Sydney Punchbowls

Precious porcelain punchbowls provide peek into past

Two early 19th Century punchbowls now on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum offer a fascinating glimpse into the first European Sydney settlement.

Chinese made by unknown craftsmen, the handpainted ‘Sydney punchbowls’, depict Sydney scenes dating from the Macquarie era (1810-1821), and are the only two known examples of Chinese export porcelain.

The bowls originated in Canton (now Guangzhou), about three decades after the British settled at Sydney Cove in 1788. One bowl is in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales and the other is part of the National Maritime Collection at the Maritime Museum.

While there is much known about the provenance of the bowls, the original commissioner and the reason for the commission remain a mystery. The punchbowls are similar but not exactly matching. Both have been donated to their respective collections – the library’s in 1926 and the museum’s in 2006.

The punchbowls feature panoramic views of Sydney Harbour from opposite vantage points of early 19th century Sydney. The Library punchbowl has a view from the eastern side of Sydney Cove, named Tubowgule by the Gadigal community, and the view on the Museum bowl is from Dawes Point on the western side, named Tallawoladah. The detailed scenes show several landmarks in and around Sydney Cove at the time. These designs are combined with traditional Chinese porcelain decorations and each feature a grouping of Aboriginal figures in the centre.

Daina Fletcher, museum Head of Acquisitions Development states, ‘These punchbowls accurately portray Sydney in about 1818, with its warehouses, commercial wharves and increasingly sophisticated public and private buildings. They were undoubtedly made as a celebration of the colony’s progress, and move from penal colony to burgeoning metropolis. The presence of First Nations people on the foreshores and fishing from Nawi in the harbour, are also a reminder of the tragedy being inflicted upon them through introduced disease, pollution of water supplies and seizure of lands.’

These exquisite bowls are on display for a limited time in the Sydney Harbour Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum and are free to view.


For more information on the punchbowls visit here