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image icon 'Fish catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour'

'Fish catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a most unusual painting of the early 19th century that shows a highly creative arrangement of freshly caught fish - some are lying on the sand, while others appear to be floating as if they are still in the waters of Sydney Harbour (visible in the background). The types of fish shown, portrayed in their actual sizes relative to each other, were common to the harbour waters almost 200 years ago; they include (from the top) snapper, hammerhead shark, crimson squirrelfish, estuary perch, rainbow wrasse and sea mullet. Painted in oils by Australia's first professional artist, John Lewin (1770-1819), the work measures 86.5 cm x 113.0 cm. It depicts a site that today has iconic status within Australia - the fish are arranged on the shore at Kirribilli Point; the view behind the fish stretches south across Sydney Harbour to Dawes Point, where the southern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is now located; in the distance, the hip-roofed guardhouse and flagpole of the former Dawes Point Battery can also be seen.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is one of the most remarkable and certainly the most spectacular of the natural history paintings of the early Australian colonial era - natural history painting evolved from long-established traditions in European art that involved artists, often working alongside scientists, recording and classifying the natural world; the tradition of natural history illustration and art continues today
  • is linked to the European still-life painting tradition - Dutch artists of the 17th century excelled in interpreting still-life subjects that celebrated life's riches; the inclusion of fish as subjects within still-life painting has its own traditions and can be found in some Italian and Spanish painting of the 17th century
  • is an unusual painting within the body of Australian colonial art - it seems to be a combination of a straightforward natural history painting, a decorative still life, and a sporting painting of a proud fisherman's catch
  • is linked to the tradition of sporting painting (sometimes referred to as 'hunt'n', fish'n', shoot'n'' painting), which enjoyed great popularity in Britain at the time
  • is the work of John Lewin, a significant colonial artist - Lewin trained in London as a natural history painter and arrived in Sydney in 1800, where he continued painting up until his death in 1819
  • is the earliest known oil painting to have been created in Australia
  • is a skillfully executed work - a feature of Lewin’s technique is the use of thin glazes of colour to capture the opalescence of the fish scales and the pearly quality of the sky
  • suggests the creative attitude that this artist adopted towards his work - Lewin was the first artist known to have crossed the Harbour to record the view shown here; this view is still popular with artists and photographers.