J G Brown

The first survey camp at the site of Canberra

1911, watercolour on paper

Little is known about J G Brown other than he was a draughtsman working with Charles Scrivener, the first director of Commonwealth lands and surveys who established the Land Survey and Property branch of the Department of Home Affairs in 1910.

Scrivener was appointed to select the best city site and water catchment area. His recommendations for an area centred on the village of Canberry were accepted but his boundaries were not, as New South Wales was unwilling to lose the major regional centre of Queanbeyan. The area to be ceded to New South Wales was agreed to by the Prime Minister and the Premier of New South Wales in October 1909 and the Federal Capital Territory came into existence with the passing of two complementary Seat of Government Acts that year (Surrender by NSW, and Acceptance by the Commonwealth), vesting the land in the Commonwealth on 1 January 1911.

The site for the capital having been chosen, surveys of the area had to be undertaken to provide the base topographic information required for the impending competition for the design of Canberra.

As a draughtsman employed on this task Brown would have been expected to produce topographically correct images with details of the place depicted exactly and precisely recorded (hence the date in the lower right-hand corner). In The first survey camp he has adopted the format of the panorama to encompass the broad sweep of the camp. The eye is moved across the surface laterally, taking in the scientific equipment, buildings, living quarters and the surrounding native vegetation. This is not however a pure topographical study, as Brown has inserted a couple of figures going about their daily chores.

It reads more as an informal record of the life of the camp.

Brown’s image is a combination of the topographic with the pictorial. It is a delightful (and rare) view of an important moment and place in Canberra’s history, made even more so by the artist’s clear and discerning eye.


13.3 x 46 cm

Object number



Visual Art


Purchased 2003