Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • A Colony of Fish

    A Colony of Fish

    This is the slender-spined porcupine fish, or southern porcupine fish, or the globefish, Diodon nicthemerus, first described to European science by Cuvier in 1818. You’ll find it in the southern waters of Australia, from Geraldton to Port Jackson, but it’s most common in Port Phillip Bay or the coastal waters of Tasmania. (This specimen was found near Beaumaris, on the east coast.)

    This is one of a number of fish illustrations done by William Buelow Gould during the Vandemonian convict era. The artist would later gain international fame after being fictionalised by Richard Flanagan in the well-reviewed Gould’s Book of Fish. His fish are made handsome in watercolour; the porcupine fish looks lonely and unloved, and it’s easy to sympathise with it. Perhaps Gould identified with it himself.

    William Buelow Gould was a chosen name. It seems he was born as William Holland on November 8, 1803; his father was a boatman on the Thames. He was literate and as a young man moved to London where he took up an apprenticeship with lithographer Rudolph Ackermann. His artistic skills were being developed and he married.

    But William fell in with a crowd of boozers and gamblers – always easy to stumble upon in London. In his twentieth year, one of his drinking mates was murdered, perhaps in shady circumstances; William fled to Staffordshire with his wife and their new child.

    But before too long he departed from there too, this time abandoning wife and child. And he ditched the name with which he was born as well.

    The name ‘Gould’ was a good association to make – John and Elizabeth Gould were gaining esteem as artists of natural history. So the runaway artist declared himself William Buelow Gould, “Portrait Painter and Drawing Master”, when he arrived in Northampton.

    But although he had left so many things in his wake, William Buelow Gould was not prepared to dispose of his bad habits. Drinking, gambling, and stealing marred his new career with a painter and glazier by the name of Thomas Smith. Within weeks he was charged with stealing his employer’s materials and suffered three months in prison, as well as a public flogging. And in November 1826, he stole someone’s coat, hankie and gloves; he was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Van Diemen’s Land.

    On the Asia, the vessel that brought him to Van Diemen’s Land, he painted his first portrait of a ship’s officer. It was pretty ordinary, but Gould seemed to have been able to talk himself up. He was given convict employment as a potter – but was transferred to the chain gang for drunkenness. Then, he put his artistic ability to use in attempted to forge a banknote. He was to be sent to Macquarie Harbour, but after a storm forced the ship to pause en route, many of the convict passengers mutinied; Gould didn’t, and was rewarded for his good behaviour with an assignment to Dr James Scott. Here, he was put to work drawing specimens.

    Coincidentally, the inspirations for his pseudonym arrived in Tasmania during this convict apprenticeship: John and Elizabeth Gould were friends of the Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife. One wonders whether they were shown the work of the convict Gould, and what they made of his impressive images, which would later be credited by UNESCO as valuable enough to enter their historical registers.

    Gould’s work throughout the rest of his convict career would include still-life images of fruit, flowers, game and fish. Finally a free man, he was given a job painting coaches in Launceston, although he almost sabotaged that immediately; given tools and material to do his work, Gould absconded, only to return shortly enough afterwards to not lose his job.

    “His last years were spent in some comfort,” writes a biographer, but no doubt his life was shortened by the years of hard living. He died in his home in December 1853, joining the great ocean of dead things that surrounds us all.

    Yet he was later resurrected, and reimagined, by Flanagan; in it, he belongs to “a colony of fish masquerading as men”; and the surgeon to whom Gould is assigned turns into Diodon nicthemerus.

     

    Previously on Field Guide, a German baron goes into the Tasmanian mountains.
    On another east coast beach, a French captain takes a convict lover.

  • From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    Over in Monterey, California, I was introduced to Mr. Seavey by his daughter Cat. “Tasmania, eh? You’re not from Fingal, are ya?”

    I’ve never before been asked if I hail from Fingal. With a population of 366 at the last census, and dwindling rapidly, Fingal is not exactly famous. There are probably plenty of Tasmanians who have never heard of it. I’ve never met anyone from Fingal.

    These days, things are looking pretty bleak there. According to local drug counselling organisations, it’s one of the hotspots for methamphetamine use in Tasmania, for example. Unemployment is high, real estate prices are low. There are plenty of closed shopfronts on the main drag; even the old hotel, which once claimed to have the biggest Scotch whisky collection in the southern hemisphere, is gone.

    The Fingal Valley was first surveyed in 1824, and in 1827, the town was settled as a convict station. In 1852 gold was found ten kilometres north. Towards the end of the 19th century, coal became the centre of the area’s economy; the town of Fingal was growing rapidly, and a young man named Francis McComas was born.

    This was Mr. Seavey’s connection with Fingal.

    Francis became one of the world’s great watercolourists, famous for his modernist landscapes. As a young man, he had been sent to Sydney for training under a master plein air landscape painter. Watercolour was not widely regarded in Australia, but young Francis adopted this as his medium of choice. He then went across the Pacific to the United States.

    Like many young Australian artists of the time, Francis had wanted to go to Europe to paint – to Paris, specifically – but got distracted, making friends in Monterey and having successful shows in San Francisco. He returned to Australia at least once, to Sydney, where he made scathing reviews of the Australian art scene. He probably never returned, and died in the luxurious Californian coastal town of Pebble Beach, where you can find one of the world’s richest golf courses.

    A new coal mine is in the works, and the old hotel is opening. Could there be another Frank McComas ready to burst out of Fingal?