The Art of Science is one of those books that has something for everyone. The beautiful images created by Baudin’s artists on the voyage to New Holland in 1800–1804 are fascinating for history buffs and art lovers, young and old. Here, art historian Sasha Grishin explains the evolution of depictions of wombats, from sketches during the voyage to final printed plates.
Oseological study of wombats, Vombatus ursinus
Grey wash, ink and pencil on paper – 23.6 x 37.2 cm
Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre – n° 80 268
Over the past three decades, the story of Baudin, his artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, and their expedition to Australia in the opening decade of the nineteenth century, has moved from being an obscure curiosity to a well-known, well-researched and much-discussed episode in early Australian colonial history – and a significant event in first contact art. Lesueur and Petit could be described as ‘accidental artists”. They were nominally appointed as ‘assistant gunners’ for the voyage, but once the three official artists absconded to the Ile de France (Mauritius) in April 1801, six months into this epic journey, Lesueur and Petit became the official pictorial chroniclers for the expedition.
Thanks to exacting archival work, primarily by Jacqueline Bonnemains, we know a great deal about the lives of the two artists. Born within six months of each other, they were aged in their early twenties when they joined the expedition. Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was apparently self-trained and had a medical condition that saved him from military service, while Nicolas-Martin Petit appears to have received some training in the studio of the famous neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David. Both artists learned on the job, acquiring as the voyage progressed new skills that were commensurate with the activities of natural science artists. This was especially true of Lesueur, who developed a very close relationship with one of the expedition’s zoologists, François Péron. After the deaths of the other appointed zoologists, Stanislas Levillain and René Maugé, Lesueur also fulfilled the role of assistant senior zoologist.
Despite the challenges encountered by the expedition, an enormous amount of material was collected, with many tens of thousands of specimens, including live animals, brought back to France. Thousands of drawings were also made. In 1807, three years after the Géographe returned to France, Péron and Lesueur steered to fruition the publication of the first volume of the Atlas of the Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes with 41 lavish plates. Petit did not live to see this publication, as he died in 1804, shortly after his return to France, of complications following a minor street accident.
The drawings and paintings from the Baudin expedition present a particularly interesting case of ‘pictorial records in transition’. They not only mark the changing skill levels of the artists and their developing technical facility, they also reveal changes in their philosophical and aesthetic attitudes over the period of several years that separated the moment of first observation from the final pictorial realisation presented to the public. The purpose of the drawings also evolved: early illustrations were designed primarily for Baudin’s personal journal, whereas later illustrations were intended for a formal atlas published with Imperial patronage to commemorate the expedition. Although the design of many of these published illustrations can be attributed to a particular artist, Lesueur or Petit, the final work was a collaborative product that bore the impact of different artistic talents and competing ideologies.
A case in point is plate XXVIII in the 1807 Atlas, reproduced as plate 58 of the second edition Atlas published in 1824. This is an impressive hand-coloured copper engraving titled ‘Nouvelle-Hollande: Ile King/Le Wombat (Phascolomis Wombat N.)’. The author of the drawing is indicated on the engraving as Lesueur, but the engraving itself was executed by Choubard, while the whole project was supervised by Jacques-Gérard Milbert – one of the original artists who had set out with Baudin, but who had quarrelled with the commander and remained on the Ile de France. (In his journal, Baudin described Milbert as having ‘uselessly occupied’ his position.) This collective attribution thus raises a number of questions. To what extent is this engraving actually the work of Lesueur? When should it be dated? And what should we make of the information it conveys?
The exact chronology of Lesueur’s dealings with wombats on the Baudin voyage is a little unclear, but can to some extent be determined. Wombats were encountered by the French party throughout their voyage and on several occasions wombats travelled on board their ships. Several wombat drawings and sketches by Lesueur’s hand survive, a number of which appear to have been done on a visit to Sea Elephant Bay on King Island in late December 1802. It was likely at this stage, or shortly afterwards, that Lesueur executed two osteological studies of wombats examining their bone structures whilst in motion as well as careful studies of their skulls and claws. It was also here, in all probability, that Lesueur developed the image of the full-face frontal resting position of the wombat that would serve as a model for the wombat on the left-hand side in the final engraving. This wombat first appears in the pencil and ink sketch (80 072) that also features studies of wombat paws and Lesueur’s annotation ‘left rear foot seen from underneath’. The second incarnation is a larger watercolour, ink and pencil drawing (80 071), where the sketch has been enlivened with colour. In both instances, the wombat appears with its eyes closed, suggesting that the model may well have been a dead wombat. In the top right-hand side of the watercolour drawing there is a pencil outline of a second wombat that is shown in profile. These are zoologically accurate depictions relating to now extinct subspecies of wombats that were once abundant on King Island, but that are thought to have been exterminated by early settlers. Possibly related sub-species of wombats survive to this day on Flinders Island. There is also a curious additional sheet (80 070) with pencil and ink drawings, where Lesueur is playing with different arrangements of his wombat drawings, one showing a female wombat with four joeys. One could speculate that these were done aboard ship on the return journey, when the artist was working up his illustrations.
Sketches of wombats in various positions
Pencil and ink on paper – 22.5 x 34.5 cm
Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre – n° 80 070
The next transformation in Lesueur’s design was quite radical and was executed after his return to France in 1804. This is a large watercolour and pencil drawing on vellum (80 069-1), obviously executed with the publication in mind. Although the basic shapes of the two wombats of the earlier study (80 071) have been retained, the wombats have now been radically reinterpreted and enlivened. The docile frontal wombat has come to life with open eyes, her front paw, as in sketch 80 070, resting on a stone to give a sense of elevation, and four young wombats shown scrambling out of her pouch in front of her. Zoologically, this makes little sense as wombats usually have only a single joey, or, on rare occasions, two, so this joyous family of New Holland is a departure from scientific observation in favour of the sentimental animal pictures that were a developing trend in European nineteenth-century art. The other wombat has now become a striding male that somewhat purposelessly heads towards his mate. Lesueur, to dress up his design, has invented a narrative, but one that may not possess strict zoological accuracy in the life cycle of this docile, nocturnal creature.
Two adult wombats, Vombatus ursinus (Shaw, 1800), with four young coming out of the mother’s pouch
Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre – n° 80 069-1
It is at this stage in the process that the professional engraver Choubard, under Milbert’s supervision, has intervened (80 069-2). Although the artist’s design has been closely observed, the image has been reversed in the printing process, thus changing the momentum in the interrelationship of the figures. On a more subtle level, the wombats of Choubard and Milbert have become slightly feline-like. Lesueur’s wombat ears have been reinterpreted and the eyes have been opened even further to produce a somewhat mutant antipodean creature, somewhere between a cat, a small bear and a European badger. Despite Lesueur’s conscientious efforts, the engraving therefore introduced to the French public not only an animal that was largely unknown to Europe, but also one that was different from anything found in Australia. It was not until more than half a century later and John Gould’s majestic publication, The Mammals of Australia, that a zoologically accurate image of a wombat appeared in Europe.
New Holland: King Island. The Wombat. (Phascolomis Wombat N.)
Engraving by Choubard from a drawing by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur under the supervision of Jacques Milbert
Engraving on paper – 25 x 36 cm
Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Le Havre – n° 80 069-2
Plate XXVIII of the 1807 Atlas
Charles-Alexandre Lesueur’s illustrations of the exotic fauna of New Holland are, in the words of a recent commentator, ‘renowned for their extraordinary precision and painstaking skill in conveying the feel and touch of the live animal or bird – the kangaroo’s fur, the echidna’s quills’. However, the wombat engraving and others like it are also indicative of a certain level of invention by a collective group of artists involved to some extent in the construction an exotic fantasy. When François Péron died of tuberculosis in 1810, Lesueur hoped to continue their project with subsequent volumes, but the task of completing the publication of the voyage account was entrusted to Louis Freycinet instead. Lesueur thus became disillusioned and, fearing the loss of his modest pension, took up the lucrative invitation to go to America as a draughtsman naturalist in August 1815. He stayed away for 22 years, only returning to his native Le Havre in 1837. In 1845, he became curator of the newly established Muséum d’histoire naturelle. Lesueur died at Le Havre on 12 December 1846.
The Art of Science is available for purchase here. The exhibition of these images is touring Australia. More details here.