Thomas Watling: Dumfries criminal and Australian artist

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Image caption,
Thomas Watling's work has been praised for its "delicacy and deft technique"

Thomas Watling's talent was both a blessing and a curse.

It allowed him to produce a collection of artworks which now resides in the Natural History Museum and captures a key moment in Australian history.

But it also nearly saw him sentenced to death and probably destroyed his reputation in his native Scotland.

A Dumfries boy described as a "bit of a chancer", he is now lauded as an artist of "delicacy and deft technique".

The soldier's son was born in the south of Scotland town on 19 September 1762 and raised by an aunt after both his parents died when he was a child.

As a young man, he quickly realised his artistic gifts could be a source of income.

He set up his own academy where he taught "drawing to ladies and gentlemen for a guinea a month".

However, those earnings must have been insufficient as in 1788, aged 26, he was arrested and charged with forging at least 12 Bank of Scotland one guinea notes.

It was a capital offence at the time.

He denied the crime but as the case against him mounted he evidently realised he had little chance of being cleared.

Instead, he filed a petition requesting transportation and was duly sentenced to 14 years in Botany Bay.

En route to Plymouth, he was one of two prisoners who helped to avert a shipboard mutiny by fellow convicts.

It earned one of them a pardon but not Watling, in July 1791 he was one of 410 convicts who sailed for New South Wales.

He escaped during a stop over at Cape Town but was arrested and finally reached Australia in October the following year.

Dumfries writer Tom Pow, who is researching a poetic biography of Watling, said the arrival in a new nation had a profound effect.

"He was a bit of a chancer, but he was obviously somebody who was talented," he said.

Image caption,
Much of Watling's work captures the flora and fauna of Australia in the late 18th century

"He went to Australia and it is as if the moment in Australia, the conditions in Australia brought the best out of him as an artist."

Lisa Di Tommaso, special collections librarian at the National History Museum, said his talents meant he was swiftly in demand.

"Watling was the first professional artist that arrived in the colony," she said.

"He was recognised and almost 'snapped up' very quickly by John White, surgeon-general of the colony, who was looking to publish a second book.

"He had already published a popular book on the flora and fauna of Australia and was looking to publish a second volume."

Watling, she said, was happy to avoid the back-breaking work endured by other convicts but disliked producing artworks on demand, hated the weather and was dismissive of the landscape.

Nonetheless, he produced an important body of work.

Ms Di Tommaso described his portraits of the Aboriginal people as "quite amazing" especially compared with the work of other ship's artists around the world who often depicted native people in a "deprecating" and "caricatured" way.

"Watling chose to portray a lot of the local Aboriginal people in a very sensitive and humanising way which was incredibly unusual and the pictures are absolutely exquisite," she said.

The Watling collection comprises nearly 500 drawings, more than 100 signed by the artist and others reckoned to be "clearly his work".

They are recognised as documenting an important time in the history of Australia, the Commonwealth and the Aboriginal people.

Yet his skills do not seem to have been appreciated when he returned home.

"When he left Australia after he was pardoned after seven years he was a very skilled artist in terms of natural observations and, you would have thought, a very desirable artist," said Mr Pow.

"And yet on his return to Dumfries - we think via Calcutta - he doesn't seem to have been able to make anything of himself at all and, in fact, was subsequently charged again with forgery."

"Perhaps he was spurned somewhat because of his convict past," added Ms Di Tommaso.

He later moved to London where it is thought he died although neither the date nor place of his death has been precisely established.

His works, however, can still be seen to this day.

The National Library of Australia also includes them in a list of national treasures.

"Although his time in Australia was brief, Thomas Watling left an extraordinary legacy: the single largest collection of early colonial art," it states.

But the stigma of a conviction for forgery meant his skills were never appreciated or encouraged in his homeland.

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