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image icon 'The 'Admella' wrecked, Cape Banks, 6th August, 1859'

'The 'Admella' wrecked, Cape Banks, 6th August, 1859'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting, measuring 68.5 cm x 97.7 cm, by South Australian colonial artist James Shaw (1815-81), who settled in Adelaide in 1850. It shows a ship, wrecked on a reef and being torn apart by mountainous waves. Morning is breaking and in the gathering light it is possible to see that the vessel has been broken into several sections. The forward section is keeling over, and figures can be seen clinging desperately to the tangled mess of spars and rigging. One figure dangles above a waiting shark. On the stern section other figures, some clearly women and children, are lined up along a rail. Wind-torn, red-tinged clouds above and foam-flecked waves below contribute to the general mood of desperate action and the impression that this ship and everyone on it are in their death throes.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a shipwreck painting - shipwrecks as subjects for paintings have a strong tradition within western European painting; many artists, including Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made paintings based on the theme of shipwrecks
  • is a commemorative history painting; it references a significant event in colonial South Australian and Australian maritime history - The 'Admella' was a sailer-steamer that made a regular run between Melbourne and Adelaide (thus its name); it ran aground on the night of 6 August 1846, off the lower south-east coast of South Australia near present-day Mount Gambier; most of the crew and passengers in the forward (bow) section were washed away; survivors clung to the wreckage for eight days before being rescued: only 24 people from a total of 113 survived; many people in Adelaide followed news of the rescue through the messages that were sent by daily telegraph to the Adelaide Post Office
  • depicts an event that was commemorated by a variety of creative talents - Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-70) wrote a poem; Charles Hill (1824-1915) and George French Angas (1822-86) and other artists made re-enactment paintings
  • is a lively painting by one of South Australian colonial art's most enterprising artists - James Shaw was originally qualified as a lawyer but pursued a career as a self-trained artist; from 1861 he worked as a full-time photographer and painter (principally house portraits); while his style of expression was formal and lacking in the skills associated with professional training it had the advantage of being accurate in terms of observation and meticulous in detail
  • shows how enterprising colonial artists like Shaw used dramatic effects to build a sense of mood and action - for example, the dark tones of the foreground reinforce the foreboding mood of the scene and the sense of threat created by the white foam and sea spray
  • references colonial maritime technology: The 'Admella' was a 'steamer-sailer' - that is, it could travel under sail but also as a coal-fuelled (300 horsepower) steamer; it was considered to be unsinkable because it had three watertight bulkheads (a similar principle to that of the 'Titanic'); when it ran across the reef (the Carpenter's Rocks, so-called because the reef profile resembled an upturned carpenter's saw) it virtually snapped into pieces and the bow section sank within 15 minutes
  • is a vivid reminder of the perils faced by maritime explorers, migrants and travellers within the colonial period.