50 Treasures: Sir Oswald Walters Brierly's Sketches Made Aboard H.M.S. Rattlesnake

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 fiftieth and final treasure is a series of sketches created during the first detailed survey of islands and sea passages in the Great Barrier Reef area and the Louisiade Archipelago. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes Sir Oswald Walters Brierly's sketches made aboard the H.M.S. Rattlesnake.

Jean Dartnall answers the question "why is this significant?" 

The Artist 
Sir Oswald Walters Brierly (1817 – 1894) was a well-known and respected marine artist. He trained in drawing and painting at the art school of Henry Sass in London. However, his skill and reputation did not rely only on that. He went on to study naval architecture in Plymouth, at that time the site of shipbuilding for the British Navy. He also had extensive practical experience of ships at sea.

Oswald Walters Brierly, H.M.S. Rattlesnake, June 7th, 1848, pencil on paper, 16.5 x 54.5 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

Brierly travelled widely and made friends everywhere. The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes: ‘His journal shows a great interest in people and a capacity for enjoying life.’ He was also unusual for his time in taking great interest in the indigenous populations of places he went, collecting words of Aboriginal languages and making friends with, and collecting information about, local people. For example, while the Rattlesnake was in the Torres Strait, he made what are described as ‘a collection of detailed watercolour paintings of canoes’.

In 1874 he was appointed Marine Painter to Queen Victoria and to the Royal Yacht Squadron. He was also made Curator of the Queen’s Pictures in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, a position he held until his death. He was knighted in 1885.

Oswald Walters Brierly, Untitled, no date, pencil on paper, 14 x 37.5 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

Brierly came to Australia for the first time on board the schooner Wanderer, sailed by her owner, entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd. For several years Brierly managed Boyd’s pastoral and whaling interests around Twofold Bay, New South Wales. His paintings of whales and whaling give a vivid impression of the industry at that time. However, by 1848, partly prompted by Boyd’s approaching bankruptcy, Brierly was ready to move on. He had been befriended by Captain Owen Stanley RN, captain of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, and was invited to join the ship as a guest.

The Voyage
The voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, 1846 – 1850 was significant in practical ways for eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea. It resulted in the first detailed survey of islands and sea passages in the Great Barrier Reef area and in the Louisiade Archipelago. The brief from the Lords of the Admiralty to Captain Owen Stanley was to produce charts and sailing directions for an absolutely safe track in the inner part of the barrier reef and into the Torres Strait.

Oswald Walters Brierly, June 7th 1849, 1849, pencil on paper, 19.2 x 28 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

 Only a limited amount of survey work had been previously done in these waters, and ships straying from the single surveyed route were likely to come to grief in this navigationally complex area. This point was reinforced by notes from the Admiralty Hydrographer which includes the telling comment. ‘Of the many well-known passages between the innumerable islands of that great Archipelago, there is not one which has ever been charted with plausible accuracy; and it cannot be too strongly impressed on your mind that hydrography is better served by one accurate chart than by ten approximate sketches.’

The timing of this survey work was of politically strategic importance as the Dutch, French and American navies were becoming more interested in the Pacific Ocean and Coral Sea which had, until then, been considered by the British as their own. There was also an economic justification for the voyage as the British intended to start a steamship service between Sydney and British ports in Asia, the first steamship having arrived in Sydney in 1831.

The voyage achieved its objectives, resulting in Admiralty charts published a few years later which have formed the basis for all future mapping of this area.

Oswald Walters Brierly, Water here becomes drawn out in lines as the undulation passes onward, the crest breaking white on the ridge and then being left a white frothing patch in the hollows of the wave. Depth water 13 Fms Sept 14/48, 1848, pencil on paper, 14 x 38.5 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

The Drawings 
It seems probable that Brierly’s sketches of wave patterns were made while the ship was engaging in detailed surveying or, perhaps, while waiting for the weather to become calm enough for surveying to be undertaken. These would have been long periods of slow or no movement in fairly calm seas. The vessels shown in some of the drawings would probably be the two tenders to the Rattlesnake – the Bramble and the Castlereagh – forming the other points of triangulation for sightings and soundings.

Oswald Walters Brierly, Irregular waves. Not continued in ridges but rising up in separate heaps - running in different directions, and varying in size, these may be the result either of sudden shift of wind, change of tide,  current or tide sweeping past on Island or be found on the lee side of an Island during a Gale. Sep 14/48, 1848, pencil on paper, 14 x 38.5 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

Two of the drawings are dated June 7th [18]48; on that date the ships would have been at or close to the Barnard Islands (approximately offshore present-day Tully). Another sketch is dated Sept 14th 1849 when the ships were in the south east part of the Louisiade Archipelago in the vicinity of Rossel Island.

These sketches may have been intended for reworking with wash or water colour. This technique is one Brierly often used, judging by descriptions of works listed on the online auction website ‘Invaluable’. He is reported to have made colour notes in his diary, which he could use in this subsequent reworking.

 ‘Invaluable’ also lists a number of unsigned works attributed to Brierly and a number explicitly described as ‘after Oswald Brierly’. Evidently, his work was sufficiently known and respected to acquire imitators and followers.

The late Sir Oswald Walters Brierly, R.W.S., Marine Painter to the Queen, by Elliot & Fry, London. Photograph held by Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

 It is possible, however, that the drawings may have been made simply to pass the time: Brierly was a prolific artist and said of himself that he had ‘an irresistible urge to sketch’.

The significance of these drawings is as a rare illustration of the superficially boring but vitally important activity of survey.  The surveying work of this voyage produced the data for navigational charts which made possible the settlement and development of Queensland.

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 
Jean Dartnall’s first tertiary training was in the biological sciences and she had a brief research career working in human cytogenetics. She then retrained as a librarian and spent most of her working life in science related library work. Long-standing interests in history and in music have led to opportunities to research and write in these areas.

Bassett, M. & Smith, B.B. (1969). Sir Oswald Walters (1817–1894). Australian dictionary of biography. Melbourne University Press.

Goodman, J. (2005). The Rattlesnake: A voyage of discovery to the Coral Seas. Faber and Faber.

Invaluable. (n.d.). Oswald Brierly auction price results. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.invaluable.com/artist/brierly-oswald-bw26f5cqrk/sold-at-auction-prices/
McGillivray, J. (1852). Narrative of the voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake commanded by the late Captain Owen Stanley during the years 1846 – 1950. T. & W. Boone.

 Mcniven, I.J. (2015). Canoes of Mabuyag and Torres Strait. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum: culture, 8(21) 127-207. https://www.qm.qld.gov.au/About+Us/Publications/Memoirs+of+the+Queensland+Museum/892+MQM-C+Vol+8