In 1801 missionary John Youl wrote to London to report of Sydney that ‘no other spot on the face of the habitable globe contains more witnesses of the awful depravity of human nature. Sin, like a mighty torrent, overspreads the land.’ Early images of Sydney were very much aimed at challenging this powerful and persistent message. As Judge Advocate David Collins noted in 1798, ‘From the disposition to crimes and the incorrigible characters of the major part of the colonists … the word “Botany Bay” became a term of reproach that was indiscriminately cast on every one who resided in New South Wales’.
But others were less cynical — gardener Peter Good noted in 1802 that Sydney ‘has a fine appearance. It is seated at the end of a Snug Cove ... each house has a considerable space of Garden ground so that the Town spreads over a great space … there is a degree of neatness & regularity.’
Sydney — Capital New South Wales was painted around 1800, most likely in England from drawings made locally. Standing on the west side of Sydney Cove, looking towards the Heads, the neat and orderly town, lit by an optimistic sunrise, demonstrates the success of the colony — its solid buildings and carefully laid out gardens refute the idea that it was a cesspit of depravity.
On the right of the painting, on what is now Bridge Street, are the homes and offices of Government administrators, which terminates with the two-storied Government House (now the site of the Museum of Sydney). By 1800 it was clear that the colony was not going to fail despite the early famines. This painting is both an explicit statement of its success and an implicit record of the dispossession of Aboriginal people, who though in reality a very visible presence in Sydney at the time, are entirely absent from this painting.
Mitchell Librarian and Director, Education & Scholarship,
State Library of NSW