Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richard Read (1765–1829)

by Jocelyn Gray

This article was published:

Richard Read (b.1765?), artist, was born in London. In July 1812 he was sentenced in London to transportation for fourteen years and arrived in New South Wales in the Earl Spencer in October 1813. He was granted a ticket-of-leave in December, and next January his wife Sarah and their daughter Lydia arrived as free settlers in the Kangaroo.

In November 1814 Read advertised in the Sydney Gazette the establishment of his drawing school, the first in Australia, at 37 Pitt Street, Sydney. In addition to offering lessons in the 'polite and elegant art of drawing in its most elevated branches', he had for sale designs for embroidery, drawings and paintings of 'various subjects' and announced his readiness to execute miniatures and portraits. In a notice of February 1821 he described the drawings as 'views of various parts of New Holland … drawings of Birds, Flowers, Native Figures, etc.' Read taught drawing, painted portraits and genre works, and decorated colonial mansions, including Piper Castle and Government House, until late in the 1820s when, according to a survey of 'The State of the Fine Arts in New South Wales', published in the Sydney Gazette, 28 July 1829, he relinquished his profession and took up farming.

In 1816 Read petitioned Governor Lachlan Macquarie for mitigation of his sentence. He was conditionally pardoned in April 1819, and although he did not receive his absolute pardon until March 1825, he seems to have benefited from vice-regal patronage, and from commissions from wealthy settlers, for his petition of 1816 referred to 'indulgences received' and, he trusted, 'merited', at the governor's hands.

Richard Read gained a considerable reputation in the colony and by 1820 his talents were said to be 'too high to call for a panegyric'. He claimed that a series of portraits, framed and glazed, of Macquarie had been 'finished from the life'. Another portrait very well received was that of Michael Robinson, the 'Poet Laureate' of the colony. The group portrait of 'Mrs. Piper and her Children' at Vaucluse House, Sydney, was thought to be the work of Read, but has since been attributed to Augustus Earle.

All that is known of Read's artistic or social background before he arrived in the colony is that he had practised as a professional artist in London. In his first advertisement of 1814 Read pronounced himself 'History and Portrait Painter', but it was not until 1825 that he claimed to have been a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Read's assertion is difficult to accept, as in an advertisement of his drawing school, published in the Sydney Gazette in February 1821, he professed 'more than twenty-five years' experience of the Art', implying that his career had begun around 1796, four years after Sir Joshua Reynolds's death. Nevertheless Read's age at the time of his conviction—47 years—allows for the possibility that the artist had worked as an assistant in Reynolds's studio. The only known reference to a historical subject painted by Richard Read senior was made in 1819 in an anecdote published in the Sydney Gazette. Mr 'Reid' had presented a 'water painting' to an unnamed household in George Street, Sydney. The subject was taken from the eighteenth book of the Iliad, and happened to be placed above a teatray purchased by the mistress of the house which also depicted an incident from the Iliad.

Read was listed in the indent of the Earl Spencer as 'Read', and signed himself thus in his petition to the governor. The teller of the Iliad tale spells the artist's name as 'Reid' and so does the journalist who gave an account of decorations painted for the Bachelors' Ball by Read in January 1820. A notice of 1822 telling of Read's commission to execute a half-length portrait of Macquarie uses the spelling 'Reed', but the painter's use of the spelling 'Reid' in his professional advertisements does not appear until 1825. This may possibly have been his method of distinguishing himself from a fellow colonial artist, apparently his son, Richard Read junior, who had arrived in Sydney in 1819 as a free settler, and who also lived in Pitt Street at the same time as his older namesake.

It is probable that Read left the colony with his family after he was pardoned. No record of later work or of his death can be traced in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • 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
  • Sydney Gazette, 6 Nov 1819, 8 Feb 1822
  • convict indents (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Jocelyn Gray, 'Read, Richard (1765–1829)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 27 May 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]

Alternative Names
  • Reid, Richard
  • Reed, Richard

London, Middlesex, England


1829 (aged ~ 64)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: unknown
Sentence: 14 years