National Significance of the RST Art Collection
The RST Art Collection strongly reflects the formation of the island identity, initially of Van Diemen’s Land under military rule, then Tasmania. It records an effort to soften the stigma of penal settlement and to mark the era of self-government. Each of these stages in this island state’s uniquely diverse cultural, social, and historical development is echoed throughout this collection.
Tasmania’s penal history is well known but it is presented in this collection from a perspective of productivity and containment. The RST Art Collection includes images of prisoners performing their allocated work and Charles O’Hara Booth’s system of semaphore signalling between Port Arthur and Hobart to broadcast escapes. The military government used brutal methods to enforce custody such as strategically placed guards and savage dogs. The artworks speak to the use of Tasmania’s topography and the natural environment to assist in containment of the prisoners at Port Arthur. The artworks are a unique contribution to the wider context of our national history of penal colonies.
The earliest images in the collection are of a rather rough and ready island (Simpkinson de Wesselow and John Skinner Prout) comprising vast and deceptively untenanted lands and empty inland waterways. WC Piguenit, sometimes described as the first Australian-born artist of note, produced watercolours of pristine wilderness, some of which are preparatory works for his famously monochrome series of paintings. These paintings contrast with later works as progress in the colony began. Progress is most clearly evident in the changes to the built environment. The arrival of architects is noted by the appearance of churches (Frank Dunnett) and grander houses (Louisa Anne Meredith) which greatly influenced Hobart’s appeal. Surveyors and engineers produced orderly maps and plans for roads and homesteads which began to appear in the landscape. More women in the colony led to the development of the Female Factory (Owen Stanley) and the appearance of women in the urban country environment (A Blackman). The images contribute to Australia’s national register of historical development and its built environment.
Focus shifted from early industries such as whaling (The Flurry by William Duke) to forestry (WC Piguenit). Artists travelled farther afield as access improved. Homes, warehouses, hotels, city and country landscapes (Louisa Anne Meredith) were populated and the built environment increased to accommodate more maritime activity. This vigourous progress is clearly captured in the work of important artists (JS Prout and Simpkinson de Wesselow) and indicates the importance of our national and international maritime history (Owen Stanley).
Watercolours by amateur artist Elizabeth Legge of Aboriginals of the Break O’ Day tribe are said to be true to the appearance of the tribe members who were very familiar with the artist. Benjamin Duterrau produced etchings of leading Aboriginal personages as well as etchings of preparatory drawings of The Conciliation. Simpkinson de Wesselow completed several watercolours of individuals on Flinders Island. Tribal Tasmanian Aboriginals no longer exist but their presence is clearly and uniquely defined in these diverse works. These artworks are of singular importance as a record of Australian indigenous people.