The HMS Investigator voyage

A watercolour of two koalas

A watercolour of two koalas by Ferdinand Bauer

HMS Investigator, captained by Matthew Flinders, sailed from Spithead in Hampshire, England, on Saturday 18 July 1801, tasked with charting the coastline of Australia. It reached King George Sound in Western Australia on 8 December 1801. From 1801 to 1803, HMS Investigator travelled the Australian coastline and studied flora and fauna along the way.

At the same time, the French ships the Naturaliste and the Geographe – both under the command of Nicolas Baudin – fulfilled the same task for France, travelling the Australian coast in the opposite direction. All three ships brought along official artists – sponsored by their respective governments – to record their findings. The Investigator carried natural history artist Ferdinand Bauer, landscape artist William Westall and botanist Robert Brown.

After some persuading from famous English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, the Admiralty agreed that, along with mapping the coastline, the expedition would also study the region's natural history. Banks had pointed out that the French ships led by Baudin were travelling with large numbers of scientists and gardeners.    

Ferdinand Bauer

Ferdinand Lucas Bauer (1760–1826) was born in Austria to an artistic family - his father was court painter to the Prince of Liechtenstein. Bauer and his brothers were given lessons in plant collecting and drawing from a young age. His elder brother, Franz, became the first botanical artist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England.

Ferdinand was the botanical draughtsman to botanist Robert Brown on the Investigator voyage. Bauer sketched the plants and animals they saw and collected, and his work revealed the splendour of Australia's natural history to Europeans for the first time. Some of his finished pieces were published in the first detailed account of Australasia's natural history, Illustrationes Florae Novae Hollandiae (1813). Bauer's drawings were unique in their morphological and chromatic accuracy. He studied collections and sketches, and sought the expertise of Brown, to produce sophisticated pieces.                        

It is thought that Bauer made 2,060 field drawings during the HMS Investigator voyage, the majority of which are held by the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, Austria. The Library and Archives at the Natural History Museum holds 252 of the drawings' finished watercolour counterparts. The Library and Archives also has 19 pencil sketches of trees by Westall.

The Investigator voyage ended when the ship was declared unfit to sail in June 1803. Flinders returned to England to collect another ship to complete his expedition and bring the remaining crew members home. Bauer and Brown stayed in Australia for a further two years – focussing on the natural history of New South Wales, Tasmania and Norfolk Island - before returning to England in 1805.   

In the Library 

Brown's manuscripts on the zoological specimens he collected on the voyage can be found in the Museum Library, along with his book, Catalogue of Fossils (1802). The Library also houses letters referring to HMS Investigator, chiefly those of its lead miner, the mineralogist John Allen, who joined the voyage at the request of Banks.


Composition: Books, illustrations, artwork, manuscripts, letters, pencil sketches


  • Ferdinand Bauer
  • Matthew Flinders
  • William Westall
  • Robert Brown