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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Watling, Thomas (1762–?)

by Rex Rienits

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

Thomas Watling (b.1762), convict and artist, was born on 19 September 1762 in Dumfries, Scotland, the son of Ham Watlin, soldier. His parents died during his infancy and he was brought up by a maiden aunt, Marion Kirkpatrick. His education, which was well above average, obviously included a thorough grounding in art and eventually he formed his own 'academy'. In 1788 he was briefly in Glasgow as a coach and chaise painter. Back in Dumfries on 27 November he was charged with having forged guinea notes on the Bank of Scotland. He denied his guilt, but rather than risk conviction and execution he asked to be transported and was sentenced to fourteen years. On his way to join a prison hulk at Plymouth he helped to avert a shipboard mutiny by fellow convicts, but this won him no remission of sentence.

In July 1791 Watling was one of 410 convicts who sailed in the Pitt for New South Wales. He escaped at Cape Town, but was soon arrested by the Dutch, imprisoned and taken aboard the Royal Admiral, in which he reached Sydney on 7 October 1792. He appears to have been assigned almost immediately to the surgeon-general, John White, an ardent naturalist, who made extensive use of his artistic skill.

During his first months in the colony Watling continued a series of letters which he had begun at Cape Town; as Letters from an Exile at Botany-Bay to his Aunt in Dumfries … they were published in Penrith, England, probably in 1794. They frankly and courageously criticized various aspects of life in the colony, particularly the treatment of convicts, and included interesting observations from an artist's viewpoint. When White left the colony in December 1794 it is thought that Watling may have been assigned to the judge-advocate, David Collins. There is positive evidence that at least some of the plates in Collins's An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London, 1798-1802) were taken from original sketches by Watling.

Watling's prospects improved with the arrival of Governor John Hunter, himself an enthusiastic and able artist. Within a year, in September 1796 Watling was given a conditional pardon and on 5 April 1797 it was made absolute. While in the colony Watling had a son, presumably by a convict woman, and when he left Sydney he took the child with him. From 1801 to 1803 he lived in Calcutta, earning a precarious living as a miniature painter. He returned to Scotland and on 10 January 1806 was tried at Edinburgh for a series of forgeries allegedly committed at Dumfries between November 1804 and March 1805. He was discharged on a verdict of 'not proven'. Later he moved with his son to London where, in indigent circumstances and suffering from cancer of the left breast, he applied to Hunter, now an admiral, for help and received some assistance from members of the Royal Academy. Neither the date nor place of his death are known.

Watling wrote and regarded himself as a romantic, but most of his landscapes reveal training in the classical style. The Mitchell and Dixson Libraries, Sydney, have a few examples of his work, but most of that known to have survived is in the so-called Watling Collection in the zoological library of the British Museum (Natural History). This collection, apparently made about Port Jackson between 1788 and 1794, comprises 512 drawings by various artists, of which 123 are signed by Watling and at least another 20 are clearly his work. His contributions include landscapes, studies of Aboriginals and a great number of natural history drawings. Many of these are extensively annotated in John White's hand and there seems little doubt that it was he who gathered the collection and took it to England. Watling's only major work known to have survived is 'Sydney in 1794', a large oil painting, which hangs in the Dixson Gallery, Sydney, and is a composite of several of his sketches. Although impressive it is clumsily painted and lacks the delicacy and deft technique of his landscapes in wash and his bird drawings in water-colour.

Select Bibliography

  • H. S. Gladstone, Thomas Watling, Limner of Dumfries (Dumfries, 1938)
  • 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)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 5, part 5, 1919, pp 225-48
  • G. M. Mathews and T. Iredale, ‘Thomas Watling, Artist’, Australian Avian Record, vol 5, no 1, 1922, pp 22-32.

Citation details

Rex Rienits, 'Watling, Thomas (1762–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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