Image Indigenous Australians at the Hunter River, c1817

TLF ID R4017

This is a 17.7 cm x 27.8 cm watercolour of 12 people from the Awabakal language group with their dogs beside the Hunter River in New South Wales. It is a cloudy night but the moon has broken through and is reflected on the water. The people are gathered around campfires, possibly in two separate family groups, each with a single bark shelter. Two dogs sit near the fire of the group on the right. In the distance an island and a hill with buildings and smoke from a fire can be seen.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset features a shelter built by the Awabakal people whose traditional lands are on the NSW coast, south of the Hunter River, now partly covered by the city of Newcastle - huts were built in sheltered areas using a frame of branches, with sheets of bark, leafy branches or grass laid across the frame; in other areas, overhangs in sandstone cliffs or hollows under boulders were also used as overnight campsites.
  • It shows the people all wearing loincloths - prior to British settlement, people on the north coast of NSW wore only ornamental bands and hair or animal fur belts, adding possum or flying-fox skins in the winter; it is likely that the artist added the white material so viewers of his work would not be offended.
  • It suggests the consequences of British contact on the Indigenous population of the area, with no children shown, although the person sitting upright in the bark hut may be holding a baby wrapped in white material; high death rates, mainly through killings and disease, and low birth rates drastically reduced the original population.
  • It includes two dogs that may be dingoes (‘Canis familiaris dingo’) - Australia's only native dog probably arrived 3,000 to 6,000 years ago through trading between Indigenous Australians and Indonesian seafarers; dingoes were used for hunting but they were only partly domesticated, foraging for food and returning to the wild to breed; after the arrival of Europeans, domestic dogs replaced dingoes in Indigenous Australian communities.
  • It includes a signal station and a beacon used as a lighthouse at Signal Hill in the background - an open coal fire that could be seen for several kilometres was first lit on the hill in 1804 to guide ships into the Hunter River; Coal Island is also shown before it was joined to the mainland by a causeway built between 1818 and 1846; Nobby's Head Lighthouse now stands on what was the island.
  • It demonstrates the use of European conventions to depict the Australian landscape - the painting has elements of Neoclassicism in the formal, balanced arrangement of the landscape and the figures within it, framed by trees on either side; it also has elements of Romantic art, marked by the exotic, melancholy looking figures and the dramatic backdrop of the full moon shining through dark clouds; the simple, stiff figures and simplistic choice of colours are characteristic of the naive style of painting.
  • It is part of an important collection of paintings showing the daily life of Indigenous Australians in early colonial times - a bound album of 20 watercolours, painted before 1828 by Englishman Joseph Lycett, was bought by the National Library of Australia at Sotheby's, London, in 1972 for £9,500; the album's title page 'Drawings of the natives and scenery of Van Diemen's Land 1830' is partly incorrect as all the watercolours with identifiable locations are in NSW, near Newcastle and Port Jackson (Sydney).
  • It was painted by the convict artist Joseph Lycett, who was transported to NSW in 1814 for forgery - although four of the watercolours appear to be at least partly copied from other works, he did have some contact with Indigenous Australians as there is a record of him being wounded in an attack before he returned to England in 1822.

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: Joseph Lycett
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Description: Content provider
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: Joseph Lycett
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements