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Sunday, April 23, 2017

John Eyre

Sydney Cove, 1806, John Eyre, now (top photo) and then from roughly the same angle. The present-day photo was probably taken from the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
My interest in people, places, and things as seen now and then is not limited to art. In fact I have long been fascinated by history years before I became a budding artist (by at least a year or two). Ever since the third grade, when I learned the Christopher Columbus wasn't the only maritime explorer to sail the seven seas, I have been as much interested in historic trivia as in history itself. The Australian painter, John Eyre was a trivial painter. Truthfully, one would have to call him a hobbyist by today's standards, his work far more important as visual history than as art. It would appear that, like many such artists, he more or less "backed" into painting for lack of anything better to do.

Sydney Cove, now and then. The famed Circular Quay, built between 1837
and 1844, now occupies the triangular area to the left of Sydney Cove. 
Therefore, very little is known about the man himself. We know John Eyre was born in 1791. He would appear to be self-taught. He certainly didn't get any art instruction from his father, who was a Coventry, England, wool-comer and weaver to whom he was apprenticed in 1794 at the age of thirteen. By the time he was eighteen he had been convicted of "housebreaking" (breaking and entering in today's parlance). He was sentenced to "transportation," which means he would be sent to the British penal colony in Sydney, Australia. He arrived there in 1801 to fulfill his seven-year sentence. If you're looking for a picture of the man, forget it. He didn't do self-portraits and photography hadn't been invented yet.
First Government House, Sydney, John Eyre
Eyre seems to have learned his lesson. He was granted a conditional pardon in 1804. His early drawings are dated from around this time. He generally focused on urban landscapes, giving his creative output value not only as works of art, but also as historical records. Over time, Eyre's work progressed from purely representative topographical depictions, to more artistic compositions with embellishments such as Aboriginal figures and ships at sea. This progression is typical of the developmental pattern of landscape depiction in the early colonial period. John Eyre was still relatively young when he left Sydney in 1812 at the age of forty-one. He was a free man, never to be heard of again.
Sydney Cove by an unknown artist, possibly John Eyre.
I should point out, that about that time, another John Eyre--Edward John Eyre--was born in England. He eventually traveled to Australia to explore the continent, later to become the Colonial Administrator. One source I found had him creating the etching below in 1812, three years before he was born. If that were true, he'd be the youngest child prodigy in the history of art.
Port Jackson Harbor, in New South Wales, with a
distant view of the Blue Mountains, 1812, John Eyre.

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