View of Sir Edward Pellew's Group, Gulf of Carpentaria, December 1802

This is one of the ten paintings by Westall of Matthew Flinders' Australian voyage (1801-03) that the Admiralty commissioned from 1809 (ZBA7914, 7935-7936, 7938-7944): they were completed over the next three years. It shows a beach view from an offshore island towards another, with a high mainland coast beyond. In the foregound, in front of six coconut palms grouped round a large rock, is an Aboriginal shelter of vegetation over a rounded frame, with two tall drum-shaped objects inside. Though of unknown purpose to Westall, who included them as suitably evocative 'alien' details for pictorial reasons, these are cylinders containing memorial stones to ancestors of the local Yanyuwa aboriginal people. Beyond the palms lies the beach edge and sea. Six small white birds with red/pink wings wheel in the sunlit sky and another five white, larger water birds fly lower down over the sea, with a group of three on the ground to the right of the shelter. The pink-winged birds are an unidentifiable small form of parrot (possibly Westall's imperfect recollection of one). Those on the ground appear to be Radjah shelducks. These are widespread in New Guinea and Australia, but generally in wetland such as mangrove swamps, so may be an example of Westall's picturesque licence with details.

The islands lie very close to the coast in the south-west of the Gulf of Carpentaria, northern Australia. They were previously sighted from seaward in 1644 by Tasman, who mistoook them for part of a headland that he (and Flinders) called Cape Vanderlin. Westall's view may be from Observation Island, where Flinders landed, towards the mainland. He noted on 16 December 1802: 'The botanical gentlemen [Brown, the naturalist and the artist Ferdinand Bauer] landed abreast of the ship, and lieutenant Flinders [Matthew's brother, Samuel] went to commence a series of observations for the rates of the time keepers on the small isle, thence called Observation Island. My attention was attracted by a cove in the western shore, upon the borders of which, more abundantly than elsewhere, grew a small kind of cabbage palm, from whence it was called Cabbage-tree Cove.' Westall's view is also from the west side but apparently not from within this long and shallow cove. Flinders later named the island group after Pellew (subsequently Viscount Exmouth), a celebrated fighting officer and seaman of the French-war period from 1793, but mainly for Pellew's attempts - while Commander-in-Chief in the East Indies from 1805 - to get him released from French detention on Mauritius.

The image was engraved as one of the nine plates in Flinders' ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis' (1814, and also in that year in Westall's 'Views of Australian Scenery') in which it is the second in Flinders, vol. 2, illustrating the passage given above and captioned ‘View in Sir Edward Pellew’s Group, Gulph of Carpentaria’. It appears to be the second Australian painting - the other is ZBA7941 - that Westall exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812, the year he was elected ARA, as 'View from one of Seaforth's islands, in the gulph of Carpentaria, in lat. 15° 16", South long. 136° 40' east, discovered by Capt. Flinders, Dec. 16, 1802. Painted by command of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to illustrate Capt. Flinders's voyage'. 'Seaforth's islands' remains to be clarified, though misreadings of artists' titles for the annual Academy exhibitions are fairly common: artists often wrote them on labels - not always legibly - on the back of frames, from which they were re-transcribed for the printed catalogues. For other notes on the group see ZBA7914. [PvdM 1/18]

Object Details

ID: ZBA7944
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Pacific Encounters Gallery
Creator: Westall, William
Date made: circa 1811
People: South London Art Gallery
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Frame: 797 mm x 1052 mm x 110 mm;Painting: 610 mm x 864 mm

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