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Art of the new landscape
John William Lewin was Australia's first free professional artist, first printmaker, first publisher of an illustrated book and among its first professional naturalists.

You can see it in delicate watercolours like Accacia (1805), supple etchings like Reed Warbler (1813), oil paintings like Fish Catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour (c.1813). It's that surreal aquatic pile-up on a shell-strewn shore. Energy and dynamism. An almost oriental sense of space and design. Obsessive, anxiety-tinged attention to detail. All an instinctive response to a confrontation with the utterly alien.

"He comes from England to Australia and there's something he finds here that just blasts his talent into areas you could never have predicted," says Richard Neville, Mitchell librarian at the State Library of NSW.

Neville is talking about Australia's first free professional artist, first printmaker, first publisher of an illustrated book and among its first professional naturalists, John William Lewin.

More than 150 of Lewin's drawings, paintings and prints of Australian flora and fauna have been brought together for the first time at the National Library of Australia for Lewin: Wild Art.

Neville's meticulously researched and exquisitely produced book on Lewin's life (c1769-1819) and work, Mr J.W. Lewin Painter & Naturalist, has been published to coincide with the exhibition.

The son of natural history artist William Lewin, John arrived in New South Wales in 1800, assisted by a rich patron obsessed with insects. He should have arrived a year earlier but managed to miss the boat, so to speak - the one his wife was on. Lewin was late caught up in a slander case involving his wife and a servant who had brought her morals into question while the couple were apart.

Lewin's wife won the lawsuit but Lewin soon found himself in the thick of another conflict when a voyage to Tahiti coincided with a civil war between the island's inhabitants. He returned unscathed to produce two important books, Prodromus Entomology, Natural History of Lepidopterous Insects of New South Wales (London, 1805) and Birds of New Holland with their Natural History (London, 1807).

Strangely perhaps, he was also appointed Sydney's coroner by one of his chief supporters, Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Lewin died at the age of 49. Both the exhibition and the book - the latter, says Neville, designed to give a contemporary feel to Lewin's art - should go some way to demonstrating that Lewin was no mere hack illustrator but an imaginative artist who epitomises the best of the early Australian colonial spirit: courage, curiosity and adaptability.

"I think he does represent in a sense the zeitgeist of that time," says Neville, whose vivid, readable text tells the story not just of an artist but of a society's way of seeing. "Illustration was beginning to move out of this obsession with just the specimen and into a more ecological view of the specimen in its natural environment. Which is what natural history artists like John James Audubon, Edward Lear and John Gould moved into. He kind of prefigures them, which is part of his genius."

Neville says that prior to coming to Australia, Lewin was producing stock-standard work: "Specimens sitting in the middle of the page on a generic stump or in a generic landscape.

"Then, as happened with artist John Glover, the newness of it all supplied the creative spark he needed to do something way and above what he was doing before. It's pretty impressive."

Mr J.W. Lewin Painter & Naturalist is published by NewSouth ($39.99). Lewin: Wild Art runs until October 28 at the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Admission is free.