On November 4 1811, Governor Lachlan Macquarie left Sydney aboard the Lady Nelson to carry out an inspection tour of Van Diemen’s Land. He was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth.
After several weeks based in Hobart, the official party made its way north. By early December they had been joined by officers from the military base at Port Dalrymple, on the Tamar River. Among the officers was Lieutenant William Thomas Lyttleton, who had been part of the regiment which accompanied the Macquaries to New South Wales in 1809.
In the ensuing days the Governor’s party toured local beauty spots, including Cataract Gorge and The Basin. The spectacular views were particularly appreciated by Elizabeth Macquarie, who enjoyed sketching. She found a kindred spirit in Lieut. Lyttleton, an accomplished amateur artist.
Lachlan Macquarie considered that Port Dalrymple (now Launceston) had been located too far inland and decided to establish an alternative administration centre to serve the Island’s north. He chose a site near the head of the Tamar, naming it George Town, in honour of King George III. His diary entry of Wednesday, December 18 reads,
‘..I have resolved to erect a new Town here…and to name it “George Town” in honour of our beloved Sovereign.’
Clearly the Macquaries enjoyed their break from vice regal responsibilities. In diary entries covering the period, the Governor consistently refers to the officers from Port Dalrymple as ‘our friends’. Informality was the order of the day;
‘Our Dinner having been cooked on board, and brought on shore, we dined very comfortably in our Tent, and drank prosperity to George Town, shortly to be erected here.—The evening being very fine Mrs Macquarie and myself Slept on Shore in our Tent, which was pitched on the future scite [sic] of the new intended Town, and probably on that part of it in which the principal Square will be erected and formed—‘
Macquarie’s record of the following day’s activities has the flavour of a ‘boys own adventure’. He enthusiastically plans his northern capital, deciding where Government House will stand and marking out an adjoining domain… heady stuff, even for a man of Macquarie’s authority.
‘After we had breakfast I had two Boards, with GEORGE TOWN PAINTED ON THEM, NAILED UP TO CONSPICUOUS Trees on the West and East side of the Cove, to mark out the intended scite [sic] of the new Town; that on the West Side being nailed on a Tree close to our tent. – I also marked out the proper place for a Government Wharf and Public Stores & Granery to be built on the west side of the Cove; and near the Point on the same side, I had a Tree marked where the Government House is to be built, with a suitable Piece of Ground to be annexed thereto as a Domain.’
He went on to say; ‘Whilst I was thus employed Mrs M and Lieut. Lyttleton were taking drawings of York Cove, Green Island at the entrance of it, the River, and the fine surrounding scenery. ‘
One senses the Governor’s delight in having the scene recorded on such an auspicious occasion. For Elizabeth, the sketches would also serve as a memento of the happy, companionable time she had enjoyed with her husband away from the stifling formality of Sydney’s Government House. Significantly, there was only one other occasion when Macquarie’s diaries mention his wife sketching the landscape. This was in 1815, during the couple’s official ‘progress’ across the Blue Mountains.
COMMISSIONER BIGGE GIVES GEORGE TOWN THE THUMBS DOWN
Unfortunately, the Governor’s enthusiasm for George Town was not shared by Commissioner John Bigge, whose adverse reports on the colony contributed to Macquarie’s resignation, and his return to England in 1822. Bigge described the settlement on the Tamar as being situated, ’…on a flat, sterile tract of ground three miles from the river’s mouth.’ He advised that the site be abandoned and needless to say, George Town’s illustrious future envisaged by Macquarie did not eventuate.
William Lyttleton would surely have treasured and preserved the drawings he completed in the company of the Governor’s wife. One romantic possibility is that he presented them to his then fiancé, Anne Horton, who became his wife just three weeks later, on January 4th 1812. However, the whereabouts of the sketches is unknown
In 1814 Lyttleton’s regiment was posted to Ceylon, and he and Anne sailed from Sydney with their daughter Rebecca. Subsequently they spent time in England, but eventually the family returned to Tasmania, where William was granted land near Launceston. He named his property Hagley, after his ancestral home in Worcestershire. In 1829 William was appointed Launceston’s Police Magistrate. He retired to England in 1836 and died there three years later. There is a memorial to him in the chapel at London’s Kensal Green cemetery, where he was buried.
One of Lyttleton’s early paintings of Port Dalrymple is held by the Library of New South Wales. It is a tiny watercolour measuring just 4.¾” by 7.⅝”. The picture was donated by Lyttleton’s great-grandson, Mr L. Ramsay Turner in November 1937 and has been dated between 1810 and 1814. Perhaps the George Town sketches are held by other Lytteleton descendants, and will one day reappear.
We are also left with the question of what happened to the sketches of the settlement completed by Elizabeth Macquarie. In 1914 a woman from New York called Agnes Flockhart wrote to Sydney’s Mitchell Library enclosing a statutory declaration in which she claimed to own various artworks once belonging to the Macquarie family. Agnes had inherited them from her father, Robert Porter. Between 1852 and 1862, Porter had been Estate Manager on the Macquarie family estate of Glenforsa on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. When he lost his position he ‘spirited away’ a large number of antiques and artworks, including ‘four pictures by Mrs Macquarie’. Surprisingly, the Library purchased only one item from the list, an oil painting (artist unknown) dating from the Macquarie era and believed to portray an Australian Aborigine. Regrettably, apart from the statutory declaration, the correspondence between the Library and Agnes Flockhart has vanished. We therefore have no detailed description of the artworks by the Governor’s wife, or the reason they were not considered worthy of purchase.
Agnes Flockhart had no children. She died in London on March 24th 1951. Regrettably, as with the Lyttleton sketches, the fate of the works by Mrs Macquarie is a mystery. It is tantalizing to think that they may have included one or more of the George Town drawings. If so, an important part of Tasmania’s heritage may one day turn up in a London auction room!
FOOTNOTE: William Lyttleton’s son, Thomas (1826-1876) was also an artist. He is known for his paintings of racehorses, a number featuring the poet and jockey Adam Lindsay Gordon. A picture by Thomas titled Adam Lindsay Gordon Riding at Dowling Forest Racetrack, Ballarat, 1869 is held by the State Library of Victoria. Thomas Lyttleton’s works are rare and therefore very valuable. In 1985 one of his paintings sold in London for twenty two thousand pounds. However, I suspect the historic sketches his father completed at George Town may be worth a great deal more.
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NB….for more on the history of George Town, please read the comments left below by Lorraine. I must also thank her for pointing out the correct spelling of the town.
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