William Buelow Gould, "Leafy sea dragon"

William Buelow Gould, “Leafy sea dragon” (all images via Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office Commons)

In the most hellish penal colony of Tasmania, a convict named William Buelow Gould painted beautiful watercolors of the sea creatures that washed up on the shores. Gould was transported from England in 1827 for, as his convict record states, “stealing a Great Coat worth 20 pounds.” His sentence was for seven years of labor, but he never returned to his birthplace or his wife and children.

Gould made his Sketchbook of Fishes while at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. Troubled by alcohol and continued stealing, he was moved to the most brutal of the British penal stations. Yet the resident medical officer at the station recognized Gould’s talent, and asked him in 1832 to paint the series of fish, which Gould did with lifelike detail and color.

While he received his freedom in 1835, the demons of his life never let him go, and Gould died an impoverished alcoholic in 1853. His 36 fish watercolors continue to be a vital resource for scientists interested in Tasmanian ecology, and were recognized in 2011 with placement on UNESCO’s Australian Memory of the World Register as items of world significance. They’re held by the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts in the State Library of Tasmania, which has digitized them and shared them in a Flickr Commons album, including those below. There’s something haunting about these delicate paintings created in such a dire place, where a convict condemned engaged with the incredible details of these natural specimens.

William Buelow Gould, “Flounder, unfinished views”

William Buelow Gould, “Flathead”

William Buelow Gould, “Cow or coffer fish”

William Buelow Gould, “Silver dory”

William Buelow Gould, “Toad fish”

William Buelow Gould, “Garfish”

William Buelow Gould, “Sea horse”

William Buelow Gould, “Shrimp & unidentified fish”

William Buelow Gould, “Porcupine fish”

William Buelow Gould, “Stargazer”

William Buelow Gould, “Fresh water crayfish”

William Buelow Gould, “Parrot fish”

William Buelow Gould, “Barracouta”

View more of William Buelow Gould’s fish watercolors at the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office Commons.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

3 replies on “Natural History Watercolors by a 19th-Century Convict”

  1. See Gould’s Book of Fish by 2014 Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan, and a moving paper by Teresa Shewry on the pathos-filled fish “portraits,” the penal system and the sea.

  2. I read the novel by Richard Flanagan and didn’t realize it was based on a true story until now! This is amazing!!

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