B E Minns is most admired for his early watercolours and etchings, produced before he left for England in 1895. Outstanding was his series of enigmatic and powerful portraits of Aborigines, six of which are in the Gallery's collection, including the singular head study of a young woman, her gaze focussed intensely into the distance.
In 1884 at the Annual Exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales, Minns exhibited a number of portraits with the titles 'Meditation (a type of NSW Aborigine)', 'Aborigine girl' and 'Types of New South Wales Aboriginals'. A number of those depicted were from Bermagui, on the south coast of New South Wales, although their identities are now lost to us.
By the 1880s, aborigines in the Bermagui area were employed in industries including whaling, timber and agriculture, following epidemics in the earlier part of the century that had decimated the original indigenous population. However, increasing government control of aboriginal people was also evident by this period with the establishment of reserves, such as that at Wallaga Lake, just north of of Bermagui, by the Aborigines Protection Board in 1891.
Minns' titles emphasize the subjects as types rather than individuals. This was an approach shared by a number of artists throughout the century, including Minns' contemporary Tom Roberts, who made a series of paintings of Aborigines in the early 1890s, and others earlier in the century such as Thomas Bock (1793-1885), Robert Dowling (1827-86) and John Skinner Prout. While not unsympathetic to the individuality of his sitters, Minns' perspective was common to many in the nineteenth century who considered Aborigines to be part of a noble but dying race, a distinct but passing feature of Australian life that was worth recording before its inevitable decline.
excerpt from Hendrik Kolenberg, Anne Ryan and Patricia James, '19th century Australian watercolours, drawings & pastels in the Gallery's collection', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005
Aboriginal woman, Sydney, New South Wales
Study of Aboriginal female
Aboriginal Girl, Sydney
41.7 x 29.0 cm sheet
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.l., brown watercolour "BE MINNS/ .../ 95".
Not on display
Shown in 7 exhibitions
Society of Artists Spring Exhibition (1896), Cliff Gallery, Sydney, 05 Sep 1896 -
Exhibition of Australian art in London (1898), Grafton Galleries, London, 02 Apr 1898–31 Jul 1898
150 years of Australian art (1938), National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Jan 1938–25 Apr 1938
White on black: the Australian Aborigine portrayed in art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Mar 1974 -
The Australian Aborigine Portrayed in Art: Adelaide Festival of Arts 1974, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Mar 1974 -
Nineteenth century Australian watercolours from the collection (1991), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 13 Apr 1991–07 Jul 1991
Australian watercolours 1880s to 1990s:
Referenced in 10 publications
Mark Anderson and Paul Ashton, Australian history and citizenship, 'Australian social and political life to 1914', pg. 2-68, South Yarra, 2000, 52 (colour illus.). source 1.71; NSW Secondary School History syllabus
Jean Campbell, Australian watercolour painters 1780-1980, Adelaide, 1983, 97 (colour illus.).
Jean Campbell, Australian watercolour painters: 1780 to the present day, 'The Australian Watercolour Institute', pg. 130-137, Sydney, 1989, 130 (colour illus.).
Geoffrey Dutton, White on black: the Australian Aborigine portrayed in art, Melbourne, 1974, (illus.). plate no. 119
Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Works on Paper', pg. 182-197, Sydney, 1999, 188 (colour illus.).
Hendrik Kolenberg, Anne Ryan and Patricia James, 19th century Australian watercolours, drawing and pastels from the Gallery's collection, Sydney, 2005, 118, 119 (colour illus.).
Hendrik Kolenberg., Nineteenth century Australian watercolours from the collection, 'Introduction', Sydney, 1991, (illus.). cat.no. 57; not paginated
Hendrik Kolenberg, Australian watercolours 1880s to 1990s, Sydney, 1995, 27 (colour illus.), 115. cat.no. 12
New South Wales Society of Artists, The Society of Artists Second Spring Exhibition, Sydney, Sep 1896. cat.no. 132; titled 'Study of Aboriginal Female'
Ian North (Editor), The Adelaide Festival of Arts 1974: Special exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia, The Australian Aborigine Portrayed in Art, p35-41, Adelaide, 1974. cat.no. 57; titled 'Aboriginal Girl, Sydney'.