THE MISSING GEORGE TOWN SKETCHES

The Lady Nelson

The Lady Nelson

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.

Elizabeth Macquarie (nee Campbell)

Elizabeth Macquarie

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.

Water colour of Cataract Gorge, Port Dalrymple. circa 1811

Water colour of Cataract Gorge, Port Dalrymple. circa 1811

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 .

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 . The artworks included 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.

Robert Porter and his large family.

Robert Porter and his large family.

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.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE ABOUT AGNES FLOCKHART

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 to me that the town is not spelled Georgetown, as it originally appeared in this piece.

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3 Comments
  1. Pauline this is so very interesting – especially the tantalising question of Elizabeth Macquarie’s missing sketches. I have read the 1911 and 1921 Journals often over the last few years and also wondered about them.
    Thank you for highlighting the George Town ‘chapter’ of the Macquaries’ visits to VDL.
    Could I just point out though, that this George Town is one of the few that is spelt with two words.
    I know you will find it misspelt as one word throughout history and even today we see it spelt incorrectly on official plaques, advertisements, business names, and even locals’ addresses, but it IS two words and initials of organisations include the G&T – eg GTC for our Council and GT&DHS for the GT & District Historical Society Inc.!
    We have also taken issue with some latter day misinterpretations of our history, which state that Macquarie’s plan for George Town never eventuated. While it did take some time for official approval and implementation (not unlike some developments today really!),the plans were drawn up and the workforce arrived in 1815 to set about building the town.
    Macquarie handpicked some convict arrivals with the necessary skills and sent them directly to George Town and by 1819 the administration moved from Launceston to George Town.
    When Macquarie returned in 1821 he expressed great satisfaction with the implementation of his plans for George Town and noted all the buildings that were erected.
    After Bigge’s decision to move the administration back to Launceston, it didn’t develop as quickly as Macquarie envisaged, but George Town today is one of the largest towns in the state,servicing the adjacent Bell Bay industrial precinct – the state’s largest.
    George Town is a true Macquarie town. Its grid of streets that surround a central Square and stretch across both sides of York Cove remains today.
    Sadly, a large part of the central Regent Square intended as public open space, gazetted as a public recreation reserve in the 1800s and protected (we thought!) with 99-year Crown Leases, has fairly recently been alienated with the addition of two very large council and government buildings across the Macquarie St frontage.
    While the four boundaries are intact, the buildings effectively cut off two-thirds of the parkland from the main street and a roadway access to parking behind the buildings has been lined with bollards to deliberately delineate this area from Regent Square. Such is the price of ‘progress’!

    • Pauline

      Thank you so much Lorraine, not only for putting me straight re the spelling of George Town, but also for the additional information in your message. I grew up in Tasmania, but don’t remember learning anything about Macquarie’s visits or the the history of George Town. Disgraceful really….mind you that was in the late 1950’s. I will make a note in the article directing future readers to your comments.

  2. I can’t remember learning anything about Macquarie in relation to George Town either, Pauline, but history seemed to be taught as isolated stories / incidents rather than as a part of an ongoing story. I first came to George Town soon after leaving school and has no idea of its importance in the early history of Tasmania or indeed, Australia, and if you read some of the current publications and promotional material, etc it is still being ignored – even denied.
    Since retirement to this area we’ve been involved with the local historical society, which in doing all it can to promote an accurate version of George Town’s history – particularly in relation to Govr Macquarie and its establishment as the Chief Settlement in northern VDL.
    It may have only lasted as such for a few years, but George Town WAS built to Macquarie’s plans and it did NOT disappear when the administration was moved back to Launceston in 1825.
    It has been refreshing to discover your writing on our founder, Lachlan Macquarie and his family, especially the more obscure little snippets you’ve uncovered. Thanks again.

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