A beautiful milestone

January 24th, 2019 By Oliver Stead

Colourful, exquisite and rare, the Alexander Turnbull Library’s album of watercolours by George Raper (1769-1797), showing Australasian birds, animals and flowers, is beautiful to behold. 65 of the lovely paintings in the album are attributed to Raper, a young midshipman of the British navy who sailed in 1787 on HMS Sirius of the First Fleet, bringing convicts to Botany Bay in New South Wales.

One of the most exciting milestones of 2018 for the library’s Drawings, Paintings and Prints collection was completing the digitisation of all 66 watercolours in the album, marking 230 years since the first of the paintings was made in 1788, the year in which the First Fleet arrived in Australia. Not surprisingly, given its early Australian content, the album is better known outside New Zealand than within these shores. Yet the album holds special interest for New Zealand and Pacific natural history, as well as the art history of the early colonial period that followed soon after Cook’s voyages. Stunningly captured in high definition by the library’s Imaging team, all 66 images in the album can now be enjoyed online by readers around the world (see Ref: E-327-f).

All but one of the paintings can be attributed to George Raper with a fair degree of confidence. Four of the works are signed with Raper’s delightfully wriggly signature. Two, depicting birds of Port Jackson, are dated 1788, making them among the most prized examples of First Fleet art. The other two signed works are dated 1790, and depict a plant and a bird of Norfolk Island. These will look very familiar to New Zealanders: Raper’s “Pigeon of Norfolk Island” was a now extinct subspecies of the kererū, or New Zealand pigeon.

Raper, George 1769-1797: Pigeon of Norfolk Island / Geo Raper 1790. Watercolour, gold paint and ink on laid paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: E-327-f-001
Raper, George, 1769-1797: Pigeon of Norfolk Island 1/3 Less Natural Size. Geo. Raper. 1790 (Norfolk Island pigeon; Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae spadicea). Watercolour, gold paint and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: E-327-f-001

Raper’s “Flax Plant of Norfolk Island” illustrates a specimen of harakeke, New Zealand flax, which is also native to Norfolk Island. Both species were plentiful on the island when young George Raper was marooned there for eleven months in 1790, on a mission to obtain supplies for the starving penal colony at Port Jackson.

Raper, George, 1769-1797: Flax-plant of Norfolk Island / Geo Raper 1790. Watercolour and ink on laid paper 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: E-327-f-060
Raper, George, 1769-1797: Flax-plant of Norfolk Island. Geo Raper. 1790. Watercolour and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: E-327-f-060

The extinct Norfolk pigeon was distinguished from the kererū by having iridescent, gold-like feathers around its neck. Unusually for the period and circumstances, the well-supplied Raper had some metallic gold pigment in his watercolour kit, which he used to capture the shining golden feathers to great effect. Elsewhere in the album Raper has used gold pigment to highlight the iridescent markings of an Australian frog and several Australian bird species.

A watercolour and ink image of a frog
Raper, George, 1769-1797: Frog of New Holland. Rana (Green and golden bell frog;Litoria aurea). Watercolour and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: E-327-f-062
flower, caterpillar and Spotted moth, nyctemera amica
Raper, George, 1769-1797: Tetrathera juncea (Magpie moth ;Nyctemera amicus, caterpillar of batwing moth;Chelepteryx collesi, and flowering plant). Watercolour and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: E-327-f-014

Besides the birds, flowering plants and frog, the Turnbull’s Raper album also contains images of a wallaby and many insect species. Scientists have noted Raper’s highly accurate observation of animal morphology. This makes his images of lasting value to science, especially his representations of now extinct species. One criticism that has been made by ornithologists is that Raper’s birds seem to have unnaturally long necks. It has been suggested that this is because the birds were drawn from freshly killed specimens, which were often suspended by their necks in bundles by hunters in the field, for ease of transport.

It is not clear how the wealthy New Zealand collector Alexander Turnbull came to acquire the Raper paintings. The handsomely bound Raper album bears a gold-lettered title reading “Birds of Australia and South Seas. Original Drawings 1788-1790 from E. Cane”. The paintings had evidently been collected by a Mr E. Cane, but it is not clear who commissioned the lavish binding. Nothing else is known about Mr Cane, but the handwritten inscription “from E Cane” appears at the bottom of each sheet. Over the years, being bound into an album has helped to protect the paintings from light, and their colours remain extremely vivid more than 200 years after they were painted.

In terms of style and technique, the paintings in the Raper album are remarkably consistent. Raper did not always sign his work, but the four signed and dated works provide a fascinating insight into his developing skills. The two signed bird paintings dated 1788 are charming and confident, but not as finely executed as the two works signed and dated 1790, suggesting that Raper’s observational accuracy and brush skills were improving rapidly at the time.

A fifth signed watercolour in the album bears the signature of Sarah Stone, a professional illustrator who was employed to produce watercolours of museum specimens in England during the 1780s and 1790s. This is not unusual as collectors have often compiled albums according to subject rather than author – a fact that can often make the authorship of unsigned works difficult. But the presence of Stone’s single signed work in the Raper album is very useful. Her watercolour of Tahitian lorikeets makes an interesting comparison with Raper’s works.

Parokets of Oteheate Natural Size,ca 1785
Stone, Sarah, ca 1760-1844: Parokets of Oteheate Natural Size (ca 1780-1789). Watercolour and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: E-327-f-002

Stone’s image demonstrates that George Raper was working within a well-established illustrative tradition that had definite conventions: like placing the bird on an imaginary perch to make it seem more lifelike, and eliminating unnecessary background details to focus attention on the bird itself. It is clear that Raper, though not a professional illustrator, became exceptionally proficient in the conventions and techniques of natural history painting. His training as a naval officer, whose duties included making accurate charts and coastal profiles, no doubt contributed to his growing talent for painting anatomically accurate representations of plants and animals.

The precise attribution of watercolours to George Raper is complicated due to a number of intriguing factors. While Raper was a midshipman on the Sirius, his commanding officer was Captain John Hunter (1737-1821), who later served briefly as Governor of New South Wales. Hunter too was a dedicated amateur watercolourist and observer of natural history. It is a well-established fact that the junior officer and his commander painted many of the same subjects in the same style, and often copied each other’s compositions. Hunter produced a sketchbook, thought to date from the years 1788-1790, containing over 90 watercolours entitled “Birds & Flowers of New South Wales drawn on the spot in 1788, ’89, & ’90”.

Hunter’s sketchbook is now in the collection of the National Library of Australia, courtesy of the New Zealand-born collector Rex Nan Kivell (1898-1977). Close examination of the Hunter sketchbook by Australian scholars has established that the majority of the watercolours in it are copies after original works by Raper. This suggests that despite the great differences in their age and rank, the two men enjoyed collaborating on their mutual hobby. The fact that Raper came from a well-off family, and could afford to buy very expensive watercolours and paper, may well have helped the relationship.

Unfortunately there is very little written evidence of the Hunter and Raper collaboration in their remaining letters and logs. As far as their individual efforts in painting are concerned, scholars are universally agreed that Raper was the superior artist, and that in most cases where Hunter can be shown to have copied Raper’s original, to the best of his own not inconsiderable ability, Raper’s painting was much more skilful, and his observation more accurate than his captain’s. This makes it easier to distinguish the works of the two painters. However a further complication arises from the fact that Raper’s works were also occasionally copied by professional illustrators in England. The reason for this is simple – factual pictures of the exotic wildlife of Australia and the Pacific were novel and very publishable in late eighteenth century Britain.

Raper also regularly made copies of his own works, with minor variations, often making a more finely executed (though not less accurately observed) version of his first attempt at the subject. It is sometimes difficult to tell which work is the first one in a sequence of Raper’s copies of his images. Luckily for scholarship, the Natural History Museum in London has a set of 72 watercolours by Raper, most of which are signed and dated. This is very useful for comparison. For example Raper’s “Bird of Port Jackson” in the Alexander Turnbull collection, signed and dated 1788, is almost identical to his “Bird and Flower of Port Jackson”, signed and dated 1789, in the Natural History Museum. So it can be shown that the Turnbull version is the earlier of the two works.

Bird of Port Jackson 1/3 less than Natural Size
Raper, George 1769-1797: Bird of Port Jackson 1/3 less than Natural Size. Watercolour and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: E-327-f-037

Comparison of works by Raper in the major public collections of his works can be very helpful in verifying the authenticity of individual versions. The types and brands of watermarked, laid paper, that Raper is known to have used, are also important for determining authorship. When the National Library of Australia negotiated the purchase of a significant, previously unknown group of works by Raper in 2005, the Turnbull album was closely examined by conservators to assist the Australian library in verifying the authenticity of the newly rediscovered works. The presence of metallic pigment, like that used by Raper in his signed image of the Norfolk Island pigeon in the Turnbull album, was a key factor in determining the authenticity of the previously unknown works.

In some cases the paintings in the Turnbull Library’s Raper album are the most finely executed versions of several known copies. This is especially true of the magnificent image of a waratah in the Turnbull album, which exists in another version by Raper in the National Library of Australia, and also in a much less highly finished version by Hunter, also in the National Library of Australia.

Embothrium speciosiformum
Raper, George, 1769-1797: Embothrium speciosissimum (Waratah Telopea speciosissima). Watercolour and ink on paper, 460 x 310 mm. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: E-327-f-036

Besides the collections of Raper material held at the National Libraries of New Zealand and Australia, and the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom, the State Library of New South Wales holds two albums of watercolours attributed to Raper, one of flower illustrations, and one showing fishes.

The National Library of Australia’s Raper holdings consist of two groups. The first of these, acquired in 2000, includes maps, paintings and a manuscript notebook. This group had previously been in the possession of George Raper’s mother and her descendants. The second group, acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2005, is part of the Ducie Collection of First Fleet Art, which includes 53 watercolours attributed to Raper. This collection was previously the property of the Moreton family, hereditary Earls of Ducie, who have had a long association with Australia. The third Baron Ducie, Francis Reynolds-Moreton (1739-1808) was a naval officer with connections to the First Fleet. The Baron and his independently wealthy second wife were passionately devoted to natural history studies, friendly with Sir Joseph Banks, and maintained a large aviary stocked with exotic birds from all corners of the globe.

The National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew, holds two letters from George Raper written to the navy in his official capacity in 1796, shortly before his death in 1797 from an unknown illness. A promising officer, Raper had by this time been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, with command of his own vessel, and was engaged at the time in carrying high-level dispatches during Britain’s ongoing war with France.

Shows Imaging Technician Llewelyn Jones photographing the album in the Library's studio.
Imaging Technician Llewelyn Jones photographing the George Raper album. Photos: Mark Beatty, Imaging Services, Alexander Turnbull Library

Over the coming weeks we will be adding high resolution copies of these George Raper watercolours to Wikipedia. Thanks to the help of Mike Dickison, New Zealand’s Wikipedian-at-Large, all 66 images will be added to the public domain. Here, they can be used for populating Wikipedia pages, featuring in publications and informing further research. You can see our progress and view other Raper images on this category page in Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:George_Raper


  • John Calaby (ed.), The Hunter sketchbook. Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1989.
  • Linda Groom, First Fleet Artist: George Raper’s Birds & Plants of Australia. Canberra, National Library of Australia, 2009.
  • K.A. Hindwood, ‘George Raper, an artist of the first fleet’. Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 50, Part 7, June, 1964, pp. 32-57.
  • Christine E. Jackson, Sarah Stone: natural curiosities from the new worlds. London, Natural History Museum, 1998.
  • Penny Olsen, Raper’s bountiful birds: A first fleeter’s impressions of Australia’s Avifauna, Kunapipi, 29(2), 2007, pp. 142-165. Available at: https://ro.uow.edu.au/kunapipi/vol29/iss2/11
  • George Raper, Birds of Australia and South Seas. Original Drawings 1788-1790 from E. Cane. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: E-327-f.
  • Natural History Museum, The Raper Collection. Webpage retrieved 11 January 2019 from http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/art-nature-imaging/collections/first-fleet/art-collection/collections.dsml?coll=raper

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