watercolour painter, hotel-keeper and military officer, was born in Chelsea, London, on 17 July 1799, a descendant of the diarist John Evelyn via his mother Philippa, née Evelyn, widow of Major Houghton. His father, Wilbraham Liardet, was an official of Swiss-Austrian descent in the Ordnance Department of the British Army, which W.F.E. Liardet also joined, retiring as a lieutenant on half pay in 1826. In 1821 Wilbraham junior had married his cousin Carolina Frederica Liardet; by July 1839, when they sailed for Sydney in the William Metcalfe , they had had eleven children of whom nine survived infancy.
En route to Sydney the ship spent three weeks at Hobson’s Bay in what is now Victoria and Liardet suddenly decided to settle there. Purchasing a whaleboat to enable him to transport supplies, he began a business of carrying mail ashore from ships. In August 1840 he started running a mail cart to and from Melbourne three times a day, and in October opened the Brighton Pier Hotel and began a passenger coach service to Melbourne. The hotel soon became a popular place for visitors from the town as well as for travellers. Liardet and his sons would catch fish to be cooked on open fires for guests, or he would take them rowing or sailing while he entertained them with his songs, often accompanying himself on the guitar or flute. Horse races and regattas were among the other entertainments provided.
Liardet was, however, a poor businessman and by 1841, at the onset of the general economic depression, he had transferred the hotel licence to his son Frank in an effort to prevent it being sold with his other assets. The family retained the hotel. Always a capable watercolourist, Liardet now turned to art as a way of making some money. On 10 September 1841 the Port Phillip Gazette reported on his availability to paint miniatures and small portraits in oil, watercolour or crayon for between 2 and 5 guineas each, but it appears that he had few orders. Three weeks later he was applying for the second time to become superintendent of water police. Again he was refused. In 1843 he completed a painting of Melbourne from the South Bank of the Yarra which he wished to send to London for engraving. He gained permission to dedicate it to Superintendent C.J. La Trobe and his London courier was Sir John Franklin, retiring Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. The picture was duly engraved and sold for a guinea a copy. An idealised panoramic view of Melbourne, it shows a civilised and prosperous town bustling with signs of commerce and leisurely living. He painted a view of Geelong with the idea of having it engraved too, but the project went no further.
In January 1845 Liardet was declared bankrupt and it became increasingly obvious that the family needed to be able to purchase the land on which their hotel stood. With the purpose of putting their case to the Colonial Office, Caroline Liardet sailed for London, taking the five youngest children. Wilbraham remained at Port Phillip, running the hotel with his sons until 1850 when he sold up and sailed for England to bring his wife and family back. They then settled in a house on the Yarra in Melbourne. Georgiana McCrae recorded meeting Liardet and one of his sons when an emergency forced them to seek shelter and food with her: 'Liardet is not only a scholar, but he has a deeper reach of understanding than many other educated men. He can sketch a horse admirably, and, in his young days, often rode to hounds and so forth … we are all agreed that his good nature and seemingly inexhaustible store of anecdotes should make him a pleasant neighbour’.
It was the 1850s gold rush that finally altered the Liardets’ fortunes. At one stage his sons were said to be making £1000 a week processing visitors to the goldfields through their hotel, and prosperity enabled Liardet to spend more time painting. In 1862 he painted a view of St Kilda and one of the railway station at North Williamstown (La Trobe Library). The following year, after hearing John Pascoe Fawkner lecture on Melbourne as it had once been, Liardet drew a view of Batman’s house and one of Fawkner’s house as he remembered them looking when he arrived. In February 1864 he published a lithographic View of the North Shore of the Port of Melbourne dedicated to Governor Sir Henry Barkly. Soon afterwards Liardet and his wife left Australia to join their sons in New Zealand. Apart from a trip to England to make an unsuccessful legal claim against the British government, they remained there for ten years, during which time Liardet continued to sketch and paint. Returning to Melbourne in 1874, Liardet, now aged seventy-four, drew the Pier Hotel as it had been when he built it in 1840. The place had then been called 'Liardet’s Beach’, and as well as his hotel he showed people disembarking from boats at the jetty, coaches arriving to take them on to Melbourne, men fishing with seine-nets from the beach and his summer house on stilts (washed away in the flood of 1849). The sketch aroused such interest that Liardet was urged to make other scenes of early Melbourne.
He decided to produce an illustrated history and threw himself into the project with characteristic fervour. In 1875 alone he painted forty scenes, thirty-eight of which are known. Although he started with views of Melbourne’s early buildings, he soon added anecdotes and incidents relating to the people with whom they were associated. The scenes he depicted include the signing of the treaty between Batman and the Aboriginal chiefs, Batman’s house (which was destroyed in the 1870s to make way for Spencer Street Railway Station), the first markets of Melbourne, the first government land sale on 10 June 1840, the opening of the Supreme Court on 12 April 1841, the first public execution on 20 January 1842, La Trobe’s house and garden, an 1840 corroboree on Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne) and the flood of 1849 showing with drama, as well as accuracy, the devastation wrought.
Liardet put the project of illustrating the Separation celebrations on Flagstaff Hill of 11 November 1850 to public subscription and gathered 400 signatures, headed by Sir Redmond Barry to whom he dedicated the work. Reviews were very favourable. He was encouraged by this to offer his historicising watercolours for sale to the Victorian Art Gallery but the trustees declined the offer. Liardet then sought to prepare an illustrated history of early Melbourne for publication. He spent a great deal of time researching past events in newspapers and documents and talking to old settlers. However, after writing up to five drafts he was eventually forced to abandon the project due to old age and ill health. Persuaded by his wife to return to New Zealand in 1877, he died shortly afterwards at Vogeltown, Wellington, on 21 March 1878. The major collection of his work is in the La Trobe Library.