landscape painter, amateur photographer, draughtsman and explorer, was born in Claremont House on the corner of Newtown Road and Warwick Street, Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, (where Elizabeth Matriculation College now stands), on 27 August 1836. The family can be traced back to Pons, in the province of Saintonge, France, from which, as Huguenots, they escaped after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to settle in Bristol, Somerset. Over the years involvement in the wool trade and the pharmacy business brought wealth and respect to the English branch of the family but this came to an end on 27 March 1830 at the Warwick Assizes when Piguenit’s father, Frederick Le Geyt Piguenit, then of Chatham, Kent, was convicted of having in his possession 'King’s Stores marked with the Government mark’. Transported for fourteen years, he arrived at Hobart Town on 18 October 1830, closely followed by his fiancée, Mary Ann Igglesden ( Piguenit ), whom he married on 18 February 1833. Two of their six children, William Charles and his youngest sister, Harriet , were to become painters.
William Charles (known as Bill to his friends) attended Cambridge House Academy, Brisbane Street; a school report of 18 December 1849 praises his 'mapping, particularly that of Van Diemen’s Land’. In September 1850, as an assistant draughtsman, he joined the Tasmanian Lands and Survey Department where much of his time was spent preparing maps of Tasmania. The lithographers Robin Vaughan Hood , Alfred Randall and, later, the Scottish painter-engraver Frank Dunnett assisted in the production of the maps, and Piguenit would have learned a great deal from them. Hood had a well-known picture gallery in Hobart Town while Randall, who worked as a draughtsman in the Lands and Survey Department from 1854, became a close friend of Piguenit’s and a strong promoter of his works. Later, Randall married Piguenit’s sister Agnes.
After Thomas Bock died in 1855 his step-son Alfred Bock , a year older than Piguenit, took over the Bock daguerreotype business and it is probable that Piguenit learned of the wet-plate process after Alfred Bock began experimenting with it in the late 1850s or early 1860s. In any event, Piguenit became involved, entering a selection of his photographs in the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition alongside examples by Docker , Freeman , Clifford and others. Although not mentioned in the awards list, this did not deter him from continuing to take photographs, both as an aid to his landscape painting and as a means of recording his increasing production of paintings. Landscape photographs are included in one of his sketchbooks (Mitchell Library).
When Piguenit exhibited at Melbourne in 1870, showing a watercolour sketch of Mount Wellington from the Huon Road, the Daily Telegraph of 20 July called him 'a young artist who gives promise of better things’. His love for the Tasmanian landscape and his improved artistic ability led to his being invited to accompany James R. Scott’s expedition to Arthur Plains and Port Davey in March 1871 as official artist. The results of the trip formed the basis for later illustrations in the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia and in R.M. Johnston’s Systematic Account of the Geology of Tasmania .
Piguenit resigned from the Lands and Survey Department in 1873 after being refused leave to travel to England. By then his ability with the brush was bearing fruit; he had received favourable reviews for his first significant oil, A Summer Afternoon . His association with Randall also helped him professionally. In 1870 the Mercury praised his illustrations of the Derwent, near New Norfolk and Shannon, near Mount Pleasant , both chromolithographed by Randall. In 1873 he again accompanied Scott on an expedition, this time to Lake St Clair and Lake Petrarch. For the first two weeks he recorded making various sketches, then spent the final eleven days taking photographs. In 1874, still as an amateur, he sent his painting Bream Creek, Adventure Bay… to the New South Wales Academy of Art, for sale at 15 guineas. It won Piguenit a silver medal. Later that year he joined R.M. Johnston’s party to Lake Pedder.
Having won another silver medal from the academy in 1875 for Mount Olympus, Lake St Clair, Tasmania (Art Gallery of New South Wales [AGNSW]), for sale at 50 guineas, Piguenit was invited to be principal guest artist at the second of the artists’ and photographers’ camps in the Grose Valley, New South Wales, organised by Eccleston Du Faur and sponsored by the New South Wales Academy of Art and the colony’s Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition Commission. On this occasion Piguenit devoted his time to sketching, the photographer Joseph Bischoff having been commissioned by Du Faur to produce large format photographs of the valley. Piguenit sent five of his Grose Valley oil landscapes to the academy’s 1876 exhibition and was awarded a certificate of merit for one, though the Sydney Mail critic was tepid in his praise: 'It would be enough to say that they are all very nicely painted and that all have about the same colour and tone’. The following year, however, the Mail critic thought Piguenit’s Scene on the Upper Huon (Tasmania) the best picture in the exhibition.
Piguenit also showed Tasmanian views with the Victorian Academy of Arts in 1877. Ten of his landscapes were included in the 1879 Launceston Fine Art Exhibition and five were shown at the Hobart Town Hall in 1881, by which time Piguenit was living in Sydney, having moved there with his family in 1880. His paintings shown at the first exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales in December 1880 were reviewed at length, all being considered 'more or less interesting in subject and skilful in treatment’. Trinity Fall, Govett’s Leap Valley , one of the fruits of his earlier excursion, was 'an elegant little picture’ with 'a graceful lyre bird standing on the stones over which flow cascades of water’. The largest, Sydney Harbour from the North Shore (private collection), was thought 'a fine painting, bold and forcible in colour, but the effect of the whole picture would have been considerably heightened by deeper and more varied tints in the sky’. It was one of two paintings shown at the 1883 Calcutta International Exhibition, retitled Sydney in 1882, Taken from North Shore, Showing Garden Palace, in Which the International Exhibition in 1879 Was Held, Destroyed by Fire 22nd September 1882 . It appeared again in the 1886 Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London.
A lifelong enthusiasm for exploring the wilderness brought Piguenit back to Tasmania in 1887 to accompany Charles P. Sprent’s party aiming to explore the west coast. Unfortunately, he suffered exhaustion and blistered feet and had to turn back after 26 miles. He took no part in further expeditions but spent the rest of his life painting the New South Wales landscape, with visits to Tasmania to paint in 1884, 1893 and 1895. On the last occasion he was given a free railway pass to travel the colony. In 1898 he visited England as a participant in the Australian Art in London exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. Four of his seven paintings were sold (two, on loan from AGNSW and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery [TMAG], were not for sale) and North Lagoon obtained the top price (175 guineas). In England he met the romantic landscape painter Benjamin Williams Leader whose work offers close parallels and who was undoubtedly an early influence. He paid a second visit to Britain in 1900 in order to paint in Wales.
Regarded as the leading Australian-born landscape painter in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Piguenit was a founding committee member of the Art Society of New South Wales (elected Vice President in 1886) and regularly showed work in its exhibitions. He was represented in many major exhibitions, such as the 1880 Melbourne International, and he received many awards, including silver medals in 1874 and 1875 from the NSW Academy of Art, two second prizes at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition and gold medals from the 1883 Calcutta International and the 1888 Queensland Art Society and Tasmanian Juvenile Industries exhibitions. He was hung in the Paris Salon in 1893 and at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1894 ( Scene on the Upper Nepean River , now AGNSW). A Tasmanian view near Prince of Wales Bay was presented by the Government House Literary Society to their founder and patron, Lady Hamilton, on her departure in 1892.
From the 1880s onwards Piguenit’s paintings were reproduced in various publications, especially the Illustrated Sydney News . His highly praised In the Grose Valley, Blue Mountains (1882) was destroyed in the 1882 Garden Palace fire, together with the rest of the exhibits in that year’s Art Society exhibition, and is known only from an engraving by Charles Turner . The prize-winning monochrome Forest Life, Tasmania (1881) was issued as a photograph – taken by Thomas Boyd for presentation to subscribers in the Art Society’s 1882 art union – while photographs of his 'celebrated picture of Port Esperance, showing the islands of Faith, Hope and Charity’ (TMAG), then hanging in the Tasmanian Agent-General’s London office, accompanied the painting to the Grafton Galleries in 1890.
In 1875 Piguenit had been the first Australian artist to have work purchased by public subscription for the proposed National Art Gallery of New South Wales ( Mount Olympus, Lake St. Clair, Tasmania ). The Tasmanian government purchased six of his paintings of the Western Highlands in 1887 and many others were subsequently acquired or gifted to hang in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. His Mount Kosciusko, and the Valley of the Upper Murray (1883) 'was considered to be of such merit that it was purchased by the [Art Society’s] committee for 25 guineas and will be produced by photography for presentation at the next Art Union’. In 1902 he was commissioned (for a total of £200) to paint Mount Kosciusko for the Art Gallery of New South Wales – one of Piguenit’s few major subjects without water in the foreground.
His passion for planes of translucent, reflective water under dramatic skies is epitomised in his Flood in the Darling, 1890 (AGNSW, exhibited 1895), another version of 'Out West’. During the Flood of 1890, the Gunda Booka Range , winner of Richard Wynne’s inaugural 1890-91 prize for the best landscape in oils of New South Wales scenery as judged by the trustees of the gallery from entries in the Art Society’s eleventh annual exhibition. When the Wynne Prize was reconstituted under broader rules at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1897, Piguenit won it in 1901 for A Thunderstorm on the Darling .
On 17 July 1914 at Saintonge, the Randalls’ Hunter’s Hill home on the Lane Cove River where he had lived for many years, Piguenit died from complications following appendicitis. He was buried in the Field of Mars Cemetery. It has been reported that his will stipulated that all his unsold works were to be destroyed, but no mention of this appears in the official copy.
Gaskins, Bill Staff Writer
Note: secondary biographer