Wallis’ Precious Gift Returns

The beautiful 1818 Macquarie Collector’s Chest returns to Newcastle, forgotten in a Scottish castle for 150 years.

The chest is an elaborate gift Captain James Wallis gave to Governor Macquarie in gratitude of his patronage. The chest is decorated with scenes of Newcastle and filled with local natural history specimens.

It is centrepiece of an exhibition, Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie era, part of a major partnership exhibition between the State Library of NSW and Newcastle Art Gallery, announced Friday 26 October 2012.

The exhibition, supported by Noble Resources International Australia, shares little-known stories of Newcastle origins. A series of public events and a schools program will accompany the exhibition, which opens at Newcastle Art Gallery on 2 March 2013.

Thanks to our principal partner Noble Resources and exhibition partner Newcastle Art Gallery, local residents, students and tourists will experience early Newcastle as never before when magnificent artworks and historical treasures from the State Library’s and the Gallery’s collections go on display next year,” said NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive, Dr Alex Byrne.

The chest lay forgotten in a Scottish castle for nearly 150 years. The Library acquired it in 2004 and it is now one of the most prized items in our collections.”

The project will introduce audiences to one of the city’s most important founding fathers, Captain James Wallis, who transformed the penal settlement during his command from 1816 to 1818. He improved the settlement by constructing many public and government buildings, and stimulated cultural production through the work of convict artist Joseph Lycett and engravings of the emerging settlement and local people.

Little of his work now survives which makes the Library’s records even more important,” said Richard Neville, State Library Mitchell Librarian.

Today, the most visible evidence of Wallis’s regime is the breakwater to Nobby’s, the construction of which commenced in 1818.”

The exhibition will also feature “the most significant pictorial artefact to be made in colonial NSW during the 1810s” – a previously unknown album of 35 original works compiled by Wallis in 1818, including landscapes and portraits of local Awabakal Aboriginal people which, unusually for the time, are named.

The State Library secured the album at auction after it was discovered in a cupboard in Canada last year. Newcastle residents were given the first opportunity to view the album when it was publicly unveiled at Newcastle Art Gallery in February.

Wallis employed many convicts under his charge to paint watercolours, make furniture and engrave prints, including Joseph Lycett. In fact, the Wallis album includes early sketches of paintings by Lycett that are featured in the Collector’s Chest.

Other exhibition highlights from the State Library’s collection include:

  • a 3.6 metre panorama of Newcastle made in 1821 by Edward Close, now known as the father of Morpeth & one of the district’s first free settlers
  • one of the earliest detailed maps of Newcastle (1819) – on show for the first time
  • Governor Macquarie’s journal covering his time in Newcastle
  • a letter by Wallis where he fondly recalls the beauty of the Newcastle district and his hunting expeditions with Burigon, whose portrait is featured in the Wallis album

To have Governor Macquarie’s Collectors Chest return to Newcastle after almost two hundred years is extremely special, but to have the accompanying Wallis Album and other works by Newcastle based colonial artists on display at the Gallery makes this a not-to-miss opportunity,” said Ron Ramsey, Director, Newcastle Art Gallery.

Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie era is a free exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery from 2 March to 5 May 2013.

Images courtesy NSW State Library