The mystery of the Sydney punchbowls
In about 1820, someone familiar with Governor Macquarie’s Sydney commissioned Chinese artists in Canton to paint a pair of large punchbowls with panoramic views of Sydney Cove. One was to be from the east (now in the State Library of NSW collection), and the other from the west (in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection). We do not know who commissioned these punchbowls, why or whether they ever came to New South Wales.
The Library’s bowl has a gilded monogram which must be the owner’s initials but has proved difficult to decipher. Furthermore, the one on the museum’s bowl is too faint to read. However, at least this mystery has now been solved. Using highly sophisticated photography techniques, museum conservator Nicholas Flood has conclusively demonstrated that the monograms are the same and hence the bowls were commissioned by the same person.
Using Reflectance Transformation Imaging, Nicholas Flood has revealed the original monogram on the museum’s bowl (left) which is identical to that on the State Library’s bowl (right). Reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
Sydney in the 1810s
The Sydney punchbowl in the State Library of NSW collection shows the view of Sydney from the eastern shore. Reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
A likely source for the Chinese painters is this 1820 engraving, A View of Sydney in New South Wales. Reproduced courtesy of Hordern House Rare Books, Sydney.
Made within three decades of the first settlement, the bowls celebrate the progress of the British colony. Even 200 years after they were first painted, it is still possible to identify the buildings and locations.
Working around from the left end of the view:
The punchbowl in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection is the view from Dawes Point on the western shore.
Panoramas were a popular means of demonstrating progress and would have been given to the Chinese artists to copy. This engraving of Dawes Point was published in London in 1821 and depicts a similar view to that on the bowl. ANMM Collection.
The Maritime Museum’s bowl centres on Campbell’s Cove from Dawes Point. From left to right:
Just as we do not know who commissioned the bowls, mystery also surrounds their history of ownership. Nothing is known of the State Library’s bowl until the 1840s when it was in England, having been acquired by a Mr Hall ‘merely as a work of art’. It remained in his home in Hythe, Kent, until 1923, when his daughter sold it to the NSW Agent-General in London for 40 pounds. It later came into the possession of noted antiquarian bookseller Francis Edwards Ltd. He sold it to Sydney antiques dealer William Little who, recognising its importance, generously presented it to the Mitchell Library in 1926.
The first mention of the museum’s punchbowl is in 1932, when the chairman of the National Art Collections Fund in England, Sir Robert Witt, wrote to the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales advising that it would be ‘a splendid asset’. The gallery sent the details on to the Public Library of NSW (now the State Library), which replied that the bowl was not required as they had a similar one.
By then, however, it had been sold to Adaline and Peter Frelinghuysen and taken to their home in Philadelphia, USA. Adaline’s family were the Havemeyers, noted art collectors and philanthropists. The American painter Mary Cassatt was a close friend and her 1898 painting, Adaline Havemeyer in a white hat can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.
The punchbowl was not publicly seen again until 1996, when it was included in the exhibition Views of the Pearl River Delta: Macau, Canton and Hong Kong, jointly organised by the Peabody Essex Museum, USA, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It was then that the museum became aware of its existence. In 2006, Peter Frelinghuysen II generously donated the View of the Town of Sydney punchbowl with the assistance of the American Friends of the Australian National Maritime Museum and the USA Bicentennial Gift Fund.