In celebration of JCU's 50th Anniversary, we're looking back at our university's treasures. One of them is titled The Victorian Lady's Sketchbook. This work is housed in JCU's rare book collection and contains artwork that acts as a brief glimpse of Britain, India, and Australia over a century ago.
How the Victorian Lady's Sketchbook found its way to the Library's Rare Book Collection is unknown, but it is not the only mystery attached to this engaging treasure. Known as an "orphan work", because its creator and/or copyright owner cannot be traced, it was created in the late 19th century by an artist who clearly had a botanical turn of mind and a sensitivity to landscape. The artist's gender can only be guessed, but we have assumed the feminine.
The work comprises 40 pages of sketches and watercolours completed between 1888 and 1892. While not always in chronological order, the artist's practice of including place and date of composition on most works, enables us to follow her movements with reasonable certainty. Rural landscapes and wildflowers in parts of England and Scotland were early subjects. But, from January 1892, she was producing botanical sketches and watercolours from locations in India. By May of that year, she had reached Australia and was visiting Heidelberg in Victoria which, at the time, hosted the plein air artistic community known as the Heidelberg School. Whether our artist had any interaction with its members is unknown, but by early July she was sketching and painting flowers in New South Wales, before reaching her journey's destination in north Queensland towards the end of that month.
The artist's most accomplished and appealing landscapes were completed during her extended stay in the Bowen district, where it seems she was visiting friends or family. Several paintings reference "Albert's home", the initials "AB" and the property "Pencraig", providing clues to the owner's identity and suggesting a family link to the artist who had attached the name Pencraig to an earlier English sketch. They show the artist's appreciation of the land and seascape that surrounded the little town–then barely 30 years old–and her desire to record it as accurately as possible, often identifying major features. A picnic scene beside a river and a visit to "Birralee", a property on the Bowen River, suggest social outings and visits to the pastoral hinterland. The last-dated works, featuring botanical specimens, were made in West Java in September 1892, from which we may assume the artist was on her way home.
While we can recognise the artist's interest in the form and structure of plants, native and exotic, for north Queenslanders the real value of this work surely lies in the affectionate representations of our landscape, in the early decades of European settlement, seen through English eyes.
Whoever this artist was, and whatever the reason for their journey, the work they left behind is a gateway to the past. Seeing nature through the eyes of an artist from 130 years ago is indeed a treasure, and JCU has many more such treasures in reach of those who wish to seek them.
Special Collection items may be used on the Library premises by visiting the appropriate Reading Rooms during opening hours. Digital copies of selected items from the special collections will be made available through the repository as copyright or other restrictions allow.
If you're interested in art, history, and how we can learn from humans both past and present, consider what you can do with JCU Arts and Social Sciences.
Feature image: Michael Marzik