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Lycett, Joseph (1774–1825)

by Rex Rienits

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Joseph Lycett (b.1774?), convict and artist, was born in Staffordshire, England. By profession a portrait and miniature painter, he was convicted of forgery at Salop Assizes on 10 August 1811 and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. He sailed in the transport General Hewitt, in which Captain James Wallis, of the 46th Regiment, an amateur artist of considerable ability, was coming out for a tour of duty. He reached Sydney in February 1814 and was soon appointed a clerk in the police office.

In May 1815 Sydney was flooded by hundreds of skilfully forged 5s. bills drawn on the postmaster. They were traced to Lycett, who was found in possession of a small copper-plate press. He was convicted of forgery and sent to Newcastle. Discipline there was strict and punishments were severe, but Lycett's lot appears to have become comparatively easy after Wallis became commandant in June 1816. Lycett drew up the plans for a church which Wallis projected and, when it was built in 1818, he painted the altar piece; he is said to have also produced the three-light window which still survives in the bishop's vestry of Newcastle Cathedral. He received a conditional pardon on Wallis's recommendation. In 1819-20 he executed many private commissions. In February 1820 Governor Lachlan Macquarie sent to Lord Bathurst three of his drawings, including a large view of Sydney. It is generally believed that the absolute pardon which the artist received on 28 November 1821 was a reward for these.

Lycett, whose 'habits of intoxication' were 'fixed and incurable', according to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge, had possibly married in the colony, for in June 1822 he advertised that he intended to leave accompanied by his two daughters. They sailed together in the Shipley in September.

Lycett had already planned to publish in England a book of Australian views. There were to be twelve sets, published monthly, each with two aquatint views of New South Wales and two of Van Diemen's Land, with descriptive letterpress, and a supplement with maps of both colonies. By permission the series was dedicated to Bathurst. The parts began to appear in July 1824 at 7s. plain and 10s. 6d. coloured, and when all had appeared they were bound together and sold as Views in Australia (London, 1825). Lycett announced that he intended to publish a natural history series along similar lines, but the project fell through.

Nothing is known of the rest of his life. A pencilled note in a copy of his Views in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, states that, when he was living near Bath, he forged some notes on the Stourbridge Bank. On being arrested he cut his throat, and when recovering in hospital he tore open the wound and killed himself. However, this is not confirmed.

Lycett was obviously a quick and prolific artist, and a large body of his work survives. There are many authenticated drawings in the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries (Sydney), the National Library and Rex Nan Kivell Collection (Canberra), the Tasmanian Museum (Hobart) and in various private collections. Most are landscapes, but the Nan Kivell Collection has a series of thirteen water-colours of Australian flowering shrubs and three of trees, executed with great skill. One is dated 1820 and it is possible that all were drawn for Macquarie. Some of the surviving landscapes, notably a series formerly owned by the earls of Derby, are very freely and ably drawn in water-colour or wash, but many appear to have been working drawings from which he made his aquatints. At his best Lycett managed to capture something of the character of the Australian landscape, but his Views, although elegant and charming, retain none of this. They were obviously engraved to conform to what Lycett regarded as contemporary taste, and they look more like English parkland than antipodean bush scenes.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Syd, 1945)
  • B. Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific 1768-1850 (Oxford, 1960)
  • R. and T. Rienits, Early Artists of Australia (Syd, 1963)
  • C. Craig, Old Tasmanian Prints (Launceston, 1964)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 5, part 5, 1919, pp 225-48.

Citation details

Rex Rienits, 'Lycett, Joseph (1774–1825)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lycett-joseph-2382/text3137, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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