninsula and returned, in all probability, via Encounter Bay to the sea mouth of the Murray River and the river port of Goolwa; Angas described the river-mouth area in the following way: 'one continuous wall of foam shuts out the horizon, the surf rollers meeting the current of the river with impetuous force. Around is a wilderness of sand; and as the repeated lines of rollers rise and break upon the shore with a hollow moaning sound, the dull chime of their waves is responded to by the harrowing shrieks of multitudes of sea fowl that resort thither'
  • demonstrates Angas's skill in working with watercolour and composing images - the artist has used light washes of colour to capture the hazy, bright atmospheric light characteristic of this wild and windswept area; he has also used a minimum of detail to describe the foreground grasses and distant birdlife and to convey an impression of the constant movement of shifting sands and rolling foam; the whale skeleton is a 'mood setter' designed to convey the artist's feelings about this place, which he described as 'dreary and desolate'
  • references a significant historical site - the sandy bluff in the middle distance, known as Barker's Knoll, was named after explorer Captain Collett Barker, who may have been killed by Indigenous Australians after swimming across the mouth of the Murray River in 1831; the brutal treatment of Indigenous Australians by sealers and whalers in the upper south-east area of SA was often the reason for occasional acts of retaliation against settlers; Barker's Knoll has since been eroded by wind and water and no longer exists but Captain Barker is commemorated by Mt Barker and a township of the same name in the Adelaide Hills
  • references a significant Australian natural site - the Murray River is the largest river in Australia in terms of its catchments area and annual flow; the river flows into the sea near the river port of Goolwa as a series of channels and bars; seasonal droughts and increased domestic and agricultural use of the waters from the Murray River have contributed to the clogging and sometimes closure of the mouth; today, the rate of flow of the river into the sea is seen as an indicator of the health of the entire Murray River system.