Joseph Lycett: From money forger to Australian artist

Aborigines fishing by torchlight Lycett's depictions of Aboriginal life in Australia were more sympathetic than many artists of the era

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On a prison ship bound for Sydney in 1814, a convict named Joseph Lycett claimed to be a portrait painter.

But the only real evidence of his artistic skill was the forged bank notes he created. They had earned him a 14-year sentence in Britain's new penal colony.

Lycett was among thousands of criminals transported to Australia in the 19th Century to ease the pressure on heaving prisons back home.

This remarkable conman would go on to make his name as an artist, creating watercolours that became one of Australia's earliest publicity campaigns, before his life ended in tragedy.

"As an artist, really he merits barely a footnote in the history of the Australian art," says Edmund Capon, presenter of BBC Four's The Art of Australia.

The Art of Australia

Edmund Capon

Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, explores Australia's art history.

"[Lycett's images] are descriptive, topographical, they don't really invite an emotional response from the viewer."

"But through his work he has more than earned his place on the stage of the nation's history."

Hard labour

Lycett was born in Staffordshire in 1774. On his arrival in Sydney he worked as a clerk in the police office, but soon fell back into his criminal ways.

The colony was flooded with forged five shilling promissory notes, and Lycett was caught red-handed with a copper plate press in his possession.

He was sent for three years hard labour to Newcastle - a harsh penal institution 150km north of Sydney.

"He could not help himself. He was an inveterate forger and was soon at it again," says Capon, who served for thirty years as Director of Australia's Art Gallery of New South Wales.

"Newcastle was a hell-hole. Brutal punishments, toiling all day in coal mines, absolutely horrific."

Parramatta, New South Wales from Views in Australia An idealised view of life in the new colonies was depicted for a British audience

But Lycett's luck was in. By coincidence he had travelled on his prison ship with a Captain James Wallis.

Wallis became commandant of the Newcastle camp and championed Lycett's artistic talent. He put him to work designing a church building, and painting scenes of life in the colony.

Lycett's watercolours offered an insight into the developing settlements, the unusual new landscape, and the habits of Newcastle's indigenous Awabakal people.

Start Quote

The pictures must have seemed like postcards from an alien planet”

End Quote Edmund Capon
Aboriginal tradition

He gained remarkable access - capturing Aboriginal traditions such as the corroboree celebration that few Europeans would have seen.

Although Lycett's work was not an undignified representation of Aboriginal life, his depiction of fishing, hunting and roaming showed them less as equals, and more as part of the strange flora and fauna of the new land.

And in deference to British discomfort with nudity, he covers their bodies with loincloths.

Lycett's work brought him a considerable level of privilege compared to his miserable fellow prisoners, who never featured in his paintings.

"It was no doubt an idealised view," adds Capon. "During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Newcastle was as rough a place as it was possible to be.

Corroboree around a camp fire Lycett had unique access to paint a traditional Aboriginal corroboree celebration

"But it was in Lycett's interest to reflect it as nice and civilised."

"If he were to have depicted the discomfort, the violence, the anger, it would hardly have boosted his image in the eyes of the authorities."

Lycett's paintings were used by Captain Wallis to ingratiate himself with his own boss, Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie later sent these manicured images back to London to report on how well the penal colony was developing.

Selling the sunshine

Views in Australia

Lycett's Views in Australia, published in parts in 1824 and 1825, provides the most dazzling account of the early colony ever produced.

Its illustrations might inform historians now but, like many travel brochures, it offered a sanitised version of the land. Its lush green gardens might have been seen in England. Many famous Australian publicity campaigns followed Lycett's early efforts:

  • Ten Pound Poms, 1945 - After World War II, a new life in the sun must have seemed like a dream to Brits, enchanted by a fare of just £10. More than 1.5 million went. But those without savings were housed in former Army barracks, so many became the stereotype "whinging Poms".
  • Shrimp on the Barbie, 1984 - This infamous TV campaign featured a pre-Crocodile Dundee Paul Hogan extolling the virtues of his homeland for an American audience. He promised to "slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you".
  • There's Nothing Like Australia, 2010 - The latest tourist ads highlight, just as Lycett did, the flora and fauna, and unusual fertility and richness of the country. It shows images of the Sydney Opera House, Uluru and Great Barrier Reef.

Lycett's artistic efforts were rewarded. He was pardoned by Macquarie just two days prior to the end of his governorship in 1822 and was able to return to England.

Brutally injured

For a short time life back home seems to have held promise. Lycett produced large lithographs of Sydney and Hobart - although the second location is almost certainly a work of imagination. Ever the conman, Lycett was never known to have set foot there.

He also produced 48 illustrations of landscapes, towns and colonial properties in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, which were collected in his most famous work, Views in Australia.

"It amounted to a promotional brochure for Australia as a settlement," says Capon. "There was a fashion for these exotic books from abroad.

"Looking at emus and kangaroos, the pictures must have seemed like postcards from an alien planet."

Unfortunately the book did not sell as well as hoped, and Lycett returned to his old practice of forging banknotes.

Now living in Birmingham, around 1825, he was caught once again by police for the same crime that first sent him to Australia. Rather than be taken by the authorities, Lycett brutally injured himself by cutting his own throat.

A hand-written note inside a copy of Views in Australia, held by the State Library of New South Wales, records Lycett's fate as he recovered in hospital.

"He tore open his healing wounds and chose death instead," says Capon.

Fearing transportation for the second time, it was a tragic end for the man whose life's work was tailored to present 19th Century Australia as a place fit for immigration.

The Art of Australia continues on BBC Four at 21:00 BST on Tuesday 15th October. It is available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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