“Dear Kate” – Celebrating an artistic legacy from the 1800s

A friend of mine recently visited me from Hobart, Tasmania, which is the southern most state of Australia. Tasmania is a small island, with a total population of about 580,000, of which about half live in its capital, Hobart, in the south.

Tasmania has a long and difficult history encompassing its original indigenous peoples, the Aborigines; colonial settlement and conflict throughout the 18th and 19th centuries; its use as a penal colony because of its remoteness; and the pioneering spirit of the early settlers there.

But it is a beautiful place as a large proportion of the state is still pristine, untamed wilderness – inaccessible and inhospitable in many areas. You might like to browse through the following information about Tasmania’s landscape, which sets the background for an exhibition that my friend recently went to.

Fascinating Facts about Tasmania | Tasmanian Expeditions

We know that life was hard in the early years of settlement in Tasmania because it was so remote, the climate was harsh and it was hard to establish the necessary farming to be self-supportive. So what was life like for middle class families in those days?

An exhibition called "Dear Kate" pays tribute to the artistic legacy of some of the women in the Mitchell family, who grew up on the untamed east coast of Tasmania in the mid-1800s. They were named Catherine Augusta Mitchell and her daughters Catherine Penwarne Ball, and Sarah Elizabeth Emma Mitchell. In this era and environment, you might imagine they were demure girls sitting sewing quietly indoors as it was too dangerous to venture out. But far from it! Instead, the drawings capture the girls’ unique experiences of horseback adventures and exploring untamed forests and the wild coastline of Tasmania’s east coast.1

The essence of their daily lives in the mid-1800s were captured in small but intricate drawings and paintings in their diaries, particularly by Catherine - Dear Kate.” Sadly, Catherine passed away in 1878, aged just 31. But the most wonderful thing for us, and the reason for the exhibition, is that her sister Sarah devoted nearly seven decades preserving their shared artistic efforts, with help from their niece Grace Mitchell. Their dedication resulted in The Mitchell Scrapbook, a precious handmade treasure. 1

During the 1940s, Sarah, who was by then in her 90s, entrusted The Mitchell Scrapbook of her late sister’s exquisite ink drawings to the Royal Society of Tasmania, which has ensured its preservation. The Scrapbook is too fragile to be put on show, but Jane Giblin, a modern-day descendant of the extended Mitchell family, is also an artist. She has created an enchanting series of original lithographs and watercolours in response to the drawings in the diaries of Catherine Augusta Mitchell, her daughters Catherine (Kate) Penwarne Ball, and Sarah Elizabeth Emma Mitchell. 1

Her work sits alongside photographs from The Mitchell Scrapbook, and breathes new life into their drawings by highlighting the detail in the original drawings by Kate in the mid-1800s.

But you really must read the following article by Maren Preuss, a journalist from ABC News in Australia, as it gives more detail and includes pictures of The Mitchell Scrapbook itself, some of the work of the Mitchell sisters and Jane Giblin……

‘A type of image you rarely see’: Sketches show ‘honest’ portrayal of colonial life for women
Riding horses for three days to get to a dance in the city, chasing kangaroos and jumping fences. An 1800s sketchbook reveals the unlikely life of a colonial woman.

You can see more of Jane Giblin’s lithographs if you click the bookmark below:

Dear Kate - Online exhibition - Libraries Tasmania
Dear Kate: the vision of the Mitchell women. An exhibition of original lithographs and watercolours by Jane Giblin, featuring original works by the Mitchell family.

The Mitchell Scrapbook is an important historical legacy of this aspect of life in remote Tasmania. Isn’t it wonderful that it has been preserved and celebrated in this way!


With thanks to

  1. The State Library of Tasmania, https://libraries.tas.gov.au/exhibitions/dearkate/dear-kate-online-exhibition/
  2. Maren Preuss, ABC News