Augustus Earle was born probably on 1 June 1793, and was baptised on 27 June in the church of St Marylebone, London, England. (His surname appears in the parish register as Earl, but in later records is spelled with a terminal 'e'.) He was the third child and youngest son of American born parents, James Earle (not uncommonly spelt Earl), an artist, and his wife, Caroline Smyth, a widow with two children. There is no evidence to confirm that Earle studied at the Royal Academy, as frequently claimed, but he may have been taught by the president of the academy, Benjamin West, whose studio was in Newman Street near Earle's childhood home. Classical, genre and historical paintings by Earle were hung in six Royal Academy exhibitions between 1806 and 1814, which suggests an unusually precocious development. Earle was also an accomplished writer but details of his schooling are unknown. He never married.
After having exhibited 'A man-of-war's boat cutting out a French barque' in 1814 and 'View of the harbour and part of the town of Calais' in 1815, Earle began his life's work as an itinerant artist, with the assistance of his step-brother, William Henry Smyth, who commanded a gunboat in the Mediterranean. He painted in North Africa, Sicily, Malta and Gibraltar before returning to England in the summer of 1817. From 1818 to 1820 he travelled through the United States sketching, painting, and exhibiting with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He reached Brazil early in April 1820 and worked at Rio de Janeiro, with brief visits to Chile and Peru. In February 1824 he took passage to Calcutta but instead spent eight months on Tristan da Cunha, having been abandoned there en route. He painted, kept a journal and acted as schoolmaster and chaplain. Earle was rescued by a ship bound for Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), where he did some sketching before making his way to New South Wales.
For two years Earle lived a fashionable but busy life in Sydney, opening a gallery, giving lessons in painting and selling drawing materials. On his travels in New South Wales he made sensitive studies of Aborigines. He published three lithographs in Views in Australia (Sydney, 1826). His paintings were primarily documentary and topographical, but he also did portraits of leading citizens. The Sydney Gazette acclaimed him 'an invaluable acquisition'.
Earle was determined to know more about the Maori, some of whom he had met in Sydney. In October 1827 he sailed on the Governor Macquarie and spent eight months between Hokianga and the Bay of Islands. He was convinced that no native race he had studied on his travels could compare with the New Zealanders, that 'splendid race of men' with 'a natural elegance and ease of manner'. He found that although the Maori were warlike, often cruel, and sometimes treacherous, they were brave and chivalrous and also generous, faithful friends. He admired their physique and could not forgive the missionaries for seeking to hide such naked splendour in European clothing for the sake of modesty and morality. He praised their 'busy enquiring minds', was fascinated by the complexity of their character, impressed by their artistry in carving and by their mastery of the art of warfare. He likened Hongi Hika to a Homeric hero.
Earle painted accurate representations of Maori customs, occasions and domestic scenes, for instance, 'Crying over the bones of a dead chief', 'Warriors presenting trophies of conquest [the heads of their enemies] to their queen', 'A war speech previous to a naval expedition' and 'Slaves preparing food'. The squalor portrayed in the 'Residence of Shulitea [Te Uri-ti]' makes an interesting contrast with the splendid ornamentation depicted in 'Tabooed house'. His pen sketches of Maori people are infused with the human understanding of his fellow men implicit in his written comments.
In October 1828, five months after returning to Sydney, Earle left for Madras, making records of people and landscape in the Caroline Islands, Guam, Manila and Singapore. Madras proved a good market for Earle's art but his health declined there. Paintings of panoramic views mark an enforced stay at Mauritius during his return to England in 1830. He had the opportunity for a comfortable life in England but was tempted by an offer to become official artist to the second expedition mounted by the Admiralty to survey and chart the South American coastline. He joined the Beagle on 28 October 1831 as 'artist supernumary with victuals', and became a friend of the young Charles Darwin. But by the time the Beagle reached South America Earle was ill, and he was forced to leave the ship at Montevideo in August 1832. He found his way back to England by the end of 1833. On 10 December 1838 Augustus Earle died in London.
Between 1828 and 1840 Robert Burford of London designed a number of popular, mechanically moving panoramas of various parts of the world based on Earle's drawings and paintings. Those of Sydney were the first; the last was a panorama of the Bay of Islands. Earle's other published works were Views in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (1830), and A narrative of a nine months' residence in New Zealand in 1827 (1832), one of the best descriptions of New Zealand before colonisation. His last work, Sketches illustrative of the native inhabitants and islands of New Zealand, a series of 10 hand-coloured lithographs, was published in 1838 under the auspices of the New Zealand Association. In 1837 Earle showed two paintings of naval subjects at the Royal Academy; 'A bivouac of travellers in Australia, in a Cabbage-tree Forest, Day Break' in 1838 was his final appearance at the academy.
Augustus Earle was probably the first English freelance painter to travel the world. He was the first European artist to establish himself for a time in New Zealand and make a prolonged study of a part of the country and a number of its people. Over 70 of Earle's works are now held in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection in the National Library, Canberra, Australia.