Image Indigenous Australians spearing eels, c1817

TLF ID R4021

This is a 17.6 cm x 27.7 cm watercolour of two men spearing fish in a river. One has caught an eel on his four-pronged spear. The landscape is heavily vegetated with mountains in the distance and there are rocky outcrops on either side of the river. Large trees frame the image.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset shows Indigenous Australian men using four-pronged fishing spears made from the flowering stems of grass trees - each 30-cm-long prong had a barb made from bone, stingray spines, shell, fish teeth or hardwood; the parts were bound together with two-ply twine or unplied plant fibre and coated with heated resin; fishing spears were up to 6 m long.
  • It demonstrates one method of hunting eels - in many parts of Australia eel traps woven from fibre were either held by hand in a stream or fixed in place; they were often used together with a series of weirs constructed from stone; the flow of water into a progressively narrower funnel made escape impossible; the leaves of certain plants could be crushed and thrown into the water to temporarily stun the eels, enabling them to be caught by hand.
  • It indicates the type of food eaten by Indigenous peoples living on the coastal plains in eastern Australia - the sea, estuaries, rivers and the land all provided food and eels, fish and shellfish were an important part of their diet.
  • It demonstrates the use of European conventions to depict the Australian landscape - the painting has elements of Neoclassicism in the formal, carefully balanced composition of the landscape and the stylised figures within it; both figures strike typical classical poses; it also has elements of Romanticism in the artist's choice of exotic subject matter set in an idyllic landscape; the simple, stiff figures and simplistic choice of colours are characteristic of the naive style of painting.
  • It is part of an important collection of paintings showing the daily life of Indigenous Australians in early colonial times - a bound album of 20 watercolours, painted before 1828 by Englishman Joseph Lycett, was bought by the National Library of Australia at Sotheby's, London, in 1972 for £9,500; the album's title page 'Drawings of the natives and scenery of Van Diemen's Land 1830' is partly incorrect as all the watercolours with identifiable locations are in New South Wales near Newcastle and Port Jackson (Sydney).
  • It was painted by the convict artist Joseph Lycett, who was transported to NSW in 1814 for forgery - although four of the watercolours appear to be at least partly copied from other works, he did have some contact with Indigenous Australians as there is a record of him being wounded in an attack before he returned to England in 1822.

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: Joseph Lycett
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Description: Content provider
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: Joseph Lycett
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements