Historian John Maynard takes a close look at convict painter Joseph Lycett

Painter Joseph Lycett’s talent helped him secure a pardon while serving hard labour in Newcastle for forgery. A CONVICTED forger whose paintings of the ‘‘hell hole’’ of colonial Newcastle offer a uniquely truthful glimpse of Australia’s Indigenous people is the subject of a new book by University of Newcastle Professor John Maynard.

Painter Joseph Lycett was transported to Australia in 1811 for forging bank notes in the early 19th century when his talents as an artist were quickly recognised.

He eventually found his way to Newcastle – then known as Coal River – and subjected to hard labour in the colony known as the ‘‘hell hole of NSW’’.

But as Professor Maynard’s new book True Light and Shade explains, the depictions Lycett came to produce of the region’s indigenous people at the beginning of the 19th century have become an important source of Australia’s pre-colonial history.

Launched in Canberra on Saturday, the title of the book comes from Lycett’s own statements about the aim of his work, and Professor Maynard said it was an aim he achieved in his depictions of Australia’s first people.


‘‘The majority of depictions of Aboriginal people in this time are of savages, people from the stone age who didn’t know how to use the land so he’s pretty unique in these strong depictions,’’ he said.

‘‘And if you look at the paintings you can see it’s almost like a photographic recreation in some ways.’’

Professor Maynard, a Worimi man, is considered one of the world’s most prolific and respected voices on indigenous history. He said that while Lycett himself remained ‘‘something of a mystery’’, his works offered an important glimpse of the Hunter region in its natural form.

‘‘It was known as the hell hole of the colonies, but Lycett shows some of the stunning beauty they’re missing,’’ he said.

‘‘Not only that but this is a period where there were only roughly 200 convicts and the marines who guarded them, so you’re seeing an area in its pristine condition, it’s a portal into what life was like before 1788 [when Arthur Philliplanded].’’

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