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Home > View & Discuss > Louise Anemaat on the unseen art of the First Fleet

Louise Anemaat on the unseen art of the First Fleet

  • Date recorded: 1 Mar 2019

  • Duration: 52:14

'As responses to those bewildering and captivating first encounters, drawings such as these are like a time capsule that connect us with the unique pre-European natural environment in the Sydney Basin.'

–Louise Anemaat

About this video

Presenting the 2019 Foxcroft Lecture, Louise Anemaat from the State Library of New South Wales looks at early-colonial drawings included in the Derby collection, acquired by the library in 2011.

These rare watercolours and etchings from the first decade at Sydney Cove emerged after a period of 170 years, casting new light on our understanding of colonial art and providing an opportunity to re-evaluate our assumptions.

Invariably undated and unsigned, these striking depictions of Australian birds, plants, fish and mammals have now been compared with images in similar collections. Louise explains that the duplication of images across collections makes it clear that Sydney Cove artists were working collaboratively, and that paintings were shared and refined in much the same way as stories and gossip in the closed community of Sydney Cove.

The grace and beauty of the artworks also show that amid the starvation, suffering and sense of futility of Sydney Cove's early days, some found the time to capture their new environment in a drawing.

Louise also provides insights into issues of provenance in the art world, showing how analysis of composition, paint, paper and watermarks can reveal where an artwork was created and whether the artist was a convict, surgeon or naval officer.

Image sources

State Library of NSW, Sydney
National Library of Australia, Canberra
Natural History Museum, London
Linnean Society, London
Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand
Göttingen State and University Library, Germany


Louise Anemaat is Executive Director, Library and Information Services, at the State Library of New South Wales. Louise publishes and lectures widely on the Library's collections, and has worked closely on the acquisition, processing and curation of the manuscript and pictures collections over many years.

She is the author of Natural curiosity: Unseen art of the First Fleet (NewSouth Publishing, 2014), an analysis of the traditions of natural history art production in Australia and Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries.