Australia’s Federation, in 1901, coincided with a new era in scientific thought. Scientists began to dig deeper into the evolutionary and bio-geographic origins of Australian fauna. Palaeontologists uncovered the remains of extinct fauna, speculating on their form and behaviour.
This period also witnessed an increasing sense of national identity forged through identification with Australia’s environment. Victoria’s first national park was created on Wilsons Promontory, and artists and scientists were increasingly drawn into the emerging conservation movement.
Ellis ROWAN (c. 1847–1922)
Gouache on coloured card
Ellis Rowan (c. 1847–1922)
The text on Ellis Rowan’s portrait of a Brooding Egret openly acknowledges a debt to Arthur Mattingly. In 1906 Mattingly visited Plumed Egrets nesting in Victoria’s Riverina, but was appalled to find ‘nearly one-third of the rookery, perhaps more ... shot off their nests ... plundered for their plumes ... There were 50 birds ruthlessly destroyed, besides their young (about 200) left to die of starvation!’ His photographs of the devastation were a catalyst for an international movement against the exploitation of exotic birds, slaughtered in the millions for the millinery trade.
By the time Rowan appropriated Mattingly’s incendiary photographs, she was famous as a botanic artist, willing to endure discomfort and danger in pursuit of her subjects. Her work blurred the distinctions between natural history illustration and fine art, with their close attention to scientific detail combined with impressionistic interpretation.
Walter BALDWIN-SPENCER (1860–1929)
Kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei)
Lithograph, and pencil on paper
Walter Baldwin-Spencer (1860–1929)
Baldwin Spencer was an anthropologist, zoologist, bio-geographer, educator and artist, who later became director of the National Museum of Victoria. While on expedition to central Australia he met the reclusive Pado Byrne at ‘Bleak House’ on the Overland Telegraph Line. Despite living in contrasting worlds the men cemented an enduring scientific partnership, with Byrne regularly sending specimens to Melbourne.
Spencer identified this Kowari as new to science and named it Dasyuroides byrnei
in honour of his distant friend. Having never encountered a living specimen of this little carnivorous marsupial, lithographer Robert Wendel misleadingly depicted it as a rat. Spencer’s precise pencil sketch of the animal’s distinctive pads provided a much more reliable means of identification.
Frank KNIGHT (b. 1941)
Marsupial Lion (Thyalacoleo carnifex)
Gouache on paper
Frank Knight (b. 1941)
In 1859, Richard Owen first described a massive fossilised skull of the ‘Marsupial Lion’, a fierce carnivore capable of bringing down a Diprotodon or a large kangaroo. 122 years later Frank Knight painted this predator attempting, leopard-like, to haul its prey into a tree. The image is remarkable for showing the Thylacoleo inhabiting a recognisably Australian landscape.
Knight depicted the marsupial with a spotted coat, but we really know little about its appearance. Recently rediscovered cave art from the Kimberley is believed to represent a hunter in combat with a large, heavily striped animal that may be Thylacoleo.
Scientific research is increasingly a collaborative and interdisciplinary process. Palaeo-illustrators today work closely with palaeontologists, analysing the relationship between living animals and their extinct relatives.