The First Fleet artwork collection

Drawing 17 from the Watling collection

‘North view of Sydney Cove’, taken from the flagstaff opposite the observatory by a Port Jackson painter, circa 1793–1795

The drawings in the First Fleet collection reflect Australia's flora, fauna and geography and provide a significant record of the Aboriginal people and an insight into their way of life.

In the late eighteenth century, 11 ships set sail from England for Australia. They were carrying 1,500 people, including a large number of convicts and guards. When the fleet landed in 1788 the Englishmen established a penal colony in New South Wales. 

The First Fleet collection consists of 629 drawings and watercolours. These include drawings of plants, animals and landscapes by Thomas Watling, a convicted forger, and George Raper, a midshipman of the fleet’s lead ship, HMS Sirius. It also contains the first drawings by Europeans of Port Jackson, known today as Sydney, and of the region’s indigenous Eora people.

A large number of the images contained in the First Fleet artwork collection have been digitised and are freely available online.

(It is customary for some Australian Aboriginal communities not to reproduce images associated with or mention the names of deceased people. Members of these communities are respectfully advised that some of the images in the collection depict deceased Aboriginal people).

The collection came to the Museum as three separate collections:

The Watling collection

Thomas Watling, from Dumfries, Scotland, was an artist and  convicted forger. The collection was originally composed of 512 numbered drawings, but 24 of these (all of birds) were missing by the time the Museum purchased it in 1902. Of the remaining 488 drawings, 121 are signed by Watling. It is certain that some of the pictures are by at least one other artist – the artist or artists known as the Port Jackson Painter. The majority of the pictures are of natural history subjects and the rest show topographic and ethnologic content.

The Raper collection

George Raper was a Royal Navy midshipman on the HMS Sirius. There are 72 drawings in the collection, all but ten of which are signed by Raper. Most of the paintings in the collection were produced in New South Wales in the fledgling community of Port Jackson, but some were made on Norfolk Island while Raper and the rest of HMS Sirius’s crew awaited rescue following a shipwreck. The collection’s watercolours depict a variety of natural history, topographical and ethnological subjects, as well as events in the early history of the colony. The collection was in private hands until it was presented to the Museum in 1962.            

The Port Jackson Painter collection

It has been suggested that the 69 drawings and watercolours in the Port Jackson Painter collection are the work of two or three unknown artists. Some of the pictures were produced in the Port Jackson area, but others were probably produced in England, based on specimens that had been brought back by the settlers. The drawings that make up the collection are mainly of natural history subjects, but there are a small number of ethnographic studies. The Museum acquired the collection in 1827 as a part of the Sir Joseph Banks bequest.


Composition: Drawings and watercolours

Focus: Australian natural history and anthropology


  • Thomas Watling (c. 1762–1797)
  • George Raper (c. 1769–97)

NHM Images

  • First Fleet artworks