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John William Lewin (1770–1819)

by Phyllis Mander-Jones

This article was published:

John William Lewin (1770-1819), naturalist and artist, was a son of William Lewin, a fellow of the Linnean Society and author of The Birds of Great Britain (London, 1789-94, second edition, 1795-1801). His sons John William and Thomas worked with him at Darenth in Kent and at Hoxton, London, during the preparation of this work; plates occur with their signatures and in his preface their father acknowledges their help in the compilation of the natural history observations.

About 1797 J. W. Lewin was anxious to visit New South Wales. He did not lack patrons. His first book, Prodromus Entomology, Natural History of Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales (London, 1805) was dedicated to Lady Arden 'in grateful remembrance of that goodness which gave the Author an opportunity of employing his talents, as it were in a new world'. On 6 February 1798 the Duke of Portland informed Governor John Hunter that Lewin would sail in the Buffalo and that he should be allowed rations during his residence in the settlement. The entomologist, Dru Drury, who assisted many collectors, supplied him with an entomologist's outfit in payment for which Lewin engaged to send insects from New South Wales. Later Thomas Marsham, author of Entomologia Britannica (London, 1802) and Alexander McLeay united with Drury in sending money to Lewin in the colony.

By some mischance Lewin missed the Buffalo, although his wife was already on board. She was befriended by the captain and his wife, and after reaching the colony by Rev. Richard Johnson and his wife. Lewin arrived in the Minerva on 11 January 1800 and was immediately involved in a lawsuit in defence of his wife against an accusation of misconduct with the second mate of the Buffalo. She was cleared, but in September Lewin excused himself to Drury for not repaying his debt by delays caused by this 'unfortunate Business' and by his having been 'taken with the flux' during the winter.

From about September 1800 the Lewins lived at Parramatta. Lewin seized every opportunity of making expeditions to enlarge his collections. In March 1801 he received Governor Philip Gidley King's permission to go with James Grant to Bass Strait, but they ran into stormy weather and Lewin's Bee, a decked long-boat accompanying the Lady Nelson, was forced to return. A few months later he was with Colonel William Paterson exploring the Hunter River and in November 1801 sailed for Tahiti in the brig Norfolk, commissioned to procure salt pork. When she ran ashore on Point Venus the ship's company took refuge with the mission there. The men were taken off in the Porpoise, and returned to Sydney on 19 December 1802.

In 1804 Governor King granted Lewin a 100-acre (40 ha) farm near Parramatta but it seems unlikely that he had the time or means to develop it. He was busy making expeditions to the Nattai River and the Cowpastures and engraving the plates for his two books on insects and birds. Conscious of his own lack of training in grammar and spelling, he tried to enlist the help of a well educated young man, John Grant, who became his close friend in 1804, though it is not known if the requested help was given. Grant's verses praising Lewin, entitled 'Panegyric on an Eminent Artist', occur in a few copies of Lewin's Birds of New Holland with their Natural History. He became a member of the Parramatta Loyal Association, in which he rose to the rank of sergeant. He was among the settlers who supported Governor William Bligh and was one of the signatories to a petition to Paterson in May 1808, expressing alarm at the governor's deposition.

The farm cannot have prospered for by November 1808 the Lewins were living in Sydney, first in Chapel Row (Castlereagh Street), and later at the Brickfields, on the eastern side of George Street. Both had licences to sell wines and spirits and Lewin advertised for orders for miniatures and portraits. He was paid from the police fund for various services including expeditions to contact Aboriginals and painting a coat of arms for the Supreme Court. In order to assure him some income Governor Lachlan Macquarie appointed him coroner at Sydney at £40 a year, and doubled the salary in 1814. In 1811 and 1815 he executed 'transparencies' as decorations for the Queen's birthday ball at Government House. He was one of Macquarie's suite when the governor first crossed the Blue Mountains by William Cox's new road in May 1815. In 1817 and 1818 Macquarie commissioned drawings of plants collected during John Oxley's explorations. The British government approved his appointment to accompany Phillip Parker King on his explorations in the Mermaid but Lewin declined, pleading the difficulty of supporting his family during his absence.

While living in Sydney, Lewin seems to have still hoped to own a farm. In 1809 Paterson gave him 200 acres (81 ha) in the district of Minto. Macquarie did not confirm this, but gave him 200 acres (81 ha) in Airds, which was perhaps a grant instead of it. In 1811 he sold the Parramatta farm. In 1817 he mortgaged the Airds farm and sold it for £100 next year. On 27 August 1819 he died. He was buried in the old burying ground now occupied by the Sydney Town Hall, but the remains were removed first to the Devonshire Street cemetery and thence, when the Central Railway Station was built, to La Perouse.

Lewin had hoped that the proceeds from the sale of his two books would enable him to return to England. Although this hope was not realized they greatly enhanced his fame and Drury secured his election as an associate of the Linnean Society in 1801. The books' plates are faithful and delicate representations of insects and birds which were then little known. Prodromus Entomology, published in 1805, appeared in a second edition in 1822 and the Birds, first printed in 1808, had two further editions in 1822 and 1838 as well as the variant published in Sydney in 1813. The texts of the London editions were edited by his brother Thomas with the help of eminent scientists. The collaboration of scientists and the issue of several editions, some reprinted, for watermarks later than imprints occur on plates, show the interest which these works aroused. All are rare today, especially the 1808 Birds. Only six copies of it are known, those of George III and five English subscribers. The consignment for Australia appears to have been lost and hence the curious Sydney 'edition' of 1813, with text by J. W. Lewin, perhaps using some descriptions by John Grant, and with plates made up of pulls from the engravings before the copper plates were sent to England, as well as one or two plates not in the London editions. The plates of the Insects and some of those in the Birds are the earliest copper plates known to have been engraved in New South Wales.

There is a collection of Lewin's paintings in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and a number of natural history water-colour drawings in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection in the National Library of Australia. His contemporaries esteemed him for his paintings of natural history subjects and of Aboriginals. Unfortunately few of the latter seem to have survived. His landscapes were not so much admired as those of artists adept in exact topography, but today they are historically valuable and have the merit of catching something of the atmosphere of Australian scenery.

All contemporary records bear witness to Lewin's engaging personality and unblemished character as well as to his talents. His wife, Anna Maria, was also gifted. She made drawings of plants and helped with the colouring of prints from the engravings. After Lewin's death Macquarie granted the George Street property to Mrs Lewin. She realized about £600 from the grant and returned to England with her son, William Arden, who had been born probably in 1808, after another child had died. She continued to promote the new edition of the Birds and reissues of both books, and from 1825 received an annual grant of £50 from the New South Wales government.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 2-4, 9
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, The Macleay Memorial Volume, ed J. J. Fletcher (Syd, 1893)
  • J. J. Fletcher, ‘The Society's Heritage from the Macleays’, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, vol 45, 1920, pp 567-635
  • P. Mander-Jones, ‘John William Lewin: A Memoir’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 42, part 4, 1956, pp 153-86 J. W. Lewin to Dru Drury (British Museum of Natural History)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. W. Lewin (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Phyllis Mander-Jones, 'Lewin, John William (1770–1819)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




27 August, 1819 (aged ~ 49)
New South Wales, Australia

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