Item #5000734 A Bronzewing Pigeon perched upon a rock, signed with the artist's married name "Sarah Smith" Sarah STONE, c.

A Bronzewing Pigeon perched upon a rock.
A Bronzewing Pigeon perched upon a rock, signed with the artist's married name "Sarah Smith".

London: circa 1790-1792.

Original watercolour, 320 x 285 mm, signed lower left; mounted and framed.

Sarah Stone's exquisite depiction of the Australian "Bronzed Winged Pidgeon"

The finest early depiction of a beautiful Australian male Bronze-wing Pigeon (Phaps chalcoptera), confidently signed by the natural history artist Sarah Stone with her married name Smith.

The finest early depiction of a beautiful Australian male Bronze-wing Pigeon (Phaps chalcoptera), confidently signed by the natural history artist Sarah Stone with her married name Smith.

The use of Stone's married name and the style of the painting means that it dates from her work with the collections of the famous Leverian Museum, a major cultural centre in Joseph Banks's London, where she was the pre-eminent artist depicting specimens brought to London by both Cook's Pacific expeditions and the participants in the Australian First Fleet.

The Bronze-wing is one of those Australian birds which seems to have escaped the attention of the artists on board Cook's first voyage, but the earliest recorded notice of the bird was by the surgeon on Cook's second voyage, William Anderson, at Adventure Bay on Bruny Island, Tasmania: he recorded the sighting in his journal for 30 January 1778 (Beaglehole, Journals, p. 793). Although Anderson is known to have bequeathed his natural history collection to Banks, some of his manuscripts are now considered lost. It is presumably because of this complicated early history that the earliest published illustrations of the Bronze-wing therefore date from the era of the First Fleet books of Phillip and White, which – not coincidentally – also relied heavily on the collections of the Leverian.

It would be difficult to imagine a more compelling natural history painting: one of the most dazzling Australian birds rendered by an artist who did more than any of her colleagues to record the astonishing birdlife of the Colony. Particularly striking is Stone's exquisite rendering of the beautiful wings, an aspect of the bird which bedevilled all her contemporary fellow artists.

Sarah Stone

Few artists made a more decisive intervention into early Pacific and Australian natural history than Stone, whose unique achievement was to serve a long apprenticeship working on the collections made during Cook's three voyages to the Pacific, and then to use that experience to create perhaps the most significant portfolio of paintings and published engravings of the Australian birds collected by the officers of the First Fleet.

Stone (c. 1760—1844) was a teenager when she was first employed as an artist by Sir Ashton Lever, the owner of the greatest eighteenth-century collection of natural history and objects of curiosity. Lever opened his Leverian Museum (or 'Holophusicon') in Leicester Square in 1771 and was a pioneer in making the remarkable and exotic specimens brought back by voyagers visible to the public. In 1777, Lever hired Stone to undertake the project of recording the collection, a project which would dominate her working life for the ensuing decade, as she faithfully drew and painted "mounted birds, insects, mammals, fishes, lizards, fossils, minerals, shells and coral from all over the world, as well as ethnographical artefacts brought back from exploratory voyages, including those of Captain Cook" (Jackson, Sarah Stone, p. 9).

This phase of Stone's life ended when the Leverian changed ownership in 1786, but over the following years she remained deeply enmeshed in the network of collectors associated with the Museum under the new ownership of James Parkinson. This is particularly important because Parkinson not only took over the Cook collection but went on to curate the first caches of natural history being sent back by the First Fleeters, not least through his connection with the indefatigable chief-surgeon in New South Wales, John White. Parkinson's network and Stone's reputation meant that when Debrett undertook to publish White's Journal of a Voyage to NSW (1790), she was the first artist attached to the project, the earliest advertisements making a particular selling point of the illustrations being prepared by "Miss Stone."

As this suggests, by the end of the 1780s Stone was recognised as one of the finest natural history painters of her era. Despite this, after her marriage in September 1789 relatively little is recorded about her work. We do know that she had an ongoing association with the Leverian, both through her exhibition of her famous perspective view of the Museum in 1791 (once with Hordern House, now in the State Library of New South Wales), but also because she signed two engravings of rare birds in the Museum around this time (dated 1790 and 1791).

In fact, the evidence is mounting that Stone's apparent disappearance from public view was in part because she was in demand as a bespoke artist for the wealthiest and most influential private collectors. For one, she is known to have worked throughout 1791 and 1792 on a very small number of exquisitely hand-coloured deluxe presentation copies of White's book, the detail in which goes far beyond anything recorded in standard copies of that work (Jackson, p. 141). Soon after, she was also hired to make six deluxe sets of John Latham's magnum opus, the General Synopsis of Birds (1781—1801) in a similar fashion, which must have been done after 1794 as has only recently been proven by careful analysis of the watermarks in one of these sets (curator's notes, SLNSW catalogue).

In fact, the present painting is both a rare example of Stone's work on Australian specimens and a chef d'oeuvre of her mature style. Few comparable paintings show more clearly how Stone established herself as one of the greatest proponents of the early modern style, this work being comparable to the near-reinvention of natural history painting that would take place later in France with the work of pioneers such as Redouté, de Courcelles, Bessa and Barraband (the group inspired by Josephine's natural history collection at Malmaison).

The Bronze-wing Pigeon (Phaps chalcoptera)

The painting is undated (as with much of Stone's oeuvre) but her use of her married name Smith confirms that it was done after her marriage in the autumn of 1789. More significantly, both the quality of the specimen and the style of the painting makes it most likely to date from the work she was doing at the Leverian Museum in 1790 and 1791. That is, not only does the painting showcase her sophisticated use of colour, but also her assured use of the style she had mastered while working on some of the best plates in White's book, in which the bird is brought forward to dominate the entire sheet, then set against a more elaborate background rather than simply posed on a branch. This style, together with the exquisite colouring as well as her dramatic posing of the bird on a rock shelf, associates the painting with her work of the early 1790s.

The painting was recorded in a private collection in the major monograph on Stone's work by Christine E. Jackson (Sarah Stone, p. 131), and it was Jackson who first made a connection between the bird and the "pidgeons" recorded in the journal of surgeon William Anderson in Tasmania in 1777, which Beaglehole identified as Bronze-wings (Journals, Vol. III, p. 793). Anderson was an admirable ornithologist who kept extensive journals, but much of his writings have been lost, making the task of unravelling the fate of his collections more than usually complex.

Certainly, the first person to really use Anderson's collections was Latham, several passages in both his General Synopsis (1783, pp. 602—661) and his first Supplement (1787, pp. 197—202) proving that pigeons were collected on the Cook voyages. Most of the exotic pigeons noticed by Latham in the 1780s were with either Banks or Lever.

Other early depictions of the pigeon

Latham's frustration with this complex state of affairs is well-known (after all, he would spend the next forty years working on a revised edition of his book), but it did mean that he was right at the centre of things when the earliest of the First Fleet specimens began to reach England in the (northern) spring of 1789. Latham's daughter Ann made the drawing (now lost) on which was based the engraving the 'Bronze Winged Pigeon' in Governor Phillip's book (1789).

Surgeon White took Bronze-wings during one of his rambles on the north shore of Sydney in April 1788. His book (1790) includes an unsigned engraving of the 'Golden-winged Pidgeon'. Furthermore, one of White's birds was probably the basis for the third and last of the early engravings, in Shaw's Museum Leverianum (2 February 1793), which shows the bird in a distinct pose, the engraver ambitiously attempting to depict the bird in flight.

The beauty of the bronze-wing pigeon and the complexity of capturing the shimmering golden quality of the wings also represented a dilemma when it was depicted in watercolours by the so-called Sydney Bird Painter and other early natural history painters (Anemaat, pp. 112—119). Although many of these artists used all the artifice at their disposal, not least experimenting with gold leaf, compared to the three early engravings and all the known drawings and watercolours of the bird, there can be no question that Stone's painting is the outstanding rendition.

Sarah Stone's painting was not the source of any of the early published engravings of the bird, and remains unpublished today.

Stone's treatment of the glorious wings is unsurpassed, both in the remarkable fidelity of the toning of the wings and body, but most especially in her exquisite figuring of the metallic sheen of the coverts. By the first decade of the 19th century, the bird was widely known to English collectors, as is attested to by the great Dutch ornithologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck, who included an excellent figure of the Bronze-wing by Pauline de Courcelles in his beautiful work Les Pigeons (1808—1811). In the accompanying text Temminck commented that he knew of only three specimens in continental Europe, dolefully noting in the text that "plusieurs" could be seen in London.

The great tragedy of the remarkable Leverian Museum was its dispersal at auction in 1806. The catalogue of that sale has since been much studied and it is possible that the present picture relates to one of the highlights of the Leverian auction, lot no. 4080, noted – unusually fully – as "an uncommonly fine specimen the male bronze winged pigeon," sold as part of a pair with a female as the last lot on day 34 of the sale.


Anemaat, Natural Curiosity (2014)

Beaglehole, Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. III (1967)

GBIF (online), entry for Phaps chalcoptera

Jackson, Bird Etchings (1985)

Jackson, Sarah Stone (1998)

Latham, General Synopsis of Birds (1787—1801)

Medway, 'Some ornithological results of Cook's third voyage' (1979)

Phillip, The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (1789)

Shaw, Museum Leverianum (1792—1796)

SLNSW, Artist Colony: Drawing Sydney's Nature (2014)

Temminck, Les Pigeons (1808—1811)

White, Journal of a Voyage to NSW (1790)

Whitehead, 'A Guide to the Dispersal of Zoological Material from Captain Cook's Voyages' (1978)

Provenance: From the estate of Patrick Dockar-Drysdale, a descendant of the artist.

Jackson, Christine, "Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds" (Watercolour Drawings by Sarah Stone in Public and Private Institutions: Private Collection A no. 11, p. 131).

Price (AUD): $210,000.00

US$135,380.36   Other currencies

Ref: #5000734