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WC Piguenit

Australia 1836–1914
Born in Hobart, the son of a convict, Piguenit is often credited as the country’s first Australian-born professional artist. A largely self-taught painter, his early career was spent as a draughtsman for the Tasmanian Colonial Survey Department. He was also a keen photographer and sometimes used photographs as references for his paintings. Moving to Sydney in 1880, he continued to tour New South Wales and Tasmania for subjects.

Another painting by Piguenit – Mount Olympus, Lake St Clair, Tasmania, the source of the Derwent 1875 – was the first oil painting and the first work by an Australian-born artist in the Gallery’s collection.

The flood in the Darling 1890 1895

Piguenit was an eyewitness to the floods along the Darling River, NSW, in 1890 that submerged the town of Bourke. He wrote in a letter: ‘... old residents say they surpass in severity anything that has been recorded since the white man first settled in Australia… An idea of what has taken place can be formed from the fact that the Darling which averages, in ordinary seasons, from 100 to 200 yards [about 90 to 180 metres] in width, is now in some points 30 to 40 miles [48 to 65 km]... the country being so covered with water as to resemble a sea.’

Rather than focus on the destruction, Piguenit has depicted the vastness of sky, land and water, which seem almost to merge.

People and places

The Darling River’s flow has always been extremely erratic due, in part, to its location in an arid region with sporadic rain. Drought and flood are part of its natural cycle (in most summers, it would dry back to a series of waterholes), with the 1890 flood remaining the biggest on record. While floods could be devastating, they also enrich the soils of the floodplains.

One of Australia’s longest rivers, the Darling is part of the Murray-Darling Basin, an area that produces most of the country’s fresh food. In the late 19th century, it was a major route for transporting wool by paddle steamer and the town of Wentworth at the junction of the Darling and the Murray was the country’s busiest inland port.

Related material

The Gallery’s collection includes a series of photos taken by Charles Bayliss of the Darling River in flood, four years earlier in 1886.