Although primarily known as an explorer and surveyor, G.W. Evans's artistic efforts have considerable merit. His topographical vistas of Hobart Town, Parramatta and Sydney Harbour are valuable records of early settlements and newly explored territory in Australia.
painter, surveyor and explorer, was born on 5 January 1780, the third child and eldest son of William Evans, secretary to the Earl of Warwick, of the parish of St James, Westminster, and Ann, née Southam. Little is known of his early life, but he seems to have been employed by a firm of architects and engineers and gained some elementary training in land surveying. In 1798 he married Jeanett, daughter of Captain Thomas Melville of the Third Fleet; they sailed for Cape Town later that year.
Evans remained at Table Bay until May 1802, working in the Naval Storekeeper’s Department. When British forces were withdrawn from the Cape, he migrated to New South Wales, arriving at Port Jackson in HMSBuffalo on 16 October 1802. He was briefly employed as a storekeeper in charge of issuing grain at Parramatta then was Acting Surveyor-General from August 1803 until discharged in February 1805. A few attributed watercolours survive from this time, including Government House, Parramatta (1805, Mitchell Library) and possibly River Landscape, NSW (c.1802, Kerry Stokes Collection, WA).
Evans then took up a land grant on the Hawkesbury River, but his farming venture failed with the floods of March 1806. He struggled on until back in official favour, apparently returning to Britain for a time. (His son George Francis Evans was born in Cardiff in 1809, according to his death certificate.) The family was back in Sydney by 1811, when Lieutenant-Governor Paterson (in Sydney) appointed Evans deputy-surveyor of lands at Port Dalrymple (Launceston); Weatherburn suggests his artistic abilities were a factor in gaining him the position. Removal to Van Diemen’s Land was delayed while Evans, in the Lady Nelson , surveyed the foreshores of Jervis Bay. He returned to Sydney overland through the present sites of Wollongong and Appin. A journal entry made on 7 April 1812 south of Jervis Bay is indicative of his constant sketching: 'About 5 o’clock we came to a flat on the highest part of the mountain quite clean and full of swamps from which was one of the finest views I have ever seen, it would be impossible for a painter to beautify it. I took a sketch altho’ I was much tired in travelling 3 miles [4.8 km]’.
Accompanied by Surveyor James Meehan, Evans finally sailed to Van Diemen’s Land in September 1812. There he was kept busy rectifying surveying errors in land grants. Although Paterson’s provisional appointment was confirmed, Evans was nevertheless recalled to Sydney in August 1813 because Governor Macquarie wanted him to conduct an expedition beyond the most westerly point reached by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in their traverse of the Blue Mountains. On 30 November 1813 Evans and his party became the first recorded Europeans to look upon the rich pasture lands of the western plains (Bathurst district). They penetrated the hitherto unknown interior as far as the Macquarie River.
In recognition of the importance of the expedition, Evans was rewarded with £100 and a grant of 100 acres on the Coal River near Richmond, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He left to take it up in May 1814, but was again recalled by Macquarie and instructed to act as guide to a party leaving Sydney to settle in the Bathurst district, then to explore south. He discovered the Lachlan River and reported on the potential of the river valleys for settlement. His sketch of a row of stone cottages in Bathurst, erected under Macquarie’s direction (1818), was probably made while second-in-command to Surveyor-General John Oxley on a mission to follow the course of the Lachlan River. Evans also helped Oxley to trace the meanderings of the Macquarie River. Sketches taken on both journeys were subsequently engraved to illustrate Oxley’s published journal, Two Expeditions into the Interior of Australia (London, 1820).
At the end of 1818 Evans was able to resume office as Deputy Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land. His travels around Tasmania are recorded in his Geographical, Historical and Topographical Description of Van Diemen’s Land… (London, 1822). One of his watercolour sketches of Hobart Town was used for the foldout aquatint and etching used as the frontispiece in the original edition. Another of the town was published by Ackermann of London as an independent print. Both depict Hobart as a thriving British colonial seaport town with court-house, commissariat store, St David’s Church, warehouses and numerous domestic dwellings in evidence. A surviving original (Dixson Library) shows a competent understanding of watercolour technique.
Lieutenant-Governor Arthur succeeded Sorell in 1824 and wrote a long report to the secretary of state alleging that Evans had taken bribes and illegally disposed of Crown lands. No investigation was carried out since Evans resigned in December 1825 on the grounds of ill health. He received an annual pension of £200, basically for removing himself so appositely. Nevertheless, the scandal continued to haunt both Evans and his assistant Thomas Scott . As late as 1839 Jane Franklin, wife of a succeeding governor, snubbed Evans in Sydney when she recollected the tale.
Jeanett Evans died in 1825. The following year, Evans sailed for England with his second wife Lucy Parris, the teenage daughter of Thomas Lempriere . In London he gave lessons in painting to supplement his pension, for he had a large and growing family to support. There were at least seven children from his first marriage and he and Lucy had five. On the death of Oxley, Evans applied for the position of Surveyor-General of NSW (stating that his health was fully restored). Although unsuccessful, he returned to Sydney in 1832 and opened a bookshop with some of the £600 he received for surrendering his pension. Later George was drawing master at The King’s School, Parramatta, while Lucy conducted a finishing school for young ladies in the town. He retained this position for ten years as the school expanded from 50 to 150 boys; his successor was Joseph Fowles . A group of unsigned watercolours of Parramatta scenes (ML) are attributed to Evans. In the 1840s he produced several views of Sydney Harbour. A signed oil of 1841 (Dixson Library) shows his understanding of picturesque conventions.
The family returned to Hobart Town in 1844. G.W. Evans exhibited eight watercolours and two pencil drawings in the 1845 Hobart Town Exhibition, all untitled, and was undoubtedly the 'Mr Evans’ who advertised lessons in pencil, watercolour and flower painting in the Hobart Town Advertiser in June 1848. Bathurst Region Art Gallery has a Hobart Town maritime scene of the 1840s signed 'G. Evans’.
G.W. Evans remained in Hobart Town until he died, on 16 October 1852. He was buried with his second wife in St John’s churchyard, New Town, although their monument now stands in St Andrew’s churchyard at Evandale in the north of the state. Although primarily known as an explorer and surveyor G.W. Evans’s artistic efforts have considerable merit. His watercolour Borrowdale, Tasmania was shown in the 1862-63 Hobart Town Art Treasures Exhibition. Sketching seems to have been an integral part of his life, and his diligently-rendered topographical vistas of Hobart Town, Parramatta and Sydney Harbour, as well as scenes taken on his journeys with Oxley, are valuable records of early settlements and newly explored territory in Australia.