"the non-descript productions of the country"

Watling's principal task was to paint in his own words "the non-descript productions of the country" for John White but he had ideas for a 'coffee table' book of his own. He urged his Aunt to insert an advertisement in the press for subscribers to a book of the views of Sydney "interwoven with curiosities in ornithology and botany".

The book came to nothing. His paintings, however, are one of the principal records of the earliest days of Australia. The original scientific descriptions of several birds are based on his drawings and given that with smallpox Aboriginal culture literally vanished in front of the settlers' eyes and that few artefacts were collected, his work as a pioneer painter is of exceptional interest. He had skills as a landscape painter too, although he like other artists, tended to 'europeanize' his scenes.

When White left the Colony in 1794 Watling may have been assigned to David Collins, Judge Advocate and the Governor's Secretary. The illustrations for a book by him 'An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales' are copies of Watling's drawings and Collins probably used his position to appropriate any pictures he wanted, thwarting Watling's own project.

A new Governor, John Hunter, was appointed. Hunter, a Scot, conditionally pardoned Watling in 1796. His pardon was made absolute on 5th April 1797 and he left Australia.

Watlings drawing of a Potoroo. Marsupial rat

Back to Dumfries..

He returned home possibly via India for a Thomas Watling was working as a miniaturist in Calcutta in 1801. In 1803 he is back in his beloved Dumfries. Dumfries Town Council employed him as Art Master at Dumfries Academy for one year only at a salary of six guineas a year, less than that paid to other teachers. To supplement his income he took commissions painting houses, coaches and signs. His 'card' in the Dumfries Weekly Journal claimed he knew the secrets of 'artificial India Marbling, Lapis Lazuli and Tortoiseshell'. He had restarted his Academy and pupils who stayed with him for three months went on to half fees.

1803. Watling was paid £4 14s 6d as art master at Dumfries Academy

Ironically he announced that his work was "not easily discovered from the real"! It's quite likely that the famous painting 'Sydney Cove in 1794 Painted immediately from nature by T Watling', the earliest known oil painting in Australia, was painted in Dumfries at this time. It is unlikely that Watling had oil paints with him in New South Wales and he probably based it on sketches made there.

Dumfries Weekly Journal, June 1803

Old habits died hard and in 1805 he was arrested and charged once again with forgery. Trial was fixed for 10th January 1806 in Edinburgh. The charge was that he had forged at least 7 Bank of Scotland £5 notes. He had sent his Aunt Marion's servant Anne Fining to the Bank of Scotland in Irish Street to get one of them changed into singles. The note fooled the teller. He passed a second note to an innkeeper in Carlisle who recognised it as a forgery. Watling wrote to him to try to get it back. He passed a third note in the British Linen Bank in Queensberry Square, a fourth note to someone in Dumfries which eventually turned up in Carlisle and the remaining three notes were found hidden in a sock in a friend's house.

The duped teller gave evidence against him as did David Staig, the Bank's Dumfries Agent, who had been a witness against him at his first trial 17 years previously. The jury incredibly found the charge not proven and he was freed, probably to the great surprise of his long suffering Aunt.

The trial now runs cold on our hero. There is one last glimpse when at the age of 52 in 1814 he wrote to Admiral Hunter, the former Governor of the Colony, "the most absolute necessity bows me to sue to you for a slender pecuniary relief. Believe me, worthy Sir, that the tear steals down my pallid countenance when I make this request. The accompanying ticket will explain my estate and disorder - it is of a cancerous Kind, in my left breast".

Nothing further is known but he may have died soon afterwards. One thing is sure - as a boy in Dumfries he never dreamt that one day he would sit in the beating December sun recording the remarkable happenings of the first days of a new land.

Watlings signature

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