Mr JW Lewin: Painter & Naturalist
by Richard Neville
NewSouth Publishing, $39.99 pb, 272 pp, 9781742233277
Rich in achievement, the artist and naturalist John William Lewin died in Sydney on 27 August 1819; he was forty-nine. With public funds, a stone was erected over his grave in the city’s new cemetery in Devonshire Street. While the inscription referred to Lewin’s official status as the town coroner, its discursive text lamented the loss ‘to this country of an Eminent Artist in his line of Natural History Painting in which he excelled’. Two years previously, in an official dispatch commending several fine drawings to the secretary of colonies in London, Governor Lachlan Macquarie – the last but most significant of a succession of vice-regal admirers and patrons – had praised ‘the Masterly Hand of Mr Lewin’. Schooled in England in a tradition of generic natural history illustration in which specimens were placed at the centre of a page devoid of all context, in Australia Lewin’s work was transformed by precise observations and an innovative approach to the illustration of natural history that was unprecedented. For him, New South Wales – its landscape, flora, and fauna, its Indigenous inhabitants, its own growth to a settled colony – was literally inspiring.