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image icon 'The mountain pheasant (lyrebird)'

'The mountain pheasant (lyrebird)'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This watercolour by Richard Browne (1776-1824), measuring 37.0 cm x 28.5 cm, shows a lyrebird perched gracefully on a small pile of stones. It was painted in 1819.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is typical of a kind of natural history painting that began to appear in colonial New South Wales around 25 years after initial settlement (1788) - by this time there was a growing need, not only for studies of Aboriginal people and views of the settlement's progress, but also of homesteads, pastoral development and the natural landscape, including flora and fauna
  • is an extraordinary image by one of the most enterprising artists active in New South Wales in the early 19th century - Richard Browne, an Irish convict, arrived in Australia in 1811, where he helped to fill the continuing demand for natural history subjects of animals and birds in watercolour; he also produced multiple images of Aboriginal individuals, in which he used the Regency-style device of the silhouette to portray personality types; although these were neither sympathetic portraits nor accurate anthropological recordings, they still appealed to a wide public audience
  • references the role played by early settlement artists (including John Lewin (1770-1819) and Joseph Lycett (1774-1828)) in making a contribution to the published scientific exploration and documentation of Australia in the first half-century of settlement; when sent to Newcastle in 1811, Browne was employed by the commandant of the garrison, Thomas Skittowe, to produce illustrations for a manuscript he intended to publish, entitled 'Select specimens from nature'; the mountain pheasant was included in the set of 27 watercolour drawings made by Browne for this publication
  • is an example of how artists like Browne (and some other early colonial artists) used design systems to 'improve' on natural appearances - Browne was operating from a late-18th-century European perspective, which saw Australia as a strange place filled with exotic species of plants and creatures; his animals and birds are stylised and look like caricatures; the bird depicted is the superb lyrebird ('Menura novaehollandiae'); it derives its name from the shape of the male bird's tail, which looks like a lyre (an ancient Grecian harp), with the outer, larger, brown and white feathers looking like the frame, and the inner, fine feathers resembling the strings; in this painting, the delicate curves of the legs, body and neck are echoed by the lines of the tail, which unfolds like a delicate fan
  • suggests that the artist may have drawn this work from memory or a written account, rather than from direct observation - in the 19th century, as now, the lyrebird might have been an elusive bird for an artist to observe
  • helps to give an insight into the minds and imaginations of early settlers encountering Australian creatures for the first time - in his 'Select specimens', Skittowe describes the lyrebird as follows: 'MAMURA SUPERBA: Commonly called the Mountain Pheasant, this Bird is Remarkable for the Beautiful Plumage of its Tail, and found amongst the Rocky Cliffs of the Mountains of which it seems to be an Inhabitant: with the exception of the Tail its Beauties are no more than those of a Dusky coloured Barn Door Fowl but it is said however to possess a Sweet Note, by those who have had the pleasure of hearing it. Native Name Golgol'.