Joseph Lycett was a painter. In 1811 he was convicted of forgery and transported to New South Wales for 14 years. Despite being called a portrait and miniature painter at the time of his conviction, all Lycett's extant subjects are topographical or botanical. In 1828 he was living near Bath when he was again arrested, cut his throat and while recovering in hospital, tore open the wound and died.
painter and forger, was convicted of forgery at the Shropshire Assizes on 10 August 1811. Transported to NSW for 14 years, he arrived at Sydney in the General Hewitt on 7 February 1814. The ship’s records describe him as a portrait and miniature painter from Staffordshire and give his age as 38. Also on board the General Hewitt was Captain James Wallis in charge of his regiment, the 46th, coming to Sydney to relieve the 73rd. On arrival Lycett was granted a ticket of leave and employed as a clerk in the Police Department. Some 15 months later, in May 1815, Lycett was taken into custody when a friend tried to pass false bank notes that he had manufactured. He was again convicted of forgery and sent to the secondary penal settlement of Newcastle. He left for Newcastle in the Lady Nelson in July 1815 and worked in the coalmines until Captain Wallis arrived as commandant in June 1816.
According to the evidence of the convict builder James Clohasy, testifying to Commissioner Bigge in 1820, Lycett drew up the plans for the settlement’s church while a prisoner at Newcastle (c.1817). In his report Bigge stated that Lycett had also painted the altarpiece, presumably the two 'bad large pictures’ in the chancel of Christ Church noted by Lady Franklin in June 1839 as having been 'done by a prisoner’. One was a Descent from the Cross 'with Virgin fainting’, the other a Resurrection. In 1839 the vicar was about to replace them.
On 8 November 1817 Lycett was sent to Sydney on business for the commandant. The journey included a visit to Port Stephens where Lycett was wounded in a confrontation with Aborigines. It is unclear whether he remained in Sydney following his trip or returned to Newcastle, but by 1820 he was living in Sydney; Bigge said he was earning a living as a painter through the patronage of Sydney’s residents. He also worked for Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie . In a despatch to London, Governor Macquarie drew Lord Bathurst’s attention to a view of Sydney painted by 'Lysaught’, which he had forwarded, together with pictures of Government House at Parramatta and the Government Cottage at Windsor, as records of the settlement. Lycett’s North View of Sydney (1820, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, London) is most probably the Sydney work. Elizabeth Macquarie employed Lycett to draw up the plans for at least one (unexecuted) Sydney building and he possibly drew up the Newcastle church plans to her design.
On 28 November 1821 Lycett received an absolute pardon. He left for England in the Shipley in September 1822, accompanied by two daughters, and it was here that he produced most of the Australian pictures for which he is known. On 8 September 1823, when living at 17 Jubilee Place, Chelsea, he engraved, printed and published two large separately issued, hand-coloured lithographs of Sydney and Hobart Town after his own paintings. In 1824 John Souter, also the London publisher of Evans’s views, issued the first of Lycett’s Views in Australia . This was to appear in 12 monthly parts each to contain two views of New South Wales and two of Van Diemen’s Land with descriptive letterpress and a supplement containing maps of both colonies. The parts were on sale at 7s uncoloured and 10s 6d coloured. The first six plates were printed as lithographs, but Lycett and his publisher realised that aquatint would be preferable and the views were re-issued in the latter medium with the remainder following in the same form. The 13 parts, published between August 1824 and June 1825, were afterwards made available in a single volume. The series was dedicated to Earl Bathurst and on the title-page Lycett grandiosely described himself as 'Artist to Major General Macquarie’.
Lycett’s text took much from earlier publications on British settlement in Australia, being particularly indebted to W.C. Wentworth’s Statistical, Historical … Description of the Colony of New South Wales (London 1819) for both the point of view and the information it presented. The pictures also seem to have owed much to drawings by other artists. Despite claims to the contrary made in the volume, it is unlikely that Lycett travelled extensively while in Australia. The subjects he chose for his Tasmanian views correspond to the places Macquarie had visited during his tour of inspection in 1821. George William Evans and James Taylor had both accompanied the governor and it is likely that Lycett used drawings by one or both of them when he came to work on his own views.
Whereas the landscapes Lycett painted in Australia follow topographic and picturesque principles of composition, the 49 English engravings (including the title-page) show that Lycett had greatly developed his style since his earlier work. Watercolours which appear to have been done in the colony, views of the settlement at Sydney taken from various perspectives around the harbour, are close in style to watercolours by his colonial contemporaries, Evans and John Lewin . But in England Lycett added landscapes which were more romantic in conception. His views of Beckett’s Falls and Bathurst Cataract, for example, use the sublime mode to describe the awe and terror of the explorers’ landscape. In some of the views which show private estates he made reference to conventions associated with the pastoral, introducing the idea of leisure into Australian landscape description for the first time.
Despite being called a portrait and miniature painter at the time of his conviction, all Lycett’s extant subjects are topographical or botanical. Few of his paintings are signed but some are initialled and inscribed on the reverse. With a few (unproven) exceptions, all are watercolours. Perhaps the single finest collection of his original drawings is a portfolio of 13 watercolours from the Earl of Derby’s library (Dixson Galleries). Nine of these have the same subjects as some of the printed plates in Views in Australia and these are repeated in other watercolours, thus confirming that Lycett produced copies of his own works. Other sales in which collections of Lycett watercolours related to the aquatints have appeared are Maggs’s (catalogue vol. 4, no. 795, pt. 5, 1950), Lawson’s sale of the Marcus Clarke Collection (January 1954) and Sotheby’s, Belgravia (July 1962 and May 1972). The Nan Kivell Collection (National Library of Australia) includes a set of watercolours of Aborigines in the landscape around Newcastle (mistitled as Van Diemen’s Land) engaged mainly in traditional tribal activities, especially fishing, as well as a collection of botanical drawings. Another group of botanical works, sold separately in 1983, may be the originals from which Lycett intended to produce his unrealised volume, 'The Natural History of Australia’.
Little is known about Lycett’s last years. A pencilled note in a copy of the Views in the Mitchell Library states that he was living near Bath in 1828 when he was again arrested, cut his throat and while recovering in hospital, tore open the wound and died. He is buried in Handsworth Cemetery, Birmingham.