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image icon 'Self-portrait', c1815

'Self-portrait', c1815
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a self-portrait in oil paints on canvas, measuring 83.8 cm x 61.8 cm, by Colonel William Light (1786-1839), painted circa 1815. It shows Light dressed as a military officer with red coat and epaulettes (shoulder decorations that indicate military rank), a high black collar and cuffs, silver buttons and sash, light-coloured trousers and black riding boots with spurs, standing in a craggy landscape against a cloudy blue-grey sky. He is resting with one arm on a rocky ledge and holds a closed telescope in his left hand. He is gazing directly at the viewer with a slightly quizzical look, emphasised by his dark penetrating eyes and slightly raised eyebrows.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • This asset is a painting by the first European artist in South Australia - Light was respected not only for his gallantry in the Peninsula War but also for his lively recordings of battles and other scenes; he had been taught drawing as part of his military training, and was regarded at the time as a meticulous draughtsman and an exceptional watercolourist; he arrived in South Australia to survey the colony in 1836 and made numerous drawings and watercolours that recorded the first landing, the first settlement and Government Hut, the first bank building, and other colonial events and scenes in South Australia.
  • This asset is a self-portrait - the interesting aspect of this portrait is the way in which Light has presented himself as a romantic heroic figure; the elegantly informal pose reflects a British early 19th-century (Regency) fashion of studied or calculated informality designed to make young upwardly mobile dandies, such as Light, look dashing or at least 'interesting' in a Byronic way (the English poet Lord George Byron (1788-1824) was a leading figure in the Romantic movement); the landscape is also suitably romantic in its cragginess and brooding colours.
  • This asset depicts William Light, who was the first Surveyor-General in the colony of South Australia - Light sited and designed the colony's capital city, Adelaide (named after King William's consort Queen Adelaide), with minimal staffing and resources; Light also selected and surveyed 400 hectares of land in the Adelaide area in just two months; he had surveyed more than 600,000 hectares of land surrounding Adelaide before his resignation in 1838; he died of tuberculosis in 1839.
  • This asset references William Light's military career - the self-portrait shows Light as a young man in his twenties; he was at this time serving under the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) in Spain in the Peninsula Wars (1808-14), which were fought on the Iberian Peninsula and which pitted the Spanish, Portuguese and British forces against the Napoleonic French; Light has shown himself in his staff officer's uniform worn for this campaign; he was a liaison intelligence officer in Wellington's army, a role in which his training as a military draughtsman was put to good use.