John Eyre

John Eyre (b.1771), convict and artist, was born at Coventry, England, the son of Thomas Eyre, wool-comber and weaver. He was apprenticed to his father in 1784 and became a freeman of the city in August 1792. He is thought to have studied drawing under Joseph Barnes of Coventry. At Coventry Assizes on 23 March 1799 he was sentenced to transportation for seven years for housebreaking, and reached Sydney in the transport Canada in December 1801.

He was granted a conditional pardon on 4 June 1804, and a month later he advertised that he would buy a box of water-colours. The first of his drawings which can be dated accurately were made soon afterwards. Probably in 1807 Eyre combined three charts of Port Dalrymple into one for Governor William Bligh (the original is in the British Museum) but his fee of £4 15s. had still not been paid when Bligh was deposed. About this time he became friendly with David Mann, and provided the drawings for the four engraved views of Sydney which appeared in Mann’s The Present Picture of New South Wales (London, 1811). In 1884 the engravings were reproduced in chromolithography by William Dymock of Sydney, and the original drawings are preserved in the Dixson Gallery, Sydney.

For some years Eyre appears to have eked out a fairly precarious living in the colony. In 1811 he was engaged to paint numbers on all buildings on the east side of the Tank Stream at sixpence a time; and in February 1812 he received £12 for painting the constables’ staffs of office. By this time he had become associated with Absalom West, an emancipist who was a prosperous brewer. In March 1812 West published two views of Sydney, engraved by Philip Slaeger, also an emancipist, and the originals of these were almost certainly by Eyre. On 15 August 1812 Eyre advertised his intention of leaving the colony. He obviously left a considerable number of his works with West, and the proceeds of these may well have paid for his passage. In January 1813, when West issued a set of twelve views of Sydney, Port Jackson, Botany Bay, Parramatta and Newcastle, no fewer than ten were from originals by Eyre, two engraved by Slaeger and eight by Walter Preston, another convict, who arrived in the Guilford in January 1812. A second series of twelve views was issued in 1814: four were credited to Eyre and two others were probably from his originals.

The records give little clue to Eyre’s character. Nothing is known of him after he left Sydney. He was essentially a topographical illustrator, and his work in this field was at times very competent, being drawn with precision and insistence on detail. Examples are to be found in the Mitchell Library and the Dixson Gallery, and in the Nan Kivell Collection, Canberra. The Mitchell Collection includes three signed views of Norfolk Island, but no evidence has been found that Eyre ever visited this place, and one is clearly a copy of a pen and wash drawing made in 1796 by William Neate Chapman.

Australian Dictionary of Biography Rex Rienits