Drawing on past talents

Gifted and itinerant artist William James Laing travelled the east coast of Queensland 140 years ago making sketches of buildings that are now long gone.  No photographs survive of these buildings but his sketches give us a glimpse of a past we would otherwise not know. They have outlasted the buildings themselves.

 So painstaking are his drawings that he most likely received training in art or architecture possibly from a relative, Melbourne architect Charles Laing.  After his arrival in Victoria during the gold rush the 1850s, Laing travelled around the colony presumably receiving payment or accommodation in return for a sketch.

His Queensland sketches date from the late 1860s as he travelled along the east coast from what we now know as the Gold Coast to Gympie, focusing on homesteads, hotels and Cobb & Co stops.

It is surprising any of his work survived because he sketched in pencil and this medium could easily have just faded away. This meant he would not have had to fuss with paints as a pencil was much easier to carry, along with some good quality drawing paper.

We have no idea how many drawings he made. Of those surviving, some are held by John Oxley Library, some by Gympie Regional Library and some privately.

Laing was 66 when he died at Tiaro, near Maryborough, on November 22, 1877. He was buried the following day in the Tiaro Cemetery and apart from his parents’ names on the death certificates, there is little detail about him.  The sketches reproduced here were made in the 1870s.

Laing has seriously and fastidiously recorded each detail of the building, shingles and slabs, post and rail fences, doors and windows. The details in each sketch tell us much about the occupants’ lives.

Almost playfully, he has drawn in farm animals - horses, turkeys, dogs, hens and chickens, a bullock team, geese, pigs, a bird in a cage, a swagman, a bird in the sky and farm workers in the foreground. They are his signature.

Image caption: The sign says “Mooroochie House, James Low’s Hotel”, at Yandina. The hotel was built at South Maroochy Crossing and served Cobb & Co who operated a change station from 1868 to 1879. The Low family lived in the rear of the hotel. The hotel was licensed until James Low’s death in 1883 and then used as a boarding house for about five years until eventually it was pulled down and the timbers re-used for other buildings.