Like so many artists working during the turn of the 20th century, few records have been kept to indicate much of the intricacies of their lives in Australia. All that remains as a testament to their time here are the artworks that resurface, few and far between, and in diminishing numbers as they are well sought after by the major galleries and institutions in the country.
George Bourne is one of these artists and this rare and sizable work of his of Bunbury Harbour is only matched in quality by three watercolours that have been acquired by the National Maritime Museum in Canberra.
Records indicate the Bourne arrived in Fremantle from England aboard the Daylight on the 16th of August 1876 and that he worked most ports between there and Adelaide. He was a resident at Esperance Bay 1897-98 and in Albany c.1900-02 and has been identified as the harbourmaster of Bunbury in 1909. His trade was the maritime industry and he divided his time between working aboard ships and painting scenes of these ships and ports.
Aside from this record and a smattering of newspaper articles alluding to the nature of his character (a series of jaunts at the local courthouse), little has been uncovered about the artist whose delicate landscapes offer a timeless account of life in Western Australia during a period of settlement, burgeoning trade and colonialism.
While watercolour is the obvious medium for a professional ship portraitist due to its quick drying qualities, this oil painting by Bourne would have taken some time and consideration.
From the almost pinpoint couple standing at the waters break to the coastal train rocketing towards the length of the jetty that reaches out to a bustling mooring of three-mast ships, to a lone fisherman floating in the bay as a steam ship passes the breakwater – behind which stands the reconstructed Bunbury lighthouse – we can see that this is a thoughtful composition by Bourne that draws the eye well around the canvas.
Not only does this painting allow the viewer an intricate reconstruction of Bunbury harbour at the time, it also offers a glimpse through the eyes of a working man whose life and livelihood, like many other settlers at the time, was deeply reliant on the ocean and seaborne trade.