George Henry Peck was a painter, carver, art dealer, art entrepreneur and musician. He arrived at Hobart Town in June 1833 and in July had his first concert there. In 1837 he arranged the first general art exhibition held in any of the Australian colonies, held at the Colonial Gallery of Arts that he was also responsible for organising.
painter, carver, art dealer, art entrepreneur and musician, was born in Hull, Yorkshire. He arrived at Hobart Town in the Warrior on 27 June 1833. Eight days later the Hobart Town Courier referred to his musical talent and his ability to imitate Paganini’s style of playing the violin. His first concert was held at Hobart Town in July and in August he performed at Launceston, where his reputation had preceded him. For the remainder of the year he gave concerts in both places. In September he advertised that he would teach the 'Art of Transferring’ in one lesson costing half a guinea, to be held in clients’ own homes. Sample specimens were on view at various Hobart Town addresses, including Peck’s own at Mr Collie’s, next to the White Horse Inn, Liverpool Street. He also undertook to teach woodcarving 'in all its various branches’.
Early in 1834 Peck opened as carver, gilder, ornamental designer and binder in his newly erected shop in Liverpool Street, Hobart, which stocked stationery and art supplies. When an apprentice to learn carving and gilding was required, Peck advertised for pupils for violin lessons at the same time. In September Peck took part in a benefit concert at Launceston and from 13-20 October he exhibited his 'Artium Pecciano’ or 'Mechanical and Picturesque Theatre of the Arts’ in J.P. Fawkner’s Cornwall Hotel Assembly Room. The entertainment consisted of a selection of vocal and instrumental music followed by a mechanical portrayal of various events at Lake Maggiore and, in conclusion, 'a display of Phantasmagorical Representations of various celebrated men and various grotesque figures’ (magic-lantern slides). The Independent reported: 'Many of the subjects have been effectively copied from “La Belle Italie” by a Gentleman, whose talent in another department of Fine Arts is so well known as to render any eulogium superfluous; and who will not only continue his accomplished Crayon in furnishing a rapid succession of interesting Scenic Novelties , but also preside as Leader of the Orchestra, for the desirable purpose of solacing the Audience with appropriate and popular Music.’
In January 1835 Peck staged his Theatre of Arts spectacle (accompanied by an orchestra) in Hobart Town. Based on Thiodon’s Grand Mechanical and Picturesque Theatre of Arts shown in London from the 1820s (itself inspired by Philippe de Loutherbourg’s 'Eidophuskon’ exhibited at London in 1781), Peck used many of Thiodon’s exact phrases about its educational value in his advertisements, e.g. it was 'particularly recommended to the notice of those families whose religious tenets forbid their participation in Thespian amusements’ because of its 'innocent and highly moral character (being totally distinct from anything of a dramatic nature)’. At the 1 May 1835 performance of the Theatre of Arts, attended by the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land Colonel George Arthur and his family, Peck introduced Australian views and figures for the first time: 'Mount Wellington, as seen from Sandy Bay, with the upper part of Davey-street’ and 'The Death of the Kangaroo’.
Peck also featured in other Hobart Town concerts later in the year. The 'numerous avocations’ that limited his Launceston performances to a week included a grand Hobart Town lottery. Advertised in November 1834, the prizes were 'a splendid collection of Pictures just arrived from Ackermann’s’ which could be inspected at his Liverpool Street shop. In April 1835 it was announced that the exhibition would close shortly and 'in order to give all classes an opportunity of witnessing it’ prices had been reduced.
In June 1836 Peck married Sophia Mildred Wilkinson in Trinity Church, Hobart Town. By September he had moved to new premises in Elizabeth Street, next to the General Post Office, which he called Peck’s 'Repository’ of Arts after Rudolph Ackermann’s famous London establishment. There he continued to sell stationery and musical instruments and do carving, gilding, bronzing, copperplate engraving and bookbinding. He seized the opportunity to capitalise on the arrival of a new Governor and called for subscribers for a lithograph of a portrait of Sir John Franklin 'by that eminent artist “Wageman” [Wegelin]’ to appear on 31 October, the subscription to the limited edition being 2 shillings. The lithographer appears to have been Thomas Norrington . Peck also raffled a view of the Australian Alps taken on John Lhotsky 's expedition, pointing out that four similar views had been raffled in Sydney. Lhotsky’s Journey to the Australian Alps was on sale to complement the drawing. He remained at Elizabeth Street for a year. In May 1837 a collection of paintings of native plant and animal life 'by that celebrated and eccentric genius, “Gould”’ ( William Buelow Gould ) were added to the usual goods advertised. His zeal and enterprise encompassed a production of Timour the Tartar at the Theatre Royal as a benefit for himself and fellow musician Taylor. Although advertised as including several real horses, only one equine performer actually made an appearance on the night.
In July 1837 the Hobart Town Courier praised 'our fellow townsman Peck, who has laboured so hard to promote a taste for the fine arts’ and mentioned that he was currently organising a Colonial Gallery of Arts to open on 7 August in the Argyle Rooms. In the event, the opening was delayed for two days – because of the great influx of privately owned paintings lent for the occasion, Peck explained. Paintings by British and European artists were included, together with steel and copper engravings, pencil and watercolour views of the colony, 'Busts, Bas Reliefs, and Medals – beautiful Specimens in Conchology, Geology, and Chrystallography’ (shells, rocks and minerals) and 'a complete series of all the Native Plants systematically arranged’. A catalogue was on sale for 6d, but no copy has been located and the full range of the work on display is unknown. There were at least 216 exhibits and local artists represented included Thomas Chapman , Thomas Lempriere and sculptor Benjamin Law with his busts of Truganini and Woureddy. It was the first general art exhibition held in any of the Australian colonies. As the Hobart Town Courier noted on 18 August: 'We are disposed to dwell very warmly upon this first exhibition… Something is wanting to refine and elevate a community above mere material delights, for if it be left to depend upon these it is likely to become grovelling and contemptible indeed.’
It was a final fling. At the same time Peck advertised his Repository of Arts for sale. He was in Brisbane Street, near Trinity Church, later in 1837. A major reason for the sale was that he was embarking on the production of a full-scale model of Hobart Town to be exhibited in London with a view to attracting settlers. To facilitate the work, Peck asked for public cooperation in allowing his surveyors to take measurements of all Hobart Town properties. In October he reported that over 300,000 square yards had been completed, covering the area between Liverpool Street and the harbour and between Murray Street and the Domain. Anyone with plans was asked to lend them to 'the artist’ Francis Low . After augmenting his finances with another benefit concert at the Theatre Royal, the model was complete enough to be shown in the Argyle Rooms in March 1838, together with a panoramic view of Hobart Town and its surrounding scenery 'painted by a very celebrated artist’. Locals were urged to attend if only to see how accurately their own homes had been represented. The Hobart Town Courier wrote enthusiastically of the model and expressed the hope that Peck would be remunerated for his expense and labour. However, by April 1839, before the model was finished, Peck and Low had a disagreement and Low proceeded independently to model a separate and, he claimed, 'more comprehensive’ view of the town. (Low also made a model of Government House, Hobart, now in the Tasmanian Museum.)
Peck hurriedly left for Sydney on board the Susannah Ann on 27 April 1839, the day after advertising his farewell concert – which is unlikely to have eventuated – to display his Hobart Town model and panorama (probably painted by Edward Shribbs ), ignoring Low’s claim that he, Low, was sole artist in the model’s construction. By 1841 he was exhibiting these works in London and Liverpool, together with 'a rough sketch on a small scale – of Sydney, which has a sort of Australindian appearance’. Peck had moved back to Sydney in 1838, engaged as a violinist at the Royal Victoria Theatre. In 1839 he either sold or leased his Theatre of Arts to Edward Barlow , who advertised it as the 'counterpart’ of Thodion’s original, claiming that the mechanical figures had been 'made by the same artist’ who had worked for Thodion (evidently Edward Shribbs ).
Later Peck set up in his hometown of Hull as an 'Artist in Figure and Ornamental Wood Carving’ and received the major commission of carving the poppyheads and pew elbows in the restoration of Holy Trinity Church, Hull. Then he went to California – presumably en route for Tasmania – where he promoted and participated in 'Promenade Concerts à la Julien’. He was back at Hobart Town by February 1848 (when he gave permission for his ward, Mary Ann Amelia Crumb, to marry a singer called John McDonald, though the marriage seems not to have taken place.) He then lived in Melbourne, teaching music when not travelling. From Melbourne he exhibited 'Cribbage boards’ at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. The George W. (sic) Peck cited as author of Melbourne and the Chincha Islands, with sketches of Lima, and a Voyage round the World , published in New York in 1854 based on travels undertaken in 1853, seems to have been George Henry. 'For the truth of my pictures’, the author wrote, 'I can only appeal to the evidence of those who have visited the scenes described’. The illustrations, however, consist only of a few vignettes: two sketches of albatrosses, maps (including one of Port Phillip Bay) and some coastal profiles for which Peck proudly claimed 'correctness of outline’.
George Henry Peck took part in the inaugural meeting of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts at Melbourne on 29 October 1856. That year, as a resident of Lonsdale Street, West Melbourne, he showed two carvings in Huon pine at the Victorian Exhibition of Art: An Italian Peasant Water Carrier and a relief 'Emblematic of Christ and the Four Evangelists’. He won the Industrial Society’s silver medal for the latter, subsequently shown at the 1857 Geelong Mechanics Institute Exhibition by its owner, S. Higgott. Some of Peck’s woodcarvings were included in a Melbourne art union in 1856 and the following year he began holding art lotteries of his own. The drawing of prizes became a social event, usually preceded by a concert in which Peck featured. In mid 1858 he returned to Hobart Town as leader of the orchestra for a season by G.V. Brooke at the Theatre Royal, during which time he gave a solo violin recital in the ballroom of Old Government House. Many colonists 'will remember the skill, taste and ability formerly evinced by Mr Peck’, announced the Mercury , adding: 'it is but fair to presume, that his visit to Europe has added to his qualifications by the advantages derived from an association with the most celebrated artists of the day’. The concert, to include his celebrated solo on a single string à la Paganini, was poorly attended but 'with some exceptions’ was said to have given general satisfaction.
Later in 1858 Peck was operating a dance hall (The Rotunda) in South Head Road, Sydney, in conjunction with a Mr Jones ( seeWilliam Bradley ). Peck’s wife was also involved in the venture and acted as master of ceremonies on occasions. In press advertisements Peck described himself as 'late leader and musical director of the Prince of Wales Theatre, Sydney, and formerly Manager of the celebrated Promenade Concerts at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, and many Theatres in Victoria, England and America’. He continued to produce occasional carvings. A surviving framed wood scene (21 × 102 cm, p.c.) depicting Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is dated 1858. By 1862 he had opened a Music and Fine Art Repository at 387 George Street, where he held art unions and exhibitions. He died in Sydney on 20 September 1863. His only known extant painting is an undated oil of Timsbury, Glenorchy, Tasmania (p.c.), reproduced in Michael Clarke’s 'Big’ Clarke (Carlton, Vic. 1980).