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The Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa)

The Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa)
signed, inscribed and dated '--I.W.Lewin--A.L. 8 Octr--1807-/- Sydney. N.S.W.--' (lower right)
watercolour on paper
21½ x 16¼in. (54.6 x 41.3cm.)
William Bligh (1754 -1817) and thence by descent to the present owners.
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Lot Essay

There are two studies of the Gymea by Lewin in the Mitchell Library, and a watercolour of similar size, 'The Gigantic Lyllie of New South Wales', dated 1810, is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales ('Lewin's Gigantic Lyllie is a ... spectacular ... emblem for the colony which nourished it. If such a statement can be made of an essentially descriptive effort by a colonial illlustrator, Lewin unleashes the drama of the plant, its sensual extravagance.' (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Handbook, Sydney, 1999, p.183)

Another commission including the Gymea lily is recorded: 'On 7 December 1814 the merchant and settler Alexander Riley wrote to his brother: 'Agreeable to your Wishes, I have had a pair of the most elegant Flowers painted by Mr.Lewin [sic], viz the Gigantic lily and then Warataw [Waratah] done in his good style which I have sent to Mr.Palmer ... and I may with truth remark of all who have seen them, viz "That they are worthy for the Palace of a Prince" ... Lewin has charged me £12/12/-, and from his high style of finishing them he did not earn Journey mans wages.' (J. Kerr (ed.), The Dictionary of Australian Artists, Melbourne, 1992, p.467).

The son of the English ornithologist William Lewin, John William Lewin was the first free artist to visit the colony of New South Wales, arriving in January 1800. He joined two expeditions as unofficial natural history artist, to the Hunter River in 1801 and to Tahiti later the same year. He settled with his wife at Parramatta from 1802 to 1808, befriending the new governor, William Bligh, whose land grants from Governor King included 500 acres near Parramatta ('Mount Betham') and 1000 acres of the Hawkesbury River ('Copenhagen'). Lewin's commissions for Bligh include a view from Governor Bligh's farm on the Hawkesbury and his watercolour of a 'Variegated Lizard', now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Acc. no. 486.1990).

The Gymea Lily was famously depicted by Ferdinand Bauer on Flinders' circumnavigation of 1801-05 and issued as plate 13 in Bauer's Illustrationes Florae Novae Hollandiae, London, 1816.

The flower (Doryanthes excelsa Correa, Gymea Lily - Doryanthaceae) is a large (growing up to 14 feet high) perennial rosette plant with red flowers in Spring, native to the sandstone country of the Sydney basin and northern New South Wales. Named 'Gymea' by the aborigines ('giant lily') who eat its roasted stem and roots, it survives fire by having its apical buds protected in leaf bases (often underground).

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