After 155 years, a stroke of luck has saved from the scrap heap four precious colonial paintings by a long-lost artist.
Well-known in the 1860s, Colonel James Hesketh Biggs’s name slipped into obscurity because, despite a high output of work and winning just about every South Australian art prize of the day, he simply did not sign things.
The exquisite finesse of his small, detailed watercolours now has been rediscovered, thanks to a second thought by an estate worker who paused before committing an unmarked and unremarkable envelope to the rubbish pile with other loose papers.
Inside the envelope were concealed these tiny, precious paintings – an important link to South Australia’s colonial past.
It was one of those serendipitous art discoveries that art auctioneer Jim Elder says makes his work so uniquely rewarding.
Mr Elder had been entrusted with the huge chore of sorting through and disseminating more than 5000 etchings, old books, albums, paintings, sketches and paper records privately amassed by Adelaide antiquarian dealers Lex “Bunny” Rabbits and Arthur Chard, professionally known as Chard & Rabbits.
Chard died in 2003 and Rabbits, an Adelaide interior decorator, is living quietly in aged care.
The Elder team took months to sort through massive 18th Century tomes documenting the exploits of the great explorers such as Captain Cook, intriguing old 19th Century fashion and style albums, collections of Gould and other nature artwork, groupings of landscape and architectural engravings, old tinted prints – all sorts of rare books and treasures and among the incidental papers, this plain, white envelope.
The deftly detailed little paintings within, not only were treasures in themselves but, with some research from Jim Elder, have told the story of a forgotten man from another time.
Colonel Biggs was an army officer but also an accomplished amateur photographer, engraver and lithographer. Through the 1860s and 70s he was renowned for his careful execution and the fidelity of his details.
He won innumerable prizes, among them best landscape in oils at the 1866 exhibition of the Royal Society of Arts and in 1867, the local newspaper The Advertiser’s principal watercolour prize for a view of Glenelg Jetty, an Adelaide icon.
The Advertiser records that he painted marine views, landscapes and cultural activities such as haymaking.
With most of his work now lost, this little trove not only brings four fabulous images of a long lost era to light, it also brings the name of Biggs back into the art world –and reignites the mystery of why he did not sign his works.
These paintings are so finely detailed that it takes a magnifying glass to appreciate some of their finesse.
“Because of their rarity, their value is incalculable,” says Jim Elder. “They are true museum pieces.”
They are all clearly identified on the back. The image entitled Milang shows paddle steamboats moored at the busy pier and the murky Lake Alexandrina waters in dramatic chop. Off Goose Islands Midnight depicts people illuminated in a leisure boat, smoky fire merrily going in the stern, its light and that of the full moon casting vivid rays over the still waters. Lucky Point on the Coorong is a gentle and very finely detailed landscape.
Dinner Point Sturt is a dramatic history piece showing a group of five fine-bearded and besuited gentlemen gathered around a large flat rock on the beach, their ship moored in the distance. They are drinking wine and dining very properly, iron cookpots and fire beside them. A pile of dead rabbits draped over a nearby rock suggests that it may be rabbit stew upon which they are feasting.
Also found in the envelope with the paintings was a crude, hand-drawn map showing the exact locations identified on the back of Biggs’s little works.
They paintings will be auctioned at noon on Sunday, 11 October through Elder Fine Art.
Elder Fine Art