John William Lewin

John Lewin Birds of New South Wales
John Lewin Birds of New South Wales

John William Lewin 1770-1819

An English born artist, active in Australia from 1800. He was the first free professional artist of the colony of New South Wales and illustrated the earliest book on Australian birds, its plates being the first engraved in the colony. His background as a natural history artist allowed him to acutely observe the reality of the Australian landscape and its flora and fauna. As art critic Robert Hughes has commented, Lewin was the first to capture the distinctive "look" of Australia. It was not until the members of the Heidelberg school in the late Nineteenth Century that artists became sensitive to the qualities of Australian flora, fauna, light and space but Lewin, in the early 1800s, was the first naturalist to depict living creatures in their natural settings, stressing the importance of environment. "Lewin's powerful formula of careful observation and dynamic composition - which evolved during his life in New South Wales - was his singular achievement. It was as if looking at the region, which he didn't find easy at first, triggered some creative response to nature that caused him to suddenly abandon the conventions of his training. Alone in New South Wales and without a supporting milieu of naturalists or artists, Lewin developed an aesthetic that was at once fresh and animated, and completely unlike the typical specimen style of bird profiled on a generic stump or branch, which he had employed so diligently when working for his father. While Lewin certainly remains true to the idea of the primacy of the accuracy of the image, he quite happily begins to play with design and composition." [Richard Neville: Mr.J.W.Lewin, Painter & Naturalist. State Library of New South Wales, 2012]

Lewin published "The Birds of New Holland" in England, in 1808. Only six copies for his English subscribers remain today. The sixty-seven copies destined for his Sydney subscribers went missing, either before or during the voyage out. In 1813 he published his "Sydney Lewin" (birds of New South Wales, with their natural history). This was the first illustrated book to be engraved and printed in Australia. It is exceedingly rare. If a copy could be procured today, the price would undoubtedly be in excess of $500,000.00.

In 1822, after Lewin's death, his wife arranged the publication of a third edition, with eight additional plates (Nos.7, 19-25). In 1838, a further edition was issued, with the same 1822 text sheets, but with new impressions of the plates. There is a reprint of the 1838 edition. The plates are printed on paper water-marked 1875 and according to Gregory Mathews in his Bibliography of the Birds of Australia (1925, P.83), "the colouring is poor and valueless".

We are very pleased to offer a selection of plates from both the 1822 and 1838 editions of Lewin's remarkable and rare works.    


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