The first British colonists arrived in Tasmania in 1803 and the first permanent settlement, now the city of Hobart, was established in 1804. What was to be the first permanent settlement in the North of the island was initially established at Launceston on the Tamar River, in 1806. Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land, was established as a penal colony and remained so until the end of Transportation in 1853. Over that period, approximately seventy five thousand convicts were transported to the island. The first fleets also carried free settlers attracted by economic opportunity, offers of land grants, the availability of convict labour and, increasingly, a thriving economy.
After a tentative start the colony grew rapidly and was, for the first half of the nineteenth century, increasingly prosperous. The island’s rich colonial decorative arts heritage is the product of skilled convict labour, the work of immigrant free-settler artisans attracted by the colony’s prosperity and the patronage of both groups by the island’s growing population. While in some areas, such as furniture making, both convict and free settler artisans made considerable contributions, in others, such as silver smithing, almost all known examples were produced by convict or ex-convict artisans. Other media, such as textiles, were dominated by domestic production and were produced by a broad cross section of the, mainly female, population.
Tasmania’s status as a British colony is reflected in the decorative arts, with the types and styles of objects derived from the British Isles. These include both fashionable designs transmitted by pattern books and regional idiosyncrasies carried here by the craftsmen and women themselves. Colonialism also discouraged industrialisation and for most of the nineteenth century the decorative arts in Tasmania were dominated by small workshops producing for a local market. Some areas, such as glass manufacture, never really established; while others, such as ceramics, made only a very tentative start. Despite this, the colonists began to identify with their new land quickly and native floral and faunal motifs enter the decorative arts from as early as the 1830s.
With the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, Tasmania ceased to be a British colony. With continued immigration from the British Isles and an established population with close ties to the motherland, Britain remained the dominant cultural influence for most of the twentieth century. The Arts and Crafts Movement, which began in England in the 1850s, was a particularly important influence. Australia’s first Arts and Crafts society, the Arts and Crafts Society of Tasmania was formed in Hobart in 1903. The British movement encouraged originality and personal expression in design and many arts and crafts practitioners drew upon their immediate environment for inspiration, incorporating native plants and animals into their designs. A small number were also influenced by international developments such as primitivism and abstraction.