The Wallis Album

In 2012, a previously unknown album of drawings from 1818, including landscapes and portraits of Aboriginal people from the Newcastle region, returned to Newcastle for a brief exhibition by the State Library of NSW. The ‘Wallis Album’ was compiled by Captain James Wallis, the Commandant of Newcastle from 1816 to 1818, in collaboration with one of the best know early colonial artists, the convicted forger Joseph Lycett.

View of Awabakal Aboriginal people c1818.

‘The Wallis Album really is, without a doubt, the most significant pictorial artefact to have been made in colonial NSW during the 1810s and is also the only known collection that relates so directly to Wallis’s time in NSW.’

Richard Neville – Mitchell Librarian, NSW State Library

What did Newcastle look like 194 years ago?

When Captain James Wallis was Commandant of Newcastle in the early 19th century, Nobbys/Whibayganba was still an island, farms and vegetable gardens existed where there are now high-rise buildings, there were dirt tracks instead of paved streets, and the first inhabitants the Awabakal proudly maintained their lands.

The album of these important and significant images of the early days of Newcastle’s history was discovered in the back of a cupboard in Canada in 2011 and was purchased by the NSW State Library for $1.8 million.

Originally transported for forgery, Joseph Lycett was sent to Newcastle in 1815 after re-offending in Sydney. Together, Wallis and Lycett were two principal documenters and promoters of the colony during the late Macquarie years. 

In New South Wales in 1819, Wallis published a set of engraved views showcasing New South Wales to the world. This book of illustrations was republished in London by Ackermann in 1821. A major achievement, the views were about the success of British enterprise in NSW, and not unnaturally focused on the achievements of Wallis. In both publications, Wallis firmly asserted his authorship via a legend beneath the images: ‘from an Original Drawing by Capt Wallis‘. Until the discovery of this album, the original drawings on which the engravings are based were thought to have been lost. Consquently, the artist of the drawings has always been contentious, as Lycett has a similar artistic style. 

Included in the Library’s Wallis album, however, are original drawings for five of these published views each bearing the inscription: ‘Drawn by a Convict‘. This clearly establishes Lycett, rather than Wallis, as the artist of the original drawings.

Wallis and Lycett’s association extended to other artistic enterprises, notably the Macquarie collector’s chests, two of the most beautiful pieces of early 19th century Australiana. Both are held in the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.

Carol Duncan interviews Dr Alex Byrne, the NSW State Librarian and Chief Executive, about the significance of this acquisition.

Carol Duncan interviews Aunty Nola Hawken, descendant of ‘Queen’ Margaret and Ned of Swansea; and the then-Director of the Newcastle Art Gallery, Ron Ramsey.

“When you see photos, and you know your own family, you think, “Do they look like our family?”

Aunty Nola Hawken

Learn more about the Wallis Album at the State Library of NSW.