A certain amount of recent notoriety has surrounded the figure of Mary Ann Friend (captain’s wife), generated in no small part by the acquisition of her 1830s journal by the State Library of WA in 2016.

Relative to the amount of time she spent in the “infant” Swan River Colony settlement (she was here and gone within approximately two months), her sketches of the settlement had a long-lasting impact.  In particular, her sketch, View at Swan River. Sketch of the Encampment of Mattw Curling Friend, Esqr. R.N. Taken on the Spot & Drawn on Stone by Mrs M.C.F. March 1830, at leisure transformed into a lithograph by her own hand, was reproduced continuously for an English periodical audience. Reportedly, it was reason enough for readers to avoid Fremantle as a migrant destination for decades after.[1]

Joan Kerr provides insight into this alleged reaction:

Friend was not attempting to convey precise information about the still largely unknown antipodes but confirming prevailing assumptions about the peculiarities of life in this strange, primitive land. This was the sort of image that gave gumtrees a bad name. Yet because her romantic distopian view slotted the alien landscape…precisely yet dismissively into an aesthetic category known to all educated gentry … Friend’s image was published and widely circulated. [2]

This depiction, together with another by Jane Currie from the same period, which together provide something of a panoramic view of the scene surrounding Arthur’s Head (aka Manjaree) in the 1830s, should be of interest to all “Fremantle-ites” as (I will argue) they offer clues to both our heritage and our destiny.  Their essence describes, in all senses of the word, the heart of the “village” that is represented not by the apparent desolation of the original site captured by Friend, but by the leaning tree that folds its arm around the precarious abode and draws it into an existing history and a burgeoning future.

In a passageway leading to an inauspicious set of classrooms at the University of Notre Dame, hangs a framed copy of this engraving by Mary Ann Friend; beneath it the aforementioned work by Jane Currie.  Countless scholars pass it daily, but whether they look up and wonder at the desolate narrative of sand dunes and makeshift tents, is debatable.  Having gazed up at Friend’s picture for some time, I decide to try to position myself down at the coast on a spot that might approximate her view.  From this viewpoint, one can appreciate still the barrenness of the outlook captured by Friend.  Notwithstanding incidental suggestions of sea-going activity, the aspect looking out to sea is one of immeasurable vastness that tips off the world’s edge at the horizon line.

On a day like today (and unlike the moment captured in Friend’s sketch) the sun is shrouded in cloud, so much like an angry old woman clutching at a bundle of greying shawls, and the particles of sand have been whipped into a sirocco that bites at the ankles like circling midges.  The wind glances off Antarctica and slices across Arthur’s Head like a spinning blade.  So many winters in this town I have done battle with this icy blast; as a child at the footy huddled under a threadbare towel slurping dripping sauce off a disintegrating pie, as a teen attempting to hold down the flying pleats of my uniform while balancing an armful of books in the ridiculously shelter-free quad at John Curtin, as a mother trying to plough High Street from east to west with a pram-full of wailing children, nipped by the squall.  By contrast with the elemental scuffle that besieges this fair city in certain seasons, life in Friend’s painted tents appears positively benign!  Although, of course, it wasn’t.

It’s curious to wonder what passers-through make of Fremantle. For example, had Mary Ann Friend meant to settle in Fremantle instead of moving on to Hobart, would she have taken the time to represent Fremantle differently; as a place of permanence rather than as a liminal space represented by makeshift tents and “jetsam” from their ship?  It is interesting to speculate as to why this sketch had such a negative effect on would-be migrants to Fremantle. Was it the suggestion of pioneer struggle?  Was it the cognisance that if this was the nature of the captain’s establishment, then to what could mere settlers aspire?  Is it any of the material things at all; the use of the ‘horse’s house’ from the ship to mock up a cottage, the pitiful fire-logs arranged haphazardly on the beach, the canvas A-frames of the various tents?  Was it instead the vastness of the sea in the background, measuring the distance from mother England?  Or was it the desolate foreshore with its broken stumps, foreign trees with leaves clumped aloft like African headdresses, denuded sand with sparse crops of ‘balga’ huddled in the foreground?  To the untrained eye, or to a British imagination nurtured on Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Swiss Family Robinson (1812), Friend’s sketch may have been more suggestive of shipwreck than settlement.  Rather than a pathway to a promised land, perhaps the blue ribbon winding up to the encampment offered a means of escape; or of avoidance for those looking at this image of the new colony from civilised shores beyond the horizon.

Friend made this sketch in March, 1830.  The view is from the land across the shoreline and out to sea, when the Swan River Colony was a mere eight months past settlement.  Had the viewer been in situ watching this domestic scene and then turned, behind them would have been hillocks furred in spinifex and low salt-resistant shrubs.  Conceivably the only building for miles was the Round House high on the hill. In short, if periodical readers back in Britain thought this representation of Fremantle was primitive, it is fortunate that they were not comparing it to Currie’s (which perhaps fortuitously was not widely circulated).  Presumably the reason the Friends were encamped on the beach was because had they left the sand, they would have been in inhospitable sand dunes similar to those around South Beach and Coogee.  Not a very inspiring home and yet, the colony did grow up and some did settle here.  It just didn’t happen overnight; perhaps due in part to Mary Ann Friend’s “negative press” engraved in ink.

Yet, at a time when European artists painted rather what they had been taught to see than what they truly saw in the Australian landscape, the raw authenticity of Friend’s sketch is palpable.  Kerr describes it as “a memento of antipodean wilderness à la Salvator Rosa (but sunny)” [3] and although the description is apt, I’d like to suggest that there is potentially a positive side to the distribution of Friend’s work, depite it allegedly “explain[ing] the Friends’ failure to settle in West Australia” [4] – and the failure of others too.  I would like to believe, given the fact that settlers did come to Fremantle, that such migrants were of a disposition that saw possibility not desolation in Friend’s depicted landscape, flow and freedom not distance in the surrounding sea, a non-traditional and unscripted life in the undeveloped surrounds, and opportunities for unbridled creativity and unshackled growth in what was to become Fremantle town.  In the middle-ground of Friend’s engraving, the artist in self-portrait, hand resting deliberately on the primitive architecture, perhaps locked eyes with a viewer’s gaze, demanding; “Is this for you?”  And the one who was open, creative, adventuring, unscripted, untethered to tradition and who understood the question answered, “Yes”.

Reference:

Kerr, Joan (1995) https://www.daao.org.au/bio/mary-ann-friend/biography/

photo credit: Tse Yin Chang

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Ainslie Robinson

Ainslie Robinson is the Fremantle-born-and-bred daughter of post-war British migrants. Her love of art and literature was kindled at an early age and nurtured by inspiring educators at White Gum Valley Primary, John Curtin and later, UWA et al. Raised on the grounds of the former Fremantle Technical College, and never seeming to escape the bounds of educational institutions, she punctuates her days with academia and writing; practicalities and poetry; real life and art.