William Saville-Kent

The Great Barrier Reef


In 1894 William Saville-Kent was appointed Inspector of Fisheries in Tasmania. He was promoted to Commissioner of Fisheries for Queensland and then for Western Australia, created the technique used today for cultured pearls and became an early pioneer in theories of sustainable fish farming. Although made notorious in his time by his half-brother’s murder, Saville-Kent is best remembered for his important work on The Great Barrier Reef. In the mid 19th century London and indeed much of Europe were gripped by the violent murder of four year old Francis Saville-Kent for which his half-sister Constance was convicted. Constance’s younger brother William was suspected as an accomplice by the renowned Inspector Jack Whicher but was not brought to trial and he emigrated to Australia where, after serving twenty years, Constance joined him..

Off the coast of Queensland in the Coral Sea, the Great Barrier Reef is made up over nearly 3000 reefs, 900 islands and covers an area of nearly 350,000 kilometres. First documented in 1768 by Louis de Bougainville, its length was sailed by James Cook in 1770, and later partial surveys were made by William Bligh, captains Bampton and Alt, Matthew Flinders and the hydrographer Philip Parker King but it was not until Saville-Kent’s survey that a study of the reef’s ecosystem was produced.

Into the twenty first century coral bleaching increased (the corals expel their fellow algae, turn white and often die), whilst coral cover decreased, in contrast to the abundance Saville-Kent recorded. The 16 chromolithographs produced by Riddle and Couchman after his sketches are testament to the reef as it was over a hundred years ago, and vibrantly capture the colour and exuberance with the same naivety that led Saville-Kent to ominously subtitle his work ‘its products and potentialities.

Below are a few examples from this collection. Please click on an image to see it in high-resolution with details of the work itself. For the full list of original antique Saville-Kent chromolithographs available,  please do contact us.