sketcher, lithographer(?), art critic, art entrepreneur, naturalist and explorer, was born on 27 June 1795 in Lemberg, Galicia (now L’vov, Ukraine), son of Joseph Lhotsky, an Austrian government official. The family left in 1812 and John studied medicine at Prague. In 1816 he attended Vienna University, and he also studied at L’vov, Berlin, Paris and Leipzig. He was awarded a doctorate from the University of Jena in 1819 when he was working with the brothers Presl at Prague cataloguing the flora of Bohemia, published that year as Flora Conchica . At Leipzig in 1820 he published On Enlightenment, Culture, Development as the Highest Goal in the Life of Mankind ('a fantasy’, said Lhotsky) and Contribution to a Policy, or a Science of Forming Mankind in and according to the Idea of Dr J. Lhotsky . As a result, particularly of the latter, he was arrested and spent six years (1822-28) in a Viennese prison.
After his release Lhotsky decided to begin life anew by travelling to the New World to collect natural history specimens for museums in Europe. He spent eighteen months in Brazil then came to Sydney, arriving on 18 May 1832. Failing to receive either a land grant or the position of curator at the Australian Museum and having, he claimed, only a 'small pension’ from King Louis I of Bavaria, Lhotsky turned to journalism. His first article, 'Civilization of the Aborigines’, was published in the Sydney Gazette on 6 October 1832. He also gave lectures and made collecting expeditions, claiming to have 8000 natural history objects for sale in February 1833. He made a pioneering expedition to the Australian Alps early in 1834 and on his return began publishing A Journey from Sydney to the Australian Alps, undertaken in the Months of January, February, and March, 1834 (Sydney 1834-35), issued haphazardly as a series of supposedly monthly parts at a shilling each. This expired after seven and a half of the projected twenty sheets, most subscribers undoubtedly having cancelled their subscriptions before February 1836 when the final half-sheet belatedly eventuated.
In May 1834 Dr Lhotsky was advertising as a carter and horse-hirer, stating that he 'felt much reluctance to confess … that after two years of trouble, anxiety and exertion, he is reduced for the present moment at least, to the above line of business’, but added optimistically, 'many irons are in the fire, they will all get hot by-and-by’. One was his Native Melody, a Song of the Women of the Menero [Monaro] Tribe, near the Australian Alps , published in 1834 and dedicated to Queen Adelaide. Its title-page, according to the Australian , was 'as good as could be expected in a rough draft and first attempt, and a little polishing will probably present to the public a very fair specimen of Lithography; we would suggest a Vignette to be composed of a Native chief and the Doctor and his Horse in the attitude usually given to the Three Graces!’. Lhotsky had compiled a short but useful vocabulary of the Aboriginal 'Menero’ people on his southern journey and the words of the song came from this. The Aboriginal source and the fact that original music had now been published in Sydney are considered colonial firsts.
Another proclaimed colonial innovation was Lhotsky’s use of lithographed back and front covers for his five-part series Illustrations of the Present State and Future Prospects of the Colony of New South Wales , issued late that year by J.G. Austin . Each part has the same covers, the front a view of Sydney Heads framed in a shield, the back a vignette of a cabbage-tree palm. More significant was Australia’s first colonial art union, held by Lhotsky in June 1834, the prize being a framed View of the Australian Alps – Mount King William . It was won by William Moffitt, the Pitt Street stationer and art dealer at whose shop tickets were sold. Lhotsky immediately announced that he would raffle a second view of Mount King William 'on a more extensive scale and surrounded by a more smiling sky’. He claimed that the new version would be the last, although the following month he advertised 'Original with the Copyright to be raffled for, in Fifty Shares at 10 shillings each’, stating that this one was to be sent to Ackermann in London to be engraved (and thus make a fortune for the copyright owner).
Throughout 1835 he advertised 'Insects, minerals, drawings and some birds, skeletons &c.’ for sale at his private museum, the Australian Philosophical Repository. In July-August he organised another raffle, this time of four watercolour drawings of colonial plants and scenery, described in the Sydney Monitor as 'well designed and the execution is tolerable. The best finished picture is decidedly “Cudgee in a Gale”, which is a pretty picture’. On 25 September, ten days after that had been drawn, Lhotsky announced a second art union of another four watercolours (twenty-four shares at 10s each, all paintings framed and glazed): 'The trees especially, have met with general approbation, and we can assure our kind patrons, that they have not only been sketched after nature, but very often the Proprietor and his Artist were obliged to take to the bush two or three times for the same Drawing, when the attendance of servants, carrying utensils, provisions, &c., was required. It was by such trouble and expense, that these trees have received this pronounced Australian character, in which respect they are unrivalled’. As his subjects were Australian Mangrove – North Shore, Sydney, Estate of Dr Bowman , White Gum – Waverley Crescent, Sydney , Forest Oak – Juniperine [Juniper] Hall, Sydney and Swamp Oak – Government Domain, Sydney , none, even then, was precisely in the bush.
Most of his art union drawings appear to have been by other artists. In a letter to Sir William Hooker dated 4 December 1840 Jorgen Jorgensen stated that when Lhotsky was in Van Diemen’s Land convicts provided him with 'drawings of fishes and so on, which he called his own’. In fact, Lhotsky did indicate that most of his art work was commissioned even though he never identified the artists who worked for him (despite a radical, outspoken support for convict rights) and certainly in Sydney he employed at least one free artist, Richard Hipkiss . His essay in the London Art Union of July 1839 did acknowledge helpers and partly resolves the question of attribution:
As from my first arrival in Australia, I perceived that it would afford a rich scope for the landscape painter, I had some drawings executed, most of them on a large scale. Amongst them were several studies of trees of unique appearance: Xant[h]orrhea Arborea, Eucalyptus, Casuarina, &c. In the Australian Alps I took a sketch of a great mountain panorama; and in Tasman’s peninsula I had a virginal forest drawn, which breathes all the mysterious and silent majesty of such scenery. One of my most cheerful sketches, is the spot where Captain Cook first landed.
The last, Captain Cook’s Tablet at Cape Solander, Botany Bay, New South Wales , was published in London in 1839 as a lithograph acknowledged as after Lhotsky, who must also have done the original sketches on his alpine expedition.
Unable to obtain further funding for botanical expeditions, in debt and without patronage, Lhotsky left Sydney in disgust for Hobart Town, arriving there on 14 October 1836 in the barque Frances Freeling . Again denied the position of government botanist, he was assigned three convicts by the interim acting governor, Colonel Snodgrass, by way of compensation. In November he again resorted to an art union, displaying another View of the Australian Alps near the Pass, Leading from the Port Phillip Country to Sydney, Taken on Dr. Lhotsky’s expedition at George Peck 's Hobart Town shop ('4 similar were raffled in Sydney’). The incoming Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin proved more sympathetic and Lhotsky was given the only available job: overseer of convicts on the Tasman Peninsula. There he searched for coal and developed mines with his convict labour force, making a geological map in seven colours in the process (AOT). William Buelow Gould , who seems to have painted Lhotsky’s Tasmanian fish, may have worked for him there.
Despite continuing to lecture and write articles, Lhotsky became increasingly entangled in debt. Forced to sell his natural history collections privately after the government refused them, the Legislative Council then paid his outstanding bills. Lhotsky, whose eccentricities and radical views had made him few friends, sailed for England in the barque Emu on 1 April 1838. In London patronage was still not forthcoming (Sir Roderick Murchison, president of both the British Geological and Geographical societies, called him a mad Pole), so he put up for auction a collection of specimens, mostly from the Tasman Peninsula, stating that he contemplated adding to the sale 'a couple of plates, representing organic remains, from the originals of which I do not intend to part at present’. He continued his scientific investigations and lectures and increasingly turned to journalism, becoming a prolific writer of articles, pamphlets and tracts.
His article, 'The state of arts in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land’, published in the London Art Union in July 1839 appears to be another first – the earliest article on the fine arts of Australia known to have been published overseas. It especially praised the architecture of New South Wales – St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral and John Verge’s Camden Park House for John Macarthur being cited as the colony’s best buildings – and he also paid tribute to antipodean pub signs. Charles Hotson Ebden, who four years earlier (in October 1835) had threatened Lhotsky with a libel suit at Sydney, was hailed as the owner of the best collection of European paintings in the colonies. A short list of worthy antipodean artists was included: John (called 'Thomas’) Glover , Ferdinand Bauer (in a footnote), Charles Rhodius (Rodius) and the sculptor Benjamin Law (called Low). Nevertheless, Lhotsky said, despite such evidence of progress and his own enlightened patronage, 'Australian sky and nature awaits, and merits real artists to portray it’.
Finally, in dire poverty and ill-health, Lhotsky wrote to John Dunmore Lang at Sydney in 1861 saying he was about to apply to the NSW government for a reward for being the colony’s first scientific discoverer of gold but was never heard from again. He died on 23 November 1866 in the Dalston German Hospital, London.