Augustus Earle (1793-1838), artist and traveller, was born on 1 June 1793 in London, a son of James Earle, an American artist and his wife Caroline, widow of an American loyalist by whom she had one son, William H. Smyth. Augustus was the nephew of Ralph Earle, the well-known American portrait painter. His father, who had studied at the Royal Academy, returned to America in 1794, but died of yellow fever at Charleston in August 1796. Augustus, too, is said to have studied at the Academy; and in student days he befriended the American artists, C. R. Leslie, biographer of Constable, and Samuel Morse, inventor of the code, who accompanied him on painting excursions. Graves records Earle as exhibiting a ‘Judgement of Midas’ at the Academy in 1806, ‘Battle of Poitiers’ (1808), ‘Caius Marcius taking possession of the city of Corioli’ (1809), ‘Banditti’ (1811-12), ‘A man-of-war’s boats cutting out a French barque’ (1814) and a view of Calais (1815).
In 1815 Earle visited Sicily and then joined his stepbrother, Captain Smyth, at Malta, where he painted ‘View of Valetta’, engraved by Smart and Sutherland, London, 1818. Accompanying Viscount Exmouth’s squadron on his brother’s gunboat he visited the sites of Carthage and Ptolmea, Sicily and Gibraltar, sketching antiquities, batteries, caves and Moorish ruins. In 1817 he returned to England. In March 1818 he left for New York, worked there for some months, then moved to Philadelphia, exhibiting two paintings in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in July 1818. Embarking in the Warrior on 11 February 1820 he reached Rio on 2 April. In June he visited the coast of Chile, reached Lima on 18 July, drawing and painting there until 10 December when he left Callao in the Hyperion bound for England. On board he painted water-colours illustrating naval life; then, transhipping to the Anna, returned to Rio to work in Brazil for three years, visiting many parts of the country. His ‘Gate of Pernambuco’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824.
On 17 February 1824, armed with an introductory letter to the governor-general, Earle embarked for India in the Duke of Gloucester, which was driven by a storm to Tristan da Cunha where, abandoned by the ship, he remained for eight months until rescued by the Admiral Cockburn, which arrived in Hobart Town on 18 January 1825. By 31 October Earle was in Sydney where he decorated the dining room for Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane’s farewell banquet. In Sydney he painted portraits, including those of Brisbane, Sir Ralph Darling, John Mackaness, Dr Robert Townson, James Dunlop, and a half-length portrait of Mrs Blaxland. In July 1826 Earle exhibited his paintings in Sydney; a month later he announced his intention of opening an art school; in August, obtaining a lithographic press, he published Views in Australia (Sydney, 1826). He also travelled widely to sketch landscapes and Aboriginals. In 1826 he visited the Blue Mountains, Wellington valley where he drew the caves, Hunter River, Port Stephens and Port Macquarie, and in April-May 1827 the Illawarra district. In February 1827 he painted views of Sydney from Palmer’s Hill, sending them to Robert Burford for his panorama of Sydney exhibited in the Panorama, Strand, London, in 1828 and ‘the principal towns of England’ in 1829. Earle probably also sketched while in Sydney the six water-colour scenes for Burford’s panorama of Hobart, exhibited in London in 1831.
In October 1827 Earle left Sydney in the Governor Macquarie for New Zealand, returning in the same brig on 5 May 1828. Five months later he left in the Rainbow which visited the Caroline Islands, Guam, Manila, Singapore and Madras. Although Madras provided a good market for his art Earle’s health declined there and he travelled to Pondicherry, embarking in the Julie, which was condemned at Mauritius. After executing panoramic views of the island he returned to England in the Resource in 1830. In New Zealand Earle had prepared lithographs which he published in London in 1830 under the title Views in New South Wales, and Van Diemen’s Land, and he followed this with A Narrative of a Nine Months’ Residence in New Zealand in 1827; Together with a Journal of a Residence in Tristan D’Acunha (London, 1832). According to Dunlap, in 1831 Earle was in the employ of John Murray, the fifth Duke of Atholl, Earle’s widowed sister then being the duke’s housekeeper. On 28 October 1831, however, he joined H.M.S. Beagle as artist supernumerary with victuals, and befriended Charles Darwin. In April and May 1832 Earle lived with Darwin in a cottage in the village of Botofogo, near Rio. But Earle’s health deteriorated greatly on the voyage and he was forced to leave the Beagle at Montevideo in August 1832, his place being taken by Conrad Martens. When Earle returned to London is not known but he exhibited ‘Life on the Ocean’ and ‘Divine Service on board a British frigate’ at the Academy of 1837 and ‘A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia in a Cabbage Tree Forest, Daybreak’ in the Academy in 1838. In the same year his Sketches Illustrative of the Native Inhabitants and Islands of New Zealand, a series of ten coloured lithographs, was published in London. About 1838, too, Robert Burford painted a panorama of the Bay of Islands, after drawings by Earle. It was exhibited in New York in 1840. He died of ‘asthma and debility’ in London on 10 December 1838.
Earle was a professional artist who painted highly competent portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes of colonial and shipboard life. His book, criticized by Darwin as too critical of the New Zealand missionaries, is colourful and well written. Darwin spoke, too, of ‘his open licentiousness’, and fever and dissolute living probably shortened his life. But his Australian and New Zealand paintings of the later 1820s, now in the Nan Kivell Collection in the National Library of Australia, are of historical and artistic importance.
Written by Bernard Smith