William Westall (1781 – 1850)
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William Westall was an English artist who traveled aboard the HMS Investigator’s voyage to Australia. Westall was born in Hertford, England. Westall, like the other botanical artist on the HMS Investigator Ferdinand Bauer, was born into an artistic family. His older half brother Richard, was a member of the Royal Academy, and assisted him in securing a place for his younger half brother at the Royal Academy in 1799.
During his studies at the Royal Academy Westall’s work came to the attention of Joseph Banks, who was at the time keen to find a landscape artist for Matthew Flinders’ expedition aboard the HMS Investigator. With the support of Banks, Westall was appointed by the Admiralty in London as landscape and topographical artist on HMS Investigator.
In 1801, at the age of 19, Westall found himself aboard the HMS Investigator. The subsequent voyage of discovery to ‘Terra Australis’, has in time come to be regarded as one of the notable scientific and botanical studies ever undertaken.
Westall began sketching the Australian landscape almost as soon as he set sight of Australia on Monday 7 December 1801, when he saw King George’s Sound, Western Australia, thereby becoming the first professional artist to draw the Australian landscape painting. Many of the sketches that Westall created were coastal profiles, to assist with the important task of mapping Australian coastline.
The subsequent circumnavigation of Australia took Westall from King George’s Sound in Western Australia, across the Great Australian Bight to the South Australian gulf country, to Kangaroo Island, and thence to Port Jackson and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Particularly notable amongst the works created by Westall during the voyage are his accurate portraits of Aboriginal people and the watercolours of their cave paintings, the first European artist to depict them.
The final drawing Westall made of the journey, View of Wreck Reef Bank Taken at Low Water: Terra Australis 1803, marks the end of Flinders’ ambitious expedition. Returning to England aboard the HMS Porpoise in 1803, the ship was ran aground at Wreck Reef off the Queensland coast in August 1803, with many of Westall’s works being damaged. Surviving the wreck along with Flinders (and his cat Trim), he continued his voyage to England via China and India, arriving there in 1805.
Three years later Westall exhibited a series of watercolour views based on his Australian drawings, followed by a commission from the Admiralty to provide nine illustrations for Flinders’ book, Voyage to Terra Australis. These engravings were also published in a separately issued volume.
In 1812 Westall was elected an associate of the Royal Academy with whom he regularly exhibited his work until his death in 1850. His son gave 160 the original drawings from the HMS Investigator voyage to the Royal Commonwealth Society, London and they are now held in the National Library of Australia. In 1847 he had a serious accident which greatly affected his health, and he died at London on 22 January 1850. Still wondering about a British painting in your family collection? Contact us…we are the William Westall experts.
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