50 Treasures: Victorian Lady's Sketchbook

This treasure is being featured in 50 Treasures Revisited – Celebrating 50 Years of James Cook University, which is on display at the Cairns Museum from 24 June to 28 October 2023. The exhibition is a collaboration between Cairns Museum and JCU Library, featuring 17 of the 50 Treasures from JCU Library Special Collections which most resonate with Far North Queensland.  

Our first treasure is one of our favourites from the Rare Book Collection. We don't know who created it, but we call it the Victorian Lady's Sketchbook

Liz Downes answers the question "why is this significant?"

This private sketchbook, dating from the end of the 19th century is one of the most intriguing items in the Rare Books Collection and not simply because of its “orphan work” status.

Victorian Lady's Sketchbook.  Photo by Michael Marzik.

Appearing on the early pages are the initials NB, which we might reasonably assume to be the artist’s. But the full name, and gender, of the person who sketched and painted the plants and landscapes are hidden. So, what can this book tell us about its mysterious owner and his or her travels? 
Botanical sketches from the Victorian Lady's Sketchbook.

The early sketches and watercolours, completed between 1888 and 1890, indicate the artist’s botanical interests, but among the wildflower illustrations are rural scenes in England and Scotland. A sketch titled Netherton Hill, near Healey House Lodge, is probably of a site in Yorkshire. A full page watercolour of a country church with spire standing near a river is inscribed Ayleston; another landscape is at Lubberthorpe. Both are in Leicestershire where the spire of Aylestone’s 13th century St Andrew’s Church still rises above the River Soare. In Scotland the artist sketched Hoddam Castle and its Repentance Tower, near Lockerbie, where castle and tower still stand, and painted wildflowers near Broughton’s 17th century Crook Inn–still serving ale after four centuries! 

 None of these places throw any light on the identity or home of the artist. But one sketch of trees, bordered by a rustic fence, is significant. Its title, Below Pencraig quarry, seems unremarkable–-yet we will find the name Pencraig on paintings made four years later, on the other side of the world. 

From the domesticity of Britain’s wildflowers and countryside, the locations suddenly become exotic. In December 1891 and January 1892 there are drawings from both sides of the Indian subcontinent. By May 1892 there are sketches from Heidelberg near Melbourne and, in July, from Chatswood, New South Wales. All are botanical–flowers, fruits and leaves–some confidently named, others simply described. In one case the artist notes that a specimen was sent to a curator at Kew for identification. 

In India the artist often indicated where the plant had been seen. But, despite the outstanding scenery of the districts visited, there are no landscapes. Was it all too overwhelming for someone used to the tamer English countryside? Or was it simply a question of time? Botanical specimens can be collected and painted at leisure but, in the days before photography was commonplace, landscapes required an artist to be present for hours or days. 

Bowen scenes from the Victorian Lady's Sketchbook.

 Whatever the reason, once arrived in the Bowen district, the artist had the leisure to paint no less than eleven landscapes during August, several in considerable detail. Views across the water to the peaks of Gloucester Island and Cape Gloucester clearly made an impression, as did the river and bush scenery inland. One full page watercolour shows a riverside picnic site, capturing the faded colours of the bush under a midday sun but not the deep azure of a north Queensland sky. 

Tantalisingly, it is in these Bowen paintings that we once again encounter the name “Pencraig”, referring to a local property. Two landscapes feature this name and refer to its owner as “AB” or “Albert”. What is the connection between the English and Queensland Pencraigs? Could NB be related to AB of Bowen’s Pencraig and was this where the artist was staying? Both seem likely. 

Albert’s surname can be deduced from entries in The Queenslander between 1893 and 1905 concerning members of the Brook family, “of Pencraig, Bowen”. A marriage notice in Melbourne’s The Argus nearly thirty years earlier gives further clues. It announced that on 15 March 1866 Ellen Marion Langdon (daughter of a Victorian pastoralist) married Albert Brook, younger son of Thomas Brook of Pen Craig Court, Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. A family history website confirms this had been Albert’s home at least until 1851. From Queensland historical registers we learn that Ellen suffered a stillbirth in 1870 and three more children, two sons and a daughter, all died in infancy between 1871 and 1877. There seems to have been at least one surviving son, Frederick Langdon Brook, although his birthdate is unknown. Albert died in 1900 aged 65 and his wife Ellen passed away in 1907. 

Bowen scenes from the Victorian Lady's Sketchbook.

Bowen’s landscapes would have been starkly different from the lush Herefordshire countryside of Albert’s youth, and the loss of their infant children must have been a cruel blow. But the fact that their social activities were reported in The Queenslander indicates they were of some social standing in the district. 

 As for our artist, after such a long journey the visit lasted little more than a month. The last dated paintings are of exotic flowers and fruits completed in September 1892 in Java. We may assume that these were made on the journey home. Intriguingly, the identity of “NB” remains a mystery. 
Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections unveiled 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

JCU Library is fortunate to have collections of unique and rare resources — including artworks — of regional and national significance, describing life in the tropics. We hope you are inspired to explore further by visiting all of our digital treasures and their stories at NQHeritage@JCU

 Author Biography 

Liz was employed at JCU library from 1975-2011 and also studied for a BA, specialising in English literature and Australian history. She now volunteers with Special Collections, writing blog posts about collection items. Apart from keeping up with the lives of her two grandsons, Liz’s major interest lies in wildlife conservation. She is currently vice-president of the local branch of Wildlife Queensland (WPSQ) which tries to raise community understanding and appreciation of the natural environment as well as undertaking practical projects and conservation advocacy with all levels of government. Before retirement made life too busy, she sometimes wrote poetry.