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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thomas Bock

Chain Gang--Convicts Going to Work, 1842, Sidney, Australia (not by Thomas Bock).
Thomas Boch, 1847
What happens when a population grows faster than its society can reasonably accommodate? Among other things, one of the primary results is crime--Charles Dickens' England in the 19th century. Actually, the problem began in the previous century. At the beginning of the 18th century England had about six million people. A hundred years later, that number had doubled, one-third of them living in London and southeastern England. Each parish had a watchman but there was no effective police force remotely resembling anything we know today. Faced with urban chaos, the first impulse of the English was to pass lots of draconian laws. Beginning in 1688 until 1815, Parliament passed laws making an astounding 222 crimes capital offenses. Stealing a rabbit could get you a death sentence. However, given the severity of the mandatory punishments to be meted out, the British proved much more adept at passing laws than enforcing them. Unwilling to bear the cost of building and maintaining prisons (which quickly became grossly overcrowded in any case) England turned to a different tact--transportation. In the beginning, that meant to the American colonies, often Georgia (to the tune of around 60,000 convicts). However, after the American Revolution, a new penal dumping ground was needed--Australia. The first batch of 775 convicts arrived in 1786. By 1868 when convict transportation to Australia finally ceased, over 164,000 had been sent there, mostly for relatively minor felonies.
Thomas Bock's Alexander Pearce
(after execution),1825. His crime--
he was the last survivor of a group of
English cannibals in the outback.
In 1823, a talented, award-winning, engraver named Thomas Bock was convicted of giving drugs to a young woman. His punishment was to be sent to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). It was a life sentence (though he was pardoned in 1832). By the early 19th century, even on outpost islands such as Tasmania, the frontier was becoming somewhat civilized, if not exactly genteel. In the prison colonies, being English, they kept careful records, which, in a time before photography, meant drawn portraits of each convict, especially those who were executed (left). Thomas Bock's considerable talents in that regard were put to use. He also drew live convicts. Later, Bock was one of the first artists in the colony (along with Thomas J. Nevin) to experiment with, and actually use photography in producing his own work. Perhaps he got tired of drawing dead people.

Aboriginal Woman, Thomas Bock
Bock's art was not limited to drawing dead convicts (or live ones, either). He found the native Aborigines interesting, and later in life, made a comfortable living doing portraits. He was the first professional painter in Hobart (capital of Tasmania), organizing that city's first art exhibit. Surprisingly, considering the time and place, Bock left behind a small body of drawn and painted nude figures as well. Much of the artist's work is now lost (or unidentified). He fathered seven sons, two of whom became artists. As artists go, Thomas Bock could not be considered among England's great. At best, he was adequate for his time and place. He played the hand he was dealt and won. For every artist, that's the game we play.

Mathina, 1842, Thomas Bock


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