Books & Literature

Book Review: The Art of Science, Edited by J Fornasiero, et al

This informative book has been released to coincide with the current SA Maritime Museum exhibition of over 350 works from Nicolas Baudin’s exploration of the largely uncharted southern continent we now know as Australia.


  • Jean Fornasiero, Emeritus Prof of French Studies at the University of Adelaide
  • Lindl Lawton, Senior Curator at the South Australian Maritime Museum
  • John West-Sooby, Professor of French Studies at the University of Adelaide

This book has been released to coincide with the exhibition of over 350 works from Nicolas Baudin’s exploration of the largely uncharted southern continent we now know as Australia. It details just a few of the thousands of records, drawings and maps made on Baudin’s voyages.

The exhibition, The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804, is currently on at the SA Maritime Museum until Sunday, 11 December 2016. There are also school holiday activities from 4 – 14 October, Exploring the Art of Science – October School Holidays (on week days only).

baudin200The ships Géographe and Naturaliste left Le Havre in October 1800 with over 20 scientists and scientific assistants ranging from botanists and geologists to astronomers and artists, far more than Baudin had wanted, as he knew tensions amongst the individuals and between disciplines was bound to occur. In fact, when the expedition stopped at Mauritius six months after sailing, several of the official artists left on the grounds of ill health and it is by good fortune that Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit were able to fill the gap.

At the time of the voyages Britain and France had been at war for 8 years and Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul. While the expedition had been supported by Sir Joseph Banks, who had obtained permissions for Baudin’s explorations from the British, there were concerns as to what any discoveries might mean for national pride, later territorial claims and future settlement. This was a major factor in the rapid equipping of Matthew Flinders’ ship Investigator and their paths crossed in Encounter Bay in April 1802.

The first chapter discusses how the original sketches and paintings made by Baudin’s artists, Lesueur and Petit, during the voyage were later ‘processed’ by others for publication as drawings, prints and engravings. Although the purpose of the expedition was scientific discovery and the artists and scientists claimed to be objective in their recording of what was discovered, the reader is reminded that what was produced was a version of reality shaped by the cultural and political influences of the time. A comparative reading of the text alongside the drawings can provide some insight into the cultural ‘baggage’ these scientific recorders were carrying with them to this new land.

We also see how images and documentation of Indigenous artefacts and culture during the expedition has enabled forgotten words and skills to be revived. The barriers of language, of course, limited exchanges but words and songs were recorded with the French expressing surprise at how quickly the Indigenous Australians picked up French words. We read that these records are especially valuable as they were made before the impact of colonisation and are now assisting to revive language in the Pakana (today’s Tasmanian Aboriginal) community. The revival of cultural practises such as making ninga (bark canoe) and rikawa (kelp water carrier) have been directly informed by the detailed drawings and descriptions of Petit and Lesueur.

My advice to readers would be to read the book to get a better understanding of the background to Nicolas Baudin’s expeditions and the processes involved in recording the people, plants, animals and geography they encountered. Then visit the exhibition and read the book again when you get home. I’m sure it will inspire you to make a second expedition yourself, to look closer at some of the 350 works on display.

Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  10

Publisher: Wakefield Press
Release Date: July 2016
RRP: $39.95 paperback

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