Peeling back the colonial gloss

The 19th century ‘selfie’: James Stirling brought accomplished watercolour artist Frederick Garling to explore the Swan River in 1827.

THERE’S a certain irony when one of the first books to scratch away the nostalgic gloss of WA colonial art to expose the Indigenous dispossession they reveal is published by an organisation with an indelible link to the state’s controversial ‘founding father’.

Artist and author Philippa O’Brien’s No Stone Without 

a Name explores how artists expressed European concepts of land ownership in the early days of the Swan River Colony, often distorting the scene to evoke a more familiar sense of place.

Yet the relentless “shadow presence” of the Noongar custodians throughout those works tells of a more complex relationship with the same country, even when they are sometimes treated as little more than scenery.

As the settlers ‘settled’, they became more interested in the planned towns, such as this 1840s painting of Fremantle by John Wollaston.


No Stone is the inaugural publication of the new publishing arm of the Ellenbrook Cultural Foundation, a not-for-profit launched in 2002 to provide artistic and cultural experiences for that community.

Ellen’s Brook, from which the suburb’s name derives, was named by Captain James Stirling as he explored the Swan River in 1827; a trip he used to build an argument for the Colonial Office to approve the establishment of a new colony.

We even have Stirling’s ‘selfie’ of the moment, a watercolour by accompanying artist Frederick Garling showing the explorer standing above the brook’s entrance to the Swan and pointing out grassy plains he mistakenly thought would be widespread.

While Stirling was later mocked for his over-enthusiastic description of the Swan and 

its fertility, O’Brien argues the contribution of artists like Garling shouldn’t be overlooked for their role in encouraging later settlers.

“It is an image of nature and innocence, a picture of a place where people could feel at home, physically and culturally, in the visual language of Romanticism that the English understood,” she writes.

“Garling’s sensitive and persuasive paintings made as real a contribution to the colonial vision as Stirling’s effusive words.”

Stirling’s surgeon Frederick Clause also took the trip upstream and took the whitewash a step further with his own watercolour sketch, adding a peaceful Whadjuk family canoeing the river (they didn’t), clothed and cheerfully waving to each other.

In reality Stirling’s party only encountered the men of the area, whose angry gestures made it clear they wanted the interlopers to sod off.

That didn’t stop Clause’s image being further re-worked back in England by publisher William Huggins, who used it to counter the “savage” cartoons lampooning Stirling in the London press.  

Through a stunning, rare and extensive collection of artworks, O’Brien follows the colonists as they then set about to transform the landscape.

Noongars didn’t paddle canoes or wear western-style dresses before colonisation, but that didn’t stop Frederick Clause adding them to this ‘eye-witness’ scene.


“As the settlers felt more settled, landscape paintings became more concerned with aspects of colonial life such as city planning and the documentation of social and economic development, as recorded by John Blundell who spent four years in the colony, travelling widely and reflecting the settlers’ interests and their prevailing racist attitudes, as well as several highly significant events.”

No Stone isn’t simply a woke retelling of history, but a meticulous cataloguing of some of our state’s most important pieces of colonial art with a modern explanation of their context – one in which those often distant figures have finally been noticed.

No Stone Without a Name by Philippa O’Brien Ellenbrook Cultural Foundation
RRP: $120 from www. and selected bookstores


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