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Rediscovering the Artistic Brilliance of Charles Rodius: State Library of NSW Presents Landmark Exhibition

Charles Rodius Exhibition

Rediscovering the Artistic Brilliance of Charles Rodius: State Library of NSW Presents Landmark Exhibition

Charles Rodius Exhibition

Prepare to be captivated by the extraordinary talent of one of Australia’s most overlooked artists as the State Library of NSW unveils the world’s first retrospective exhibition of Charles Rodius (1802–1860). Opening its doors tomorrow — June 17, 2023 — the exhibition promises to shine a long-awaited spotlight on this enigmatic figure and showcase over 90 original watercolours, drawings, and prints, many of which have never been seen by Australian audiences.

Titled simply “Charles Rodius,” this ambitious exhibition brings together artworks from public and private collections in Australia and the UK, including the State Library’s unparalleled collection. The exhibition seeks to rectify the historical oversight that has relegated Rodius to relative obscurity, despite his talent being on par with his renowned contemporary, Conrad Martens.

Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville notes, “Rodius was highly trained, with a talent equal to that of his famous contemporary Conrad Martens, but his work was rejected by the art world and his name has almost vanished from art history.” The exquisite portraits Rodius created in the 20th century were deemed more historically significant than artistically remarkable, leading many of them to be transferred from the Art Gallery of New South Wales to the State Library. Now, the exhibition offers an opportunity to rediscover and appreciate the artistic and musical achievements of this intriguing artist, whose accomplishments were once widely reported in newspapers of the era.

Born in Paris, Rodius received training as a draughtsman and printmaker before finding himself in London, where he supplemented his income as an artist and language teacher through petty theft. His criminal activities ultimately led to his transportation to New South Wales in 1829 for stealing a lady’s handbag at the opera. While working briefly for the Colonial Architect’s office, Rodius depicted scenes of Sydney Harbour and settlers’ houses, examples of which are showcased in the exhibition. After being granted a ticket-of-leave in 1832, he resumed his portraiture and teaching work, coinciding with a surge of immigrants to the colony who eagerly sought images of their new home to send back to Britain. Rodius’s 1833 print of Sydney Harbour became particularly popular during this period.

While Rodius’s clientele primarily consisted of public servants and professionals, his subjects spanned all walks of life, including individuals on both sides of the law and notable figures like Garigal leader Bungaree, eccentric ferryman Billy Blue, explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, and a young Henry Parkes. Dr. David Hansen, the exhibition’s guest curator, emphasizes that Rodius’s portrait drawings created over a span of 25 years are among the finest produced in mid-19th century Australia.

Dr. Hansen adds, “Visitors will be fascinated by Rodius’s striking portraits, particularly those of First Nations people, and will be able to see the development of Rodius’s works from first sketches through to formal finished drawings and lithographic prints.” The exhibition also raises important questions about the agency and representation of the First Nations people featured in Rodius’s portraits, shedding light on their stories and experiences.

Notable highlights of the exhibition include Rodius’s renowned portrait of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, presented alongside two of his Aboriginal guides, Charley Fisher and Harry Brown, for the first time. Additionally, the exhibition showcases rare and intricately detailed drawings of several Māori individuals who were in Sydney during 1833–34, some of whom were taken hostage by British whalers to safeguard their Otago outposts. Furthermore, visitors can immerse themselves in a series of artworks capturing Rodius’s popular view of Sydney Harbour, each piece derived from the same vantage point atop Tallawoladah/The Rocks.

The Charles Rodius exhibition will be on display at the State Library of NSW’s galleries from June 17, 2023, to May 12, 2024. This landmark event promises to be a celebration of artistic brilliance and an opportunity to appreciate the long-lost masterpieces of an artist whose contributions have remained hidden in the shadows of history.

Image credit: State Library NSW

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