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The time travelling wonders of art and cartography

In partnership with University of Tasmania

By Dr Imogen Wegman, Lecturer in Humanities, Diploma of Family History

One of the things I enjoy most about being a historian is getting to stretch my imagination out over centuries’ worth of built landscapes. But in this age of digitisation, I am not only reliant on what I can see in my mind – I can also open on my computer maps, artwork and satellite imagery of places that are far off in space or in time.

There are huge repositories of visual images available online. Browsing through them can really help bring a family history to life.

Modern maps, satellite imagery or street views offer an entry point to getting the vibe of a town before you are able to visit it. Often, however, we want to see the world as our research subjects saw it all those years ago. This is where collections of artwork and cartography helps. One of the most underrated sketches I have come across in my research is George Prideaux Harris’s watercolour of two spotted pardalotes, perching on some wattle branches (

Pipra, M. & F. Speckled Manakins, 1806 / George Prideaux Harris

While the birds are pretty, my eyes are drawn instead to the background, which shows hills, a river and rough buildings. This is one of very few illustrations that show Hunter Island (in Hobart’s Sullivan’s Cove) as an island, complete with a storehouse for the colony’s few valuables. Harris notes that this is the view from the ‘Hospital Hill’ – those convicts or soldiers who were unfortunate enough to need the attention of a medic may have stared out at this view while waiting for ministrations, never knowing how much it would change, even in just a couple of decades.

As I look closer at this painting, it makes me see a place I know very well in a completely different light. By transforming how I see the place, the lives of those who lived here suddenly take on a more vibrant hue.

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