Image Indigenous Australians fishing by torchlight, c1817

TLF ID R4031

This is a watercolour, measuring 17.7 cm x 27.9 cm, created by Joseph Lycett in about 1817. It depicts Indigenous Australians spear fishing from three bark canoes at night. In each canoe are a man with a spear and a person holding a firebrand. On the river bank, 15 adults and a child are gathered around two fires, roasting fish. Spears and a shield rest against tree trunks and a basket sits on the ground.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset features Indigenous people spearing fish from three bark canoes - to make a canoe, Indigenous Australians used axes to prise a large sheet of bark (4.2 m or longer) from a eucalypt tree, then tied the bark at each end; sticks were tied onto the bark horizontally to hold it open and create a cavity for seating, and a clay hearth was made in the centre of the boat so fish could be cooked as soon as they were caught; although it is not evident in this painting, fibre ropes attached to heavy stones were used as anchors.
  • It demonstrates the use of firebrands to provide light and attract fish to the surface, where they could be speared more easily - firebrands were often carried to enable new fires to be lit quickly; they were also used in hunting, to start fires in order to flush out game.
  • It depicts people in a convivial scene, relaxing in the warmth of campfires at night and cooking food - after eating, Indigenous Australians often told stories late into the evening; fire was also used to straighten wood to be used in tools and weapons; specially constructed fires were also central to many ceremonies.
  • It reflects the consequences of British contact on the Indigenous population, as 21 adults but only one child are pictured - high death rates, mainly through killings and disease, and low birthrates drastically reduced the original population.
  • It depicts those on the shore, apart from the young child, wearing white loincloths - prior to British settlement, Indigenous people on the north coast of New South Wales wore only ornamental bands, and belts made of hair or animal fur, as well as possum or flying-fox skins in winter; the artist has painted these people wearing loincloths so viewers of his work would not be offended.
  • 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 and convict artist Joseph Lycett and bought by the National Library of Australia at Sotheby's, London, in 1972 for £9,500; text on the album's title page, 'Drawings of the natives and scenery of Van Diemens Land 1830', is partly incorrect, as all the watercolours with identifiable locations depict areas in NSW, 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 in the album appear to be at least partly copied from other works, Lycett did have some contact with Indigenous people, as there is a record of him being wounded in an attack before he returned to England in 1822.
  • It demonstrates the use of European conventions to depict the Australian landscape - there are elements of Neoclassicism in the formal, balanced arrangement of the landscape and the figures within it; Romanticism is also apparent, in the 'exotic' figures, the portrayal of people at one with nature and the mysterious mood conjured through the placement of the moon, clouds and reflections on the water; the struggle between these two forms combines with Lycett's simplistic rendition of colours to create a naive style.

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:
Access profile
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements