William Gould was transported to Tasmania in 1827 for stealing a coat, and then spent his sentence on the utterly treacherous Sarah Island Convict Settlement. Whilst there, and with encouragement from the medical officer, he embarked upon recording in a series of drawings the fish found in those Tasmanian waters.
These humble beginnings have produced an undoubted artistic and scientifically important triumph ‘Gould’s Sketchbook of Fishes’. Award winning author Richard Flanagan, himself a descendant of Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840’s, was later to base his book ‘Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish’ on those drawings.
Now the orginal has been inducted on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register, the equivalent of world heritage listing. The painstakingly produced water colours captured with extraordinary accuracy fish from the time, and are still used as essential reference by scientists today. That the work also transitions to be regarded as fine art is even more intriguing.
Extraordinary hardship was the norm for Gould, who as an individual not given to blind obedience (or perhaps a proven sense of rebellion brought on by alcohol), spent most of his life serving time doing successive sentences. He died at around 50 years of age.
Examples of his still life studies and botanical work are displayed in the National Gallery of Victoria, Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Gould’s Sketchbook of Fishes was acquired by the avid collector Henry Allport some time last century.
When he died, it was left to the people of Tasmania as part of a large collection now on display in Hobart’s Allport Library.
Gould’s artistic achievements were varied: he sketched landscapes, plants, and birds as well as his exquisite fishes.
(Crested) Weed Fish - William Buelow Gould, c1832