Essays: The Art of Science

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Essays

Theodore Leschenault de la Tour - The Affable Botanist

by Dr Paul Gibbard

In this roughly drawn image, Lesueur captures the young botanist Théodore Leschenault de la Tour (1773–1826) in a moment of ease – his nose in a book, his legs stretched out across the roof of a poultry cage, his back against the ship’s railing, his elbow resting on a coil of rope. Leschenault was only 26 when he set out for Australia aboard the Géographe. He had been selected for the expedition not only for his botanical skills but also because, as his mentor at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, observed: ‘He has a gentle, very sociable character, and everything indicates that he is the product of a good upbringing.”1 Lesueur was four years younger than Leschenault and the two seemingly enjoyed a good rapport, both men eventually advancing to prominent positions after their achievements in the Southern Lands. By the time ill health forced him to leave the expedition at Timor in 1803, Leschenault had amassed a remarkable collection of plants, which included some 600 new species. He was also a keen zoologist and anthropologist, who recorded in his lively journal his impressions of Australia’s fauna and his encounters with the Indigenous inhabitants. Leschenault served the French state as a botanist across other continents in subsequent decades, and was named a chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1822. A later lithograph portrait of Leschenault by Joseph Langlumé survives; in it he appears more solemn and thick-set. In Lesueur’s quick sketch we see Leschenault on the threshold of his botanical career.

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Aboriginal armaments, utensils and ornaments, as depicted by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

by Myra Stanbury

During their stopover in Port Jackson, members of the Baudin expedition were afforded a unique opportunity to examine in detail the first English settlers and their interaction with the Aboriginal people. Louis Freycinet, Pierre-Bernard Milius, Charles Boullanger and others documented their direct observations of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Sydney region – their physical appearance and way of life. As adornment, the Aboriginal people had a custom of tattooing themselves and of making incisions on their arms and other parts of their body, adding necklaces and bracelets made from shells, teeth and feathers. Many of these features can be seen in the portraits of Aboriginal people executed by artist Nicolas-Martin Petit.

Amongst his many depictions of Aboriginal customs, artist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur made detailed drawings of the spears, clubs and shields with which the Aborigines of Port Jackson armed themselves. He minutely detailed the stone hatchets, woven nets and other utensils used to procure their subsistence through hunting and fishing, and string bags, made and used by women to transport a variety of food gathered from the bush.

These images are significant, as only a limited number of the implements, weapons and other items of material culture that were collected in the very early years of the colony survive, mainly in overseas museums. The traditional weaving of dilly bags, as in the image above, was widespread among Aboriginal groups, the cultural tradition being passed down through generations and continued to the present day by Aboriginal artists.

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Exploration art: skewed reality, or flawed perceptions?

by Michael McCarthy

When considering the ethnographic drawings of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas- Martin Petit, one is led to wonder why they are so sensitive and visually alluring, whereas the descriptions and depictions of the Aborigines of Western Australia left by the English and Dutch explorers who preceded them are often so stark. Even more intriguing is the contrast between the sympathetic portaits of Baudin’s artists and the disparaging images, which occasionally descend into caricature, produced by their countryman, Jacques Étienne Victor Arago. Arago was a French writer and artist who acccompanied Louis Freycinet on his voyage around the world on the Uranie (1817–1820). His drawings of the Aborigines he encountered during the Uranie’s visit to Shark Bay in 1818 were published in his narrative account of that expedition, Souvenirs d’un aveugle (‘Recollections of a Blind Man’), first published in 1839. His harsh verbal descriptions of these people also stand in stark contrast to Nicolas Baudin’s immortal words:

I have never been able to imagine that there was any justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their government, a land which when first seen was inhabited by men who did not always deserve the titles of ‘savage’ and ‘cannibal’ that have been lavished on them.

We might likewise ask what caused Arago’s shipmate, the famous circumnavigator and stowaway Rose Freycinet, to write to her mother, after leaving the ‘Baie des Chiens Marins’, that it was ‘without a single regret’ that she departed from ‘that hell on earth’, when she had earlier been advised by her mother to ‘look at the drawings in Baudin’s voyage and you will have a true idea of these people’. It is perhaps (nearly) all summed up by those two words on the Baudin voyage letterhead: Liberté, Égalité.

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The Faunal Legacy of the Baudin Expedition in Australia

by Diana S. Jones

During the expedition the naturalists, notably François Péron, aided by the artist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, brought together important zoological collections. The combination of

Lesueur’s considerable artistic skills and Péron’s attention to scientific detail and accuracy produced a remarkable illustrated scientific record of the animals of the newly discovered western coasts of Australia. In spite of the difficulties involved, an immense number of natural history specimens were collected, including many that were totally unknown to science at the time. This greatly enhanced the collections of the Paris Museum.

Although not fully appreciated, even today, the accomplishments of Baudin and his fellow explorers are of enormous significance to French and Australian science. All natural history material was conscientiously labelled by Péron. Each flask was listed in an inventory, which also indicated the number of samples in the contents, and references to the corresponding drawings of Lesueur were made, along with references to the descriptions in Péron’s notebooks and journal. The habitats of the animals, their location and any other observations were also noted. In a contemporary context, these observations and records contain much important information regarding past patterns of faunal distributions before the advent of European man. In recognition of the accomplishments of the expedition and its participants, scientists have named a large number of species in their honour. The remarkable records and illustrations of these early explorers will assume even more importance in the future, as we face challenges such as global warming and species extinctions.

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The Aboriginal Huts of Eendracht’s Land

by Dr Shino Konishi

In March 1803, the Baudin expedition returned to Shark Bay on the west coast of New Holland to collect turtles and other supplies before heading further north. While there, Baudin sent a shore party to the peninsula that would later be named after the expedition’s zoologist, François Péron, but the men were confronted by a large group of hostile Aborigines and were unable to land. Keen to establish contact with these people, Baudin sent a second group of men on shore the next day, but the Aborigines had abandoned their camp by then. The discovery of their huts was nevertheless of great significance, so Baudin decided to send the artist, Nicolas-Martin Petit, to make a sketch of them. He was accompanied by Péron and the gardener Antoine Guichenot. In his account of the voyage, Péron describes these semi-circular shaped huts as ‘made of shrubby trees’ which he considered ‘crude’ but ‘none the less the most finished examples that we had occasion to observe in New Holland’. He recognised that ‘much effort and care’ had been taken in their construction, speculating that this ‘would seem at first to indicate a more advanced state of civilisation among the people of Eendracht Land than among the other natives of New Holland’.1 Péron’s description of these huts reveals the impressions he had gained of Aboriginal people after almost two years of exploration in Australia. His views were influenced by the interactions he had had with Aboriginal people on the east and west coasts of New Holland and in Van Diemen’s Land – interactions that ranged from the friendly to the hostile. His impressions thus reflect indigenous agency. However, they are also a sign of the young zoologist’s scientific ambitions. His detailed account of the huts allowed him to speculate on the effects of climate on the material cultures that developed in different societies, and thereby constituted an implicit criticism of the views of the French philosopher, the Baron de Montesquieu.

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