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Friday, 13 October 2017

Aboriginal Rock Art; Allan Cunningham, 1821; Colonial Attitudes to Aboriginal Art Discoveries; Sir George Grey; Joseph Bradshaw

Apart from the rock painting discoveries of  Sir George Grey (Wandjina,1837/1838) and Joseph Bradshaw (1891, Bradshaw/ Gwion Gwion figures), I was interested to read of Allan Cunningham's discoveries in June, 1821. Cunningham was a naturalist and explorer.

Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia, Performed Between the Years 1818 and 1822, Captain Philip Parker King

Allan Cunningham's discoveries on Clack Island, June 21, 1821, quoted by Captain King:

"The remarkable structure of the geological feature of this islet led me to examine the south east part, which was the most exposed to the weather, and where the disposition of the strata was of course more plainly developed. The base is a coarse, granular, siliceous sand-stone, in which large pebbles of quartz and jasper are imbedded: this stratum continues for sixteen to twenty feet above the water: for the next ten feet there is a horizontal stratum of black schistose rock, which was of so soft a consistence, that the weather had excavated several tiers of galleries; upon the roof and sides of which some curious drawings were observed, which deserve to be particularly described: they were executed upon a ground of red ochre, (rubbed on the black schistus), and were delineated by dots of a white argillaceous earth, which had been worked up into a paste. They represented tolerable figures of sharks, porpoises, turtles, lizards (of which I saw several small ones among the rocks,) trepang, star fish, clubs, canoes, water-gourds, and some quadrupeds, which were probably intended to represent kangaroos and dogs. The figures, besides being outlined by the dots, were decorated all over with the same pigment in dotted transverse belts.

Tracing a gallery round to windward, it brought me to a commodious cave, or recess, overhung by a portion of the schistus, sufficiently large to shelter twenty natives, whose recent fire-places appeared on the projecting area of the cave.

"Many turtles' heads were placed on the shelfs or niches of the excavation, amply demonstrative of the luxurious and profuse mode of life these outcasts of society had, at a period rather recently, followed. The roof and sides of this snug retreat were also entirely covered with the uncouth figures I have already described.

"As this is the first specimen of Australian taste in the fine arts that we have detected in these voyages, it became me to make a particular observation thereon: Captain Flinders had discovered figures on Chasm Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, formed with a burnt stick; but this performance, exceeding a hundred and fifty figures, which must have occupied much time, appears at least to be one step nearer refinement than those simply executed with a piece of charred wood. Immediately above this schistose stratum is a superincumbent mass of sand-stone, which appeared to form the upper stratum of the island." (Cunningham MS.) *.

From John White's Journal
List of plates

Captain King:

p 25, Clack Island

p. 26

p 27

See also:

George Grey, Volume 1

15.1. Figure drawn on the roof of Cave, discovered March 26th.

"On this sloping roof the principal figure (Number 1) which I have just alluded to, was drawn; in order to produce the greater effect the rock about it was painted black and the figure itself coloured with the most vivid red and white. It thus appeared to stand out from the rock; and I was certainly rather surprised at the moment that I first saw this gigantic head and upper part of a body bending over and staring grimly down at me".


"It would be impossible to convey in words an adequate idea of this uncouth and savage figure; I shall therefore only give such a succinct account of this and the other paintings as will serve as a sort of description to accompany the annexed plates. The dimensions of the figure were:

Length of head and face 2 feet.
Width of face 17 inches.
Length from bottom of face to navel 2 feet 6 inches.

Its head was encircled by bright red rays, something like the rays which one sees proceeding from the sun when depicted on the sign-board of a public house; inside of this came a broad stripe of very brilliant red, which was coped by lines of white, but both inside and outside of this red space were narrow stripes of a still deeper red, intended probably to mark its boundaries; the face was painted vividly white, and the eyes black, being however surrounded by red and yellow lines; the body, hands, and arms were outlined in red, the body being curiously painted with red stripes and bars".

15.2. Figure drawn on side of Cave, discovered March 26th.

"Upon the rock which formed the left hand wall of this cave, and which partly faced you on entering, was a very singular painting (Number 2) vividly coloured, representing four heads joined together. From the mild expression of the countenances I imagined them to represent females, and they appeared to be drawn in such a manner and in such a position as to look up at the principal figure which I have before described; each had a very remarkable head-dress, coloured with a deep bright blue, and one had a necklace on. Both of the lower figures had a sort of dress painted with red in the same manner as that of the principal figure, and one of them had a band round her waist. Each of the four faces was marked by a totally distinct expression of countenance, and, although none of them had mouths, two, I thought, were otherwise rather good looking. The whole painting was executed on a white ground, and its dimensions were:

Total length of painting 3 feet 6 3/4 inches.
Breadth across two upper heads 2 feet 6 inches.
Ditto across the two lower ones 3 feet 1 1/2 inches."

15.3. Oval drawing in Cave, discovered March 26th.

"The next most remarkable drawing in the cave (Number 3) was an ellipse, three feet in length and one foot ten inches in breadth: the outside line of this painting was of a deep blue colour, the body of the ellipse being of a bright yellow dotted over with red lines and spots, whilst across it ran two transverse lines of blue. The portion of the painting above described formed the ground, or main part of the picture, and upon this ground was painted a kangaroo in the act of feeding, two stone spearheads, and two black balls; one of the spearheads was flying to the kangaroo, and one away from it; so that the whole subject probably constituted a sort of charm by which the luck of an enquirer in killing game could be ascertained".

15.4. Figure drawn in Cave, discovered March 26th.

"There was another rather humorous sketch (Number 4) which represented a native in the act of carrying a kangaroo; the height of the man being three feet. The number of drawings in the cave could not altogether have been less than from fifty to sixty, but the majority of them consisted of men, kangaroos, etc.; the figures being carelessly and badly executed and having evidently a very different origin to those which I have first described. Another very striking piece of art was exhibited in the little gloomy cavities situated at the back of the main cavern. In these instances some rock at the sides of the cavity had been selected, and the stamp of a hand and arm by some means transferred to it; this outline of the hand and arm was then painted black, and the rock about it white, so that on entering that part of the cave it appeared as if a human hand and arm were projecting through a crevice admitting light.

After having discovered this cave I returned to the party and, directing them to prepare for moving on, I ordered that as soon as all was ready they should proceed past the cave, so that all would have an opportunity of examining it, and in the meantime I returned in order to make sketches of the principal paintings. The party soon arrived and, when my sketches and notes were completed, we retraced a portion of our route of this morning, moving round the sandstone ridge through one portion of which I saw a sort of pass which I thought might perhaps afford us a means of egress. I therefore halted the party and moved up with Corporal Auger to examine it. After proceeding some distance we found a cave larger than the one seen this morning; of its actual size however I have no idea, for being pressed for time I did not attempt to explore it, having merely ascertained that it contained no paintings".

Volume 2:

Grey, G (1841), Journals of two expeditions in north-west and Western Australia, 1837-1839, T. & W. Boone, London

George Grey's 1838 drawings of the Wandjina cave caused speculation about the paintings' origins.

See also: Grey's Northern Kimberley Cave-Paintings Re-Found: A. P. Elkin, Oceania, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Sep., 1948), pp. 1-15 (accessible on JSTOR)

See also, description of Chief Inspecting Surveyor Frederick Slade Brockman’s 1901 Kimberley expedition report and photographs by the botanist and naturalist Dr F M House (Kimberley Society, pdf)

"Dr House documented numerous remarkable Aboriginal paintings on almost every available smooth, vertical face in the sandstone ranges, and the report of the expedition contains many exceptional photographs of some of the larger sites".

Brockman biography

See also, Forgotten Images: Charles Price Conigrave and the Kimberley Exploring Expedition of 1911, Rainsbury, Michael P., Questia

See also, History of Kimberley Exploration, Kimberley Society

Wandjina Rock Art Photographs, Kimberley Society

Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) Rock Art Photographs, Kimberley Society

Rock Art - Other, Photographs, Kimberley Society

"Kimberley paintings have on occasion endured a peculiar array of ethnocentric European appraisals...The comments of Grey in doubting Aboriginal authorship for the Wandjinas are telling of nineteenth century attitudes to Aborigines and their culture...All laboured under false assumptions drawn from Grey's sketches, which were inaccurate and stylised renderings, possibly produced from memory" - The Kimberley, Horizons of Stone, Alasdair McGregor and Quentin Chester, 1992.

'Alien abductions', Kimberley Aboriginal rock-paintings, and the speculation about human origins: on some investments in cultural tourism in the northern Kimberley, Anthony Redmond, The Free Library.

River and coast: regionality in North Kimberley rock art, Rainsbury, Michael P., University of Durham (pdf) -

Finding Oceania : organizing a collection of Oceanic photographs and albums at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Cassie Lomore Ryerson University (Download pdf)  

The Australian Aboriginal, Herbert Basedow, with 146 illustrations, Adelaide, 1925; Chapter 28, Aboriginal Art (pages 297-398)


Go to;view=1up;seq=393


Mamadai and Wanalirri

Where wandjina shelter.

The god-like face on rock and cave,

Mouthless image of creator.

Round eyes on bark, on canvas, slate:-

Make the rains come soon, come late.


Three invaluable links, kindly sent by Jeremy Eccles, with other insights and comments:

Kimberley Foundation Australia

Rock Art Research - Kimberley Foundation Australia, YouTube video

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