painter, lithographer, engraver and naturalist, was born on 25 April 1822 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, fourth child and eldest son of George Fife Angas, a merchant and banker, and Rosetta, née French. As the eldest son he was expected to join his father’s firm, but some months in a London counting house proved a disillusioning experience. In 1841 he took art lessons for four months from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a natural history painter and lithographer, and armed with this instruction set out to see the world. He began in the Mediterranean, publishing A Ramble in Malta and Sicily in the Autumn of 1841 … Illustrated with Sketches taken on the spot, and drawn on stone by the author , the following year.
Angas’s father had established the South Australian Company in 1836 and had large areas of land as well as banking interests in the province. At his behest, George French sailed for South Australia in 1843 in the Augustus , with John and William Calvert , arriving at Adelaide on 1 January 1844. Within days he had joined an exploring party selecting runs for the South Australian Company. They travelled through the Mount Lofty Ranges to the Murray River and down to Lake Coorong and Angas sketched views of the countryside, native animals and the customs and dwellings of the Narrinyeri people. Later he drew scenes on his father’s land—28 000 acres in the Barossa Valley—and accompanied GeorgeGrey 's expedition to the then unknown south-east as unofficial artist.
In July 1844 Angas visited New Zealand. Guided by two Maoris, he travelled on foot and by canoe through both islands, painting portraits of Maoris and views of their intricately-carved pahs . He returned to Sydney in November, bringing with him James Pomara, an orphaned Maori youth about 13 years old whom he placed in a school. Re-visiting South Australia early in 1845, Angas joined Grey on an expedition by ship to Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln. In June he held the first art exhibition in South Australia (admission 1s, catalogue 6d), in Adelaide’s Legislative Council Chambers, showing watercolours of his journeys. These formed the basis of many lithographic plates in his South Australia Illustrated and The New Zealanders Illustrated , published after his return to London in 1846.
The pictures had another showing in Australia—at the Royal Hotel, Sydney, in July 1845—at which time Angas took the opportunity to visit the Illawarra district and paint its rainforests and wild scenery. He also painted portraits of some prominent Sydney Aborigines, such as Old King Tamara. The Last of the Sydney Tribe. Aug. 15, 1845 and a matching watercolour, Kaaroo alias Old Gooseberry, Widow of Bungaree , the two being shown at the first exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia, held in Sydney in June 1847. (Gooseberry had guided Angas and his friend W.A. Miles to Aboriginal rock carvings in the district.)
In September 1845, accompanied by James Pomara, Angas set off for England via Cape Horn and Rio de Janeiro, arriving in February 1846. An exhibition of his work was organised at the British and Foreign Institution on 17 March and he presented it in person to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace on 3 April. Two days later a grand exhibition opened at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, which consisted of more than 300 of his paintings, 'entirely executed on the spot, from Life and Nature’, accompanied by Aboriginal and Maori costumes and implements, bird specimens, and Pomara in person dressed in native costume. Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand: Being an Artist’s Impressions of Countries and Peoples at the Antipodes (2 vols, Smith, Elder & Co., London) was published in 1847. It was reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 July.
At the end of 1846 Angas left for South Africa, visiting Cape Town, Durban and Zululand. An attack of fever there affected his health for the rest of his life. Back in London in 1848, he exhibited his South African works, published The Kaffirs Illustrated (1849) and was appointed naturalist to the Turco-Persian frontier commission (although ill-health prevented his participation). On 27 December 1849 he married an Irishwoman, Anna Alicia (or Alicia Mary) Moran, in a United Church of Ireland ceremony in Dublin. Mrs Angas appears to have been a Roman Catholic as the four daughters of the marriage were baptised Catholics; since Angas’s parents were strict Baptists the Anglican ceremony may have been a compromise between the two families.
Soon afterwards the couple emigrated to Adelaide. George French opened a studio in King William Street, painted watercolour portraits and landscapes, and taught drawing for 2 guineas a quarter. Early in 1851 he travelled to New South Wales. He was in Sydney when news of the first gold discoveries arrived. Determined to record the goldrush, he travelled on foot to Ophir, near Bathurst. Woolcott and Clarke published his set of two-colour lithographs, Six Views of the Gold Field at Ophir… , which included such scenes as Gold Washing, Summer Hill Creek, 1851 . It was favourably reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1 September 1851.
The precarious financial situation of the professional artist apparently then led Angas to the new Victorian diggings, to sketch and to search for gold. Six months later he was back in Sydney. After difficulties with his agent in Adelaide and with his English publisher, Views of the Gold Regions of Australia, Drawn on the Spot by G.F. Angus (sic) was published in London but Angas seems never to have been paid for his work. (McCulloch suggests that at least some of the Victorian views were after photographs by W.F. Bentley and the extent of Angas’s Victorian travels is difficult to gauge.) He made many watercolour views of Sydney, such as Double Bay, Port Jackson (December 1852). A coloured lithograph of Sydney and the harbour from Vaucluse, published by Woolcott & Clarke from one of his drawings, was favourably reviewed in both the Sydney Morning Herald (14 March 1853) and Freeman’s Journal (17 March), while his lithographic portrait of the gold prospector Edward Hargraves was praised as a 'faithful likeness’ in the Herald of 23 April 1853.
After his appointment as secretary and accountant of the Australian Museum on 10 October 1853, Angas no longer attempted to support his family solely through painting and illustrating. Nevertheless, he continued to be quite prolific and his name appears with some regularity in the Illustrated Sydney News from its second issue of 15 October 1853 until its demise (vol. 4, no. 90) on 30 June 1855. 18 original paintings were shown in the exhibition which Angas helped organise at the Australian Museum in November 1854, in preparation for the 1855 Paris Exhibition. He worked at the museum as an administrator and undertook cataloguing and research. His particular interest was conchology (the study of shells) and he published an article in the Journal de Conchyliologie which was illustrated with 30 lithographs from his watercolours. He also drew the first scientific record of Bennett’s cassowary, The 'Mooruk’ from New Britain, Sydney, Sept. 15th 1857 . Three of his watercolours, Sailor Boy , Fisher Boy and Scene in Illawarra , were exhibited in January 1857 at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts. Angas and the architect John Bibb were the first examiners to be appointed to this institution, at the end of 1858.
In 1859 the museum trustees appointed a new curator from England to direct Angas, who was then partially dislodged from his living quarters. On 1 March 1860 he resigned rather than accept an inferior position and the family returned to South Australia to stay with his brother John Howard Angas at Angaston. George Fife arranged his son’s election as chairman of the District Council, a position which permitted him to continue natural history studies in addition to his paid work. In 1863, after a disagreement with his father over a local scandal and divorce, he took his family to England. It seems that his father then paid him a remittance.
In London Angas wrote Australia: A Popular Account of its Physical Features, Inhabitants, Natural History and Productions. With the History of its Colonization [sic] (London 1865) and Polynesia, a Description of the Islands of the Pacific (London 1866) for the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. Both were illustrated with wood-engravings after his drawings. He also published a collection of poetry and drew illustrations and wrote articles for the popular press. In a letter of 18 January 1869 to S.W. Silver he expressed interest in working as an illustrator for Cassell’s Illustrated Travel . Nevertheless, for the last 20 years of his life Angas’s major contribution was as a conchologist; he wrote and illustrated 55 articles for the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London and donated nearly 1500 shells and 300 insect specimens to the British Museum. He was made a fellow of the Linnaean, Royal Geographical and Zoological societies.
Angas’s father died in 1879, leaving a vast estate from which George French received only an annuity of £1000. In 1884 he went to Dominica on a collecting expedition, finding shells, moths, butterflies and birds. Dogged by rheumatism and neuralgia during his last years, Angas died in London on 4 October 1886, survived by his wife and three of his daughters. He left an estate worth just £293, plus some pictures and books.
The artist himself emphasised that his works were 'drawn on the spot’, but this insistence on locality and immediacy is somewhat misleading. As Tregenza states, his practice was to draw 'rapid pencil sketches in the field, adding colour notes and other directions… [he would] fill out a landscape as required when he came to “finish” a picture in the studio’. Many drawings were made into lithographs, both by himself and others, and this transfer of medium sometimes resulted in a rearrangement of pictorial elements and an elaboration of detail to fit contemporary illustrative norms. Yet his natural science illustrations were more knowledgeable and accurate than many contemporary works, as can be seen in his meticulous specimen drawings, especially of Australian plants.
A letter to the South Australian of 17 June 1845 discussed Angas’s paintings then on show at the Adelaide Council Chamber and compared them unfavourably with the work of S.T. Gill . The writer, signing himself 'N.R.F.’ (but immediately revealed as Frederick Robert Nixon , q.v.), complained that Angas’s style was 'essentially limited, that is – he adopts the same to all his subjects’—and lacked that 'general effect’ essential for great landscape painting, providing instead minute detail and much accuracy. Angas’s work certainly did not attempt the 'grand manner’, but his output was mainly for publication and information, not moral uplift. His achievement was to communicate his wide experience in little-known lands with skill, grace and surprising fidelity.