Whose Kangaroo Was It Anyway?

Dec 27, 2020

Q. When are a kangaroo and a dingo worth ten million dollars?

A. When they were painted by Britain’s premier equestrian painter, George Stubbs, from stuffed pelts brought back from Botany Bay by Sir Joseph Banks in 1770.

That was the price the National Gallery of Australia was willing to pay for two paintings in 2013, two hundred and forty years after the First Voyage presaged British settler colonisation, before the Mabo case of 1992 saw legal acceptance that Captain Cook had not planted the British flag on a terra nullus.

But in what many might see as indications that the settler colonial ties have not completely moved into the postcolonial, the sale was prohibited by the UK government. The Culture Minister put an export ban on the sale of Stubbs’ Kangaroo and Dingo paintings in January 2013, giving British funders and public time to match the NGA’s bid. The paintings now hang in the National Maritime Museum twenty minutes out of London.

They were first exhibited in London in 1773. Stubbs’ kangaroo (or wallaby) become the dominant meme of the animal for the rest of the eighteenth century, despite the arrival of live kangaroos in London from the early 1790s. And the return of the First Fleet in 1789. It’s still going strong.

Two hundred years after Captain Cook travelled to Australia and back to London the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme that performs many of the same functions of genes but in the cultural context of ideas, images and concepts among humans. A meme takes hold as it were, or as Dawkins put it

‘memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad senses, can be called imitation’.

As we shall see.

Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and others on board HMS Endeavour saw kangaroos and wallabies in Australia but on their return to London they agreed to the use of a painting made from the stuffed pelt of a dead animal to create the first European meme of the new animal that was so difficult to understand within the Linnaean taxonomy of quadrupeds that had emerged in the mid eighteenth century.

Stubbs’ Kangaroo https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/573621.html

https://www.nma.gov.au/explore/features/european_voyages/european_voyages_to_t he_australian_continent/empire/endeavour_runs_aground/sydney_parkinsons_account

Sydney Parkinson’s Kangaroo or Wallaby

[Natural History Museum London]

More than fifty vessels from Europe reached Australian coasts before Captain Cook’s Endeavour hove to in 1770. The Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon, parlayed with Aboriginals in 1606. But the first image and specimen of a kangaroo – or perhaps a wallaby – to reach Europe seem to have been secured when the Endeavour hit a reef off Queensland.

Two hundred and fifty years ago – on 22 June 1770 – crew members, sent ashore to shoot pigeons, reported seeing a ‘greyhound-like’ creature the colour of a mouse. Three days later the Endeavour’s naturalist Joseph Banks wrote:

‘In gathering plants today, I myself had the good fortune to see the beast so much talkd of, tho but imperfectly; he was only like a greyhound in size and running but had a long tail, as long as any greyhounds; what to liken him to I could not tell, nothing certainly that I have seen at all resembles him.’

Sydney Parkinson, one of the two ship’s artists on the Endeavour, made several hundred sketches including one of the kangaroo (which is now in the Natural History Museum in London). He didn’t make it home to England, dying of dysentery in January 1771 off Batavia. The other ship’s artist had predeceased him in Tahiti.

But Parkinson’s journaldid reach England and was published in 1773. It contained what is the first known image of a kangaroo by a European. Though being the size of a greyhound – and there were greyhounds on board the Endeavour, used for hunting food and fauna specimens – the animal may have been a wallaby.

Captain Cook’s and Sir Joseph Banks’ Kangaroo or Wallaby

Joseph Banks took the pelts of a kangaroo (or wallaby) and a dingo back to Britain. He commissioned George Stubbs, the famous equestrian painter, to paint oils of these two animals in 1772 using the stuffed pelts and Parkinson’s sketch. The paintings were exhibited at the Society of Artists in London in 1773.

Captain Cook’s diary was also published in 1773. The Kanguroo is illustrated with an engraving from Stubb’s oil painting, with an illustration engraved from the Stubbs painting that was exhibited at the Society of Artists in London that year.

Plate XX. An animal found on the coast of New Holland called Kanguroo.

© Derived from Vols. II-III of the London 1773 edition: National Library of Australia call no. FERG 7243, page 560, 2004

Published bySouth Seas, using theWeb Academic Resource Publisher

To cite this page use:http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-jrnl-hv23-561

John Hawkesworth’s An Account of Voyages Undertaken for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere in 1773


Arthur Bowes Smyth’s Kangaroo or Wallaby

Nearly twenty years after the Endeavour, Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 ships and around 1,350 people, arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788 and then moved on to Port Jackson in what the eminent Australian historian WG Hancock termed as early as 1930 “The Invasion.”

Arthur Bowes Smyth practised as a surgeon in Essex between 1778 and 1783. In March 1787 he was appointed surgeon to the ship’s company on the Lady Penhryn, one of the transports in the First Fleet, which carried 101 female convicts to New South Wales. There is a sketch of a kangaroo in copies made of his Journal, dated 1787-89. It looks remarkably like the Stubbs painting of 1772. Bowes Smyth died six months after his return to London.


 ‘The Kangaroo’ 1787-89 by Arthur Bowes Smyth, State Library of NSWArthur Bowes Smyth’s drawing of a kangaroo. From the collection Drawings from his journal `A Journal of a Voyage from Portsmouth to New South Wales and China in the Lady Penrhyn …’, 1787-1789. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Three manuscripts of Bowes Smyth’s journal are known to exist. The original is held at the National Library of Australia and two slightly differing transcribed copy versions are at the Mitchell Library in Sydney and the British Library in London. Only the two ‘fair copies’ include the bulk of the illustrations, said to be pen and ink drawing by Bowes Smyth. They are listed as ‘compiled circa 1790′, after Bowes Smyth had returned to London.

According to an archival note relating to the Mitchell Library copy the 25 watercolour illustrations had previously been folded and tipped-in to the journal with sealing wax.

One of several curious aspects of the provenance of the drawing that appeared in the transcription copies made of Bowes Smyth’s diary after his return to London is that its obvious derivation from Stubbs’ painting was not remarked upon at the time of its publication.

Bewick’s Kangaroo

Also in 1790 A General History Of Quadrupeds. The Figures Engraved On Wood By T. Bewick was published in London. And again it used the Stubbs meme from nearly 20 years and two major visits to Australia.


Commercialising the meme

The Australian National Gallery of Art has a mug made in Staffordshire ‘circa 1800’ listed as ‘ceramics, earthenware, slip cast with transfer and painted decoration’ of Bowes Smyth’s pen and ink drawing of The Kangaroo, purchased in 1980. https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=72773

National Gallery of Australia


Mug c 1800

Place made: Staffordshire, England

Materials & Technique: ceramics, earthenware, slip cast with transfer and painted decoration

You can still buy a replica on ebay.

Des Cowley and Brian Hubber noted in 2000 that for almost 20 years until the end of the eighteenth century, the Stubbs painting was the only image of a kangaroo in circulation. It continued to dominate even after new images returned with the First Fleet and live kangaroos arrived in London from the early 1790s.

Yet for a long time Bowes Smyth’s image was regarded as a contribution to the slowly growing information about this exotic species. Even the note made by the Australian Joint Copying Project in 1974 as it filmed the three copies of Bowes Smyth’s diary held in Australia and London doesn’t remark on the curious derivation of Figure 39, the Kangaroo.

It is illuminating to trace the evolution of the Stubbs kangaroo image into a meme of early settler colonialism in Australia. What might the Australian National Gallery have bought to add to the iconography of settler sovereignty if it hadn’t been thwarted by what might be thought of as an act of postcolonial tristesse or pique in 2013? Then again, perhaps Stubbs’ kangaroo is more English than Australian and better off left in London like John Lewin’s paintings of kangaroos that have been shown at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons for more than 200 years unrecognised as possibly the earliest European-made oil paintings of settler Australia as I report at www.rabbittreview.com.

Sue Rabbitt Roff has written on the commodification of Australian art starting with Sidney Nolan in the 1950s and 1960s and on the purchase process of Blue Poles in the 1970s during which the price increased once negotiations began. Her digital essays on Australian nuclear history and cultural issues are collated on her website The Rabbitt Review http://www.rabbittreview.com.


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