George Edwards Peacock
landscape painter, was baptised in Sedbergh, Yorkshire on 4 September 1806, younger son of the vicar of Sedbergh, Rev. Daniel Mitford Peacock, and Catherine, née Edwards; both sons were given her maiden name. The family was closely associated with the Church of England in Yorkshire, the advowson of Danby Wiske remaining with them from 1761 until 1883. So when George Edwards Peacock was sentenced to death for forgery at London’s Old Bailey on 11 September 1836, this well-respected family must have felt both shocked and disgraced.
Educated at Sedbergh School, Peacock had been admitted as a solicitor in February 1830. He had his own practice within three years, but it did not fare well and he experienced difficulty in supporting his wife and young son. Driven by desperation, he forged a power of attorney for transfer of stock valued at £7,814, the property of his brother, Rev. Edwards George Peacock. The death sentence was commuted to transportation for life and Peacock found himself in the prison hulk Justisia moored in the Thames. Transported aboard the Prince George , he reached Sydney on 8 May 1837. As a ‘special’ or educated prisoner, he was despatched to Port Macquarie where he acted as clerk to the prison barracks. There is no evidence that he painted at this time.
Three months after his arrival, Peacock’s wife and son joined him at Port Macquarie. By 1839, however, his family was living in Sydney and Peacock was requesting a transfer there, claiming that he feared for the religious and moral upbringing of his son. In Sydney, he trained with James Dunlop , the government astronomer, and by 1840 was employed as a meteorologist at the South Head weather station, a position he held until the station was abandoned in 1856. He lived alone in a nearby cottage, his marriage having broken up. Contact with Sydney Harbour and his involvement with weather conditions and cloud formations, as well as a desire to rehabilitate himself socially (being disbarred from practising law), probably inspired his interest in painting professionally. Views of the harbour from various points along the South Head Road are the subjects of the majority of his paintings. In both style and subject matter they resemble those of his Sydney contemporary Conrad Martens , who was giving lessons in Sydney when Peacock began to paint. Both had a keen interest in meteorology and both made many views of or from their patrons’ residences. Peacock also copied sketches by Martens, but this was a common practice at the time and does not necessarily imply a master-pupil relationship. The major difference between the two is in size, medium and colour; most of Peacock’s works are very small oils in sweet bright colours.
Granted a conditional pardon in December 1845, Peacock was still obliged to stay in the colony. He remained at South Head and continued painting in and around Sydney. Although most of his works are undated, he appears to have been most active as a painter in the eight years between 1845 and 1852, the period he is listed as an artist in Sydney directories (from 1844). In 1847 one of his Sydney landscapes was included as a prize in W. & F. Ford’s art union, together with works by leading colonial painters. When eight of his Sydney views were shown at the 1847 exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald praised his ‘correctness and attention to details’ but found fault with his colouring: ‘Mr. Peacock must look at nature through warm-coloured spectacles. His pictures have not the force nor the transparency which we expect to find in oil colours’. The Herald art critic was more complimentary about The Rustic Meal and Double Bay, Port Jackson in the Society’s 1849 exhibition, calling the former ‘an evident improvement upon the former productions of this pleasing artist’ and describing the latter as ‘a very pleasing little picture, carefully painted, exhibiting extreme fidelity to his landscape, as well as skill in minute handling and high finish’.
Peacock’s focus on topographical detail, combined with the lyrical beauty he perceived in the harbour and its surrounds, gives his work considerable historical as well as aesthetic interest. A large oil painting, Sydney from Woolloomooloo (1849, Mitchell Library [ML]) – a detailed view that includes St Mary’s Cathedral and St James’s Church – ranks as one of his finest works. Nevertheless, A Distant View of Sydney from above Rose Bay, 1847 , a tiny painting, displays an equally competent understanding of the harbour he painted so often. In View of Old Government House – Sydney, 1845 (ML), painted soon after Governor Gipps had moved to his new, grand residence (also depicted by Peacock in several paintings), a red-coated sentry stands to attention while camels and sheep graze peacefully on the front lawn.
In 1850 J. Allen issued a Peacock lithograph celebrating the turning of the first turf for the Sydney railway at Redfern, an event seen at the time as of great significance for the progress of the colony. The Herald commended its accuracy in July. In March 1851 the dealer J.T. Grocott had five of Peacock’s oil views of Port Jackson on display at his gallery, together with lithographs after Peacock’s painting, Citizens’ Mayor’s Picnic . He also received commissions to paint properties, especially grand harbourside houses in the eastern suburbs; Colonel Rogers, for instance, commissioned six paintings of and from his family home, Craigend House, former residence of Sir Thomas Mitchell . Unusually, several include gardeners at work in the foreground.
After the South Head weather station closed in 1856, official records make no further mention of Peacock and it is not known where or when he died. An oil painting entitled Richmond Bridge , listed in the catalogue as being by George Peacock, a Victorian artist, was exhibited with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts at Melbourne in 1857 (for sale at £8), but no Peacock has been traced in Melbourne and these listings are unreliable. Still, ‘Christopher Sly’ ( James Neild ) whimsically suggested the work had been executed by ‘dipping two spiders, one in cream, the other in sloe-juice, and allowing them to crawl at will over the canvas’ – a description that fits some of George Edwards Peacock’s work. The subject is unrevealing since there are Richmonds in New South Wales and Victoria and the best-known Richmond Bridge is in Tasmania. Small views of Hobart and Launceston c.1850s were attributed to him in a Christie’s London auction of 14 July 1994 (lot 148). The George Peacock working in Victoria in the 1870s appears to be no relation, while the ‘S.V. Peacock’ mentioned by Moore did not exist (the Mitchell Library has established that the name arose from a misreading of G.E. Peacock’s signature).