Painter, author and convict from Dumfries, Scotland, Watling was transported to Sydney in 1792. Most of Watling's work are of natural history subjects but there are also many sensitive portraits of Aboriginal figures and a few landscape views, which serve as invaluable records of early colonial life.
painter, author and convict, was baptised on 19 September 1762 in Dumfries, Scotland, son of Ham Watlin (sic), a soldier. Watling’s parents died while he was still a child and he was raised and educated by his mother’s unmarried sister Marion (May) Kirkpatrick. Despite his aunt’s apparently meagre resources, it is clear from Watling’s writing and drawings that he enjoyed a reasonably liberal technical education. After working as a portrait painter ('limner’) at Dumfries, he went to Glasgow to work as a coach and chaise painter for several months in 1788. Following his return to Dumfries, he taught drawing to 'Ladies and Gentlemen’ at 'Watling’s Academy’, but on 27 November 1788 was charged with forging 1-guinea promissory notes on the Bank of Scotland. While being held and interrogated by the officials of the court he made several contradictory statements and retractions, apparently speaking first with and subsequently without legal advice. Fearing the death sentence, he finally made no plea but, protesting his innocence, petitioned to accept transportation. On this petition, without his case being heard, he was sentenced to fourteen years on 14 April 1789.
On the way to join a convict hulk at Plymouth, Watling, with another convict named Paton, warned the crew of the Peggy of a mutiny planned by fellow convicts. On the recommendation of Robert Smith, master of the Peggy , Paton was pardoned but Watling received no reward. At Plymouth he was held in the hulk Dunkirk while he petitioned for mercy, with the support of two of his gaolers, on the grounds of his good behaviour and better intentions. His aunt also petitioned on the grounds that his departure would leave her destitute. Lord Hailes, the magistrate who had sentenced Watling, reported that he should consider himself lucky to have escaped the gallows and none of the petitions were successful. He was transferred to the Pitt on 23 May 1791, bound for New South Wales. Managing to escape in Cape Town, he remained free for about a month hoping to find a passage back to Europe, then was discovered and arrested by the Dutch and imprisoned for some seven months. He finally reached Sydney in the Royal Admiral on 7 October 1792.
As a professional draughtsman, Watling was an asset to the colony and it is believed that he was almost immediately assigned to Chief Surgeon John White , who collected botanical and zoological specimens and had already published an illustrated Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (London 1790). White set Watling to work to make natural history drawings and soon accumulated a large body of work, presumably with a view to a further publication on new species. Watling commented to his aunt: 'My employment is painting for J.W. esq., the non-descript productions of the country’. White is known to have taken many drawings with him on his return to England in 1794, but any proposed book incorporating these never appeared.
The bulk of White’s collection is now believed to be that held in the British Museum (Natural History), London, misleadingly known as the Watling Collection – an ironic label given that White did not approve of Watling signing his work. The single largest collection of early colonial art, it consists of 512 drawings, 123 signed by Watling. Apart from possible copies of other people’s work (which he appears to have drawn but not signed) it is feasible that only the signed drawings are his, and certainly several other hands are represented. Most of Watling’s are of natural history subjects but there are also many sensitive portraits of Aboriginal figures and a few landscape views.
Following White’s departure Watling was apparently re-assigned to Judge-Advocate David Collins whose Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London 1798) is illustrated with twenty engravings, all believed to be after drawings made by Watling. The first volume includes a series of engraved views of Sydney executed by J. Heath after a set of working drawings made by the English artist Edward Dayes (National Library of Australia, Petherick Collection). Their primary source can be assumed to be Watling, since connections can be made with a known drawing (Mitchell Library) and perhaps with some of the drawings in the 'Watling Collection’, although these latter may be prototypes from another, earlier hand subsequently copied by Watling.
Letters [from an Exile] at Botany Bay to his Aunt in Dumfries: Giving a Particular Account of the Settlement of New South Wales with the Customs and Manners of the Inhabitants (Penrith, Scotland, printed by Ann Bell, n.d.) is a small but valuable literary work by Watling published about 1794. In it he considers the landscape possibilities of the new continent and expresses his distaste for life as a convict in the settlement. 'My worthy friend Mr. H.’, he states, 'may reasonably conclude that these romantic scenes will much amuse my pencil; though therein he is mistaken’. While he thought that much of the local flora and fauna was 'tinged with hues that must baffle the happiest efforts of the pencil’, he complained that his artistic instincts were generally blunted by the unpicturesque monotony of the antipodean landscape. He therefore proposed to 'select and combine’ in order to counter this and was aiming to spend a year or two producing 'as correct an history and as faithful and finished a set of drawings of the picturesque, botanic, or animate curiosities of N.S.Wales , as has ever yet been received in England '.
From Sydney Cove, Watling forwarded a prospectus to his aunt dated 20 May 1793, which was inserted in the Dumfries Weekly Journal on 25 March 1794 in hopes of attracting subscribers to his 'Picturesque Description’, wherein 'the subjects attempted, shall be partial and general views of Sydney , Parramatta and Toongabbe [sic]; romantic groves, or native groupes, and that, if possible in the course of the work, curiosities in ornithology and botany shall be interwoven’. But although he stated that he had already begun the book, nothing further is known of it.
On the evidence in his Letters of his dislike for colonial life, it has been assumed that Watling left the colony as soon as he possibly could after receiving his absolute pardon on 5 April 1797. It is, however, impossible to say precisely when he did leave but he was in India by 1800. The Thomas Watling, described as a miniature painter and listed (with his son) in Calcutta directories for 1801, 1802 and 1803 has been confirmed as being the same artist.
Back home at Dumfries in 1803, he was employed as art master at the Dumfries Academy for one year at a salary of six guineas. To supplement this he also accepted commissions to paint houses, coaches and signs. An advertisement inserted in the Dumfries Weekly Journal in June 1803 proclaimed his expertise in these various arts – enhanced by his knowledge of 'the secret of ARTIFICALINDIAMARBLING, LAPISLAZULI, TORTOISE-SHELL, &c. not easily discovered from the real; and without extreme injury not less durable’ – and a knowledge of painting that was 'not confined’. He also ran a private drawing school in 'Mr Muir’s lodgings, above Mr Sinclair’s Shop, Bookseller’ where, after the first three months, tuition was half price. Business does not seem to have been brisk. In 1805 Watling was charged with forging seven £5 notes on the Bank of Scotland between November 1804 and March 1805. His trial in January 1806 produced the uniquely Scottish verdict 'unproven’. The last documented reference to Watling is an undated letter (c.1814) he wrote to Governor Hunter in which he stated that he was dying of cancer and asked for financial support.
Watling is identifiable as a highly proficient, professional draughtsman. Since he appears to have been virtually the only competent artist in early colonial Sydney work has been, and often still is, attributed to him in the absence of any other candidate. Beyond the collections of drawings held in the British Museum (Natural History) and the engravings published in Collins’s Account , Watling’s name has been associated with four of the five known large oil paintings of the colony considered to have been produced about 1800 (three held in the Mitchell Library and Dixson Galleries’ collections and one in private hands) as well as with two important topographical landscape prints known as Blake’s View (1802) and Dayes’s View (1804) after their English engraver and painter respectively. However, until it proves possible to discover how Watling was provided with oil paints and canvas in Sydney, it seems logical to assume, as Bernard Smith has suggested, that any oil painting was done back in Scotland from 1804. Even so, the attribution of any of these oil views to Watling remains unresolved, although the debate has advanced in recent research and writing.
Watling’s art and writing brought both fashionable sensibility and professional facility to the colony. His natural history and ethnographic drawings serve as invaluable records but his preferred interest, and the aspect of his work most accessible to modern eyes, is his landscape painting and drawing. Ranging from small drawings such as Sun Rising—Going out of Port-Jackson Harbour (British Museum) to the most convincingly attributed of the large oils, A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove, the Chief British Settlement in New South Wales As It Appeared in 1794, Being the 7th Year of its Establishment. Painted Immediately from Nature by T. Watling (Dixson Galleries) – still disputed in 2001 and attributed to Edwin Dayes by Ian McLean (London V& A Conference Paper) – these works expand the confines of topographical landscape to encompass larger themes in a manner unique in the early colonial period.