The art of travel in the name of science : mobility and erasure in the art of Flinders’s Australian voyage, 1801-03

Thomas, Sarah (2020) The art of travel in the name of science : mobility and erasure in the art of Flinders’s Australian voyage, 1801-03. In: Lambert, David and Merriman, Peter, (eds.) Empire and mobility in the long Nineteenth Century. Manchester, U.K. : Manchester University Press. ISBN 9781526126382


This chapter explores the salience of mobility to an understanding of visual culture in the colonial period, focussing in particular on the works of art produced on board Matthew Flinders' inaugural circumnavigation of Australia between 1801 and 1803: by British landscape painter William Westall (1781-1850), and Austrian botanical artist, Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826). Mobility was a strategic advantage for such artists in providing new material to record both for Enlightenment science and a broader European public; yet it also presented an array of logistical, aesthetic and philosophical challenges. The chapter will not only consider the status of the peripatetic artist as eyewitness in the period, but will also examine the mobility of visual culture itself, and the implications for art history in a globalised world. I explore some of the inherent contradictions between mobility and place as they condition our understanding of the art of exploration. While Westall’s coastal profiles played a contribution to completing and authenticating Flinders’s cartographic project for the British Admiralty, Bauer’s encrypted sketches assisted in the totalising project of Linnaean classification. During and following the voyage an enormous number of pencil sketches, and subsequent watercolours, prints and oil paintings were produced to assist with the mapping and classifying missions of the voyage. Mobility, of course, was at the heart of this endeavour, and had at least since the Renaissance been equated with the pursuit of knowledge. Yet what I argue here is that in many senses mobility was utterly at odds not only with the practicalities of producing works of art under such trying circumstances, but more significantly, with the scientific demands made of the voyager artist; namely, precision and immutability.

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