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Sir Oswald Walters Brierly (1817–1894)

by Marnie Bassett and Bernard Smith

This article was published:

Oswald Walters Brierly (1817-1894), by unknown photographer

Oswald Walters Brierly (1817-1894), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17217

Sir Oswald Walters Brierly (1817-1894), marine painter, was born on 19 May 1817 at Chester, son of Dr Thomas Brierly, an amateur artist. He studied at the art school of Henry Sass, Bloomsbury Street, London, and exhibited drawings of two men-of-war, Pique and Gorgon, at the Royal Academy in 1839. He also studied naval architecture and possibly navigation at Plymouth. His interest in ships introduced him to Benjamin Boyd of the Royal Yacht Squadron, whom he joined in the yacht Wanderer on a voyage to Australia; they arrived at Sydney in July 1842. In New South Wales Brierly acted as manager of Boyd's pastoral and whaling business, living at Twofold Bay where he was appointed a magistrate. In 1848 when Boyd's affairs were approaching bankruptcy Brierly accepted the invitation of Captain Owen Stanley to join him as his guest in H.M.S. Rattlesnake on a survey of the Barrier Reef, the Louisiade Archipelago and part of the New Guinea coast. While living at times in Sydney, Brierly painted on the walls of his host's house, 'The Rangers' and 'H.M.S. Rattlesnake in a squall off the Island of Timor', which William Moore says was probably the first mural painted in Australia; a small copy of it by C. E. S. Tindall is in the Mitchell Library and fragments of the original have been found in a shed in Sydney.

On Stanley's death at Port Jackson in March 1850 Brierly transferred to H.M.S. Meander as the guest of her commander, Henry Keppel, later admiral, remaining in her throughout her voyage across the Pacific, sketching in many of her ports of call, New Zealand, the Friendly and Society Islands, Chile, Peru and Mexico, and returning to England round the Horn. They arrived in July 1851. In 1852 his 'Brief Geographical Sketch of the Friendly Islands, with an account of the visit of H.M.S. Meander, to the Island of Tongatabu, June, 1850' was printed in the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society. In 1851 Brierly had attended the Cowes regatta with Rajah Brooke of Borneo and Keppel who, hearing rumours of the impending retirement of the marine painter to the Royal Squadron, noted that it would be 'the very thing for Brierly, at all events he might make friends among the members'. He was to receive this appointment but not for more than twenty years.

Brierly took to the sea again after the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1854. Keppel, now captain, offered him an observational post on H.M.S. St Jean D'Acre in the Baltic fleet and the Illustrated London News commissioned him to make sketches of the naval operations, perhaps the first time a newspaper commissioned a war artist. In 1855 Brierly worked on several ships in the Black Sea and, though recording no actual engagements, became the British 'graphic naval historian' of the war. His Portfolio of Marine and Coastal Sketches (London, 1856) was published as the work of 'Mr. William Brierly'. At the end of the war when Queen Victoria reviewed the navy at Spithead, Brierly was asked to attend upon the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert, to take sketches. This, and perhaps Keppel's friendship with the Prince of Wales, brought him the patronage of the royal family for whom he executed several commissions.

Between 1863 and 1869 Brierly was associated with the Duke of Edinburgh on various cruises: first to Norway in the Racoon and later in the Galatea to the Mediterranean and round the world, visiting Lisbon, Madeira, Tristan da Cunha, the Cape, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. 'The gay receptions at all ports on the route, the balls, shooting parties and fêtes of various kinds, ended, however, with the picnic near Sydney, whereat the miscreant O'Farrell made a dastardly attempt on the Duke's life'. In 1868 Brierly accompanied the Prince of Wales up the Nile, then to Constantinople and the Crimea. With Rev. John Milner, Brierly wrote The Cruise of H.M.S. Galatea (London, 1869).

Brierly became an associate of the Water-Colour Society in 1872 and a member in 1880. In 1874 he was made marine painter to Queen Victoria and to the Royal Yacht Squadron. In 1881 he became curator of the Painted Hall at Greenwich and was knighted in 1885. He visited Venice in 1874 and 1882. In his later years he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the Royal Water-Colour Society Annual Exhibitions. He was a highly competent marine painter in water-colours who, in the manner of his time, delighted in depicting scenes of action and adventure associated with the sea, and he took great pride in the accurate delineation of ships both of his own day and of the past. He painted to a high degree of finish, making considerable use of body-colour. Examples of his work are in the Mitchell and Australian National Libraries, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Melbourne Club and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The Mitchell Library has his journal, 1846-49, which includes notes on sky, sea and atmosphere relevant to marine painting.

The Narrative of the Voyage of the Rattlesnake by John MacGillivray (1852) is not, as might be expected, illustrated by the sketches made by Brierly in his two years of cruising as Stanley's guest but by those of Thomas Huxley, Rattlesnake's assistant surgeon and assistant naturalist under MacGillivray. The absence of Brierly's pictures suggests that when he joined Meander in Sydney he took his Rattlesnake sketches with him and they were thus not available for inclusion in the Narrative. Huxley came to the rescue, although by then he was hardly on speaking terms with MacGillivray, who recorded in his preface his thanks for 'the handsome manner' in which Huxley had allowed him 'to select from his collection of drawings those which now appear as illustrations'. Another point of some unusual interest is that in Keppel's Visit to the Indian Archipelago (London, 1853) all the plates are signed by Brierly although they represent happenings or places visited by Meander before he joined the ship in Sydney; one only was of a place he had seen, a sketch made at Port Essington on the Rattlesnake's voyage. A number of elegant little drawings by Brierly are included in Keppel's second book, A Sailor's Life Under Four Sovereigns (1899). Brierly has been described as 'the fortunate painter' because he travelled twice round the world without having to pay his fare.

His journal shows a great interest in people and a capacity for enjoying life, and he was obviously in demand as a good companion even when no longer young. Keppel wrote of him that 'No officer could have on board his ship a more agreeable, accommodating, or intelligent companion, nor, in my judgment, an artist of more decided talents for the varied subjects likely to present themselves'.

Brierly was twice married, first about 1851 to Sarah, daughter of a Quaker, Edmund Fry, and second in 1872 to Louise Marie, daughter of Louis Hubard of Brussels. He died in London on 14 December 1894.

A small island in the Louisiade Archipelago is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Huxley (ed), T. H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake (Lond, 1935)
  • M. Bassett, Behind the Picture (Melb, 1966)
  • I. L. Roget, ‘Her Majesty's Marine Painter: Sir Oswald Brierly’, Art Journal (London), May 1887, pp 129-34.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marnie Bassett and Bernard Smith, 'Brierly, Sir Oswald Walters (1817–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Oswald Walters Brierly (1817-1894), by unknown photographer

Oswald Walters Brierly (1817-1894), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17217

Life Summary [details]


19 May, 1817
Chester, Cheshire, England


14 December, 1894 (aged 77)
London, Middlesex, England

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