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Image Indigenous Australians hunting black swans, c1817

TLF ID R4022

This is a 17.5 cm x 27.7 cm watercolour of Indigenous Australian people hunting black swans among reeds near the water's edge of a large river. One man is holding a bird that is trying to escape and three people are spearing birds. At least four other people are almost fully obscured by the reeds. The river is surrounded by a lush, verdant landscape and a mountain range can be seen in the distance.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset depicts hunters spearing black swans (‘Cygnus atratus’) that have been flushed from the reeds by other people in the group; it is likely the birds were nesting in the reeds common to the wetlands in the upper reaches of the Hunter River, an area that was later drained; both swans and their eggs were eaten by Indigenous Australians.
  • It shows the group working cooperatively to maximise the catch - young children learnt from adults and played games to gain skills; the level of learning and experience required meant that a man could be in his mid-twenties before he became an expert hunter.
  • It illustrates a spear being used at close range with a spear thrower (right), indicating that the hunter had been prepared to throw the spear had a swan taken flight - instead, he is holding the two implements together, spearing the bird with a stabbing action; spear throwers increased the distance, accuracy and penetration of spears but were only used in some parts of Australia.
  • It shows spears and a spear thrower, or woomera - the woomera and spearhead were made in a similar way, with the maker using his jaws as a vice, straightening the wood between his teeth before hardening such weapons over a fire; tree resin was heated and used to hold the pegs or spearhead in place, with sinew or two-ply twine added for strength; the spear shaft was probably made from a grass-tree stem.
  • It demonstrates the large area of clear water needed by black swans to take off - found throughout Australia, but not on the Cape York Peninsula, they are more common in the south and prefer larger salt, brackish or fresh waterways and permanent wetlands.
  • 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; 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