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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Presence and absence

by Joanna Gilmour, 3 May 2018

The artist and her family, c. 1854 by Martha Berkeley
The artist and her family, c. 1854 by Martha Berkeley

In early March 1856, the Times reported at length about a discussion in the House of Lords on the subject of a proposal to establish a portrait gallery in London. It was the third time in ten years that Phillip Henry Stanhope, the right honourable gentleman responsible for the scheme, had attempted to persuade the British parliament of the virtues of such an institution, one that would ‘afford great pleasure and instruction to the industrious classes’, ‘be a boon to men of letters’, and, better still, ‘be useful as an incitement to honourable exertion’ in the service of one’s country. In eliciting support for his proposal, Stanhope quoted the then president of the Royal Academy, Sir Charles Eastlake, who had expressed a wish ‘that a gallery could be formed exclusively for authentic likenesses of celebrated individuals’. Stanhope also cited essayist Thomas Carlyle who had espoused the opinion that ‘every student and reader of history who strives earnestly to conceive what manner and fact of man this or the other vague historical name can have been will, as the first and directest indication of all, search eagerly for a portrait’. Portrait galleries, he claimed, ‘far transcend in worth all other kinds of national collections of pictures whatever: in fact, they ought to exist in every country as among the most popular and cherished national possessions’. Stanhope concluded his address with the motion to seek Royal Assent to form a ‘gallery of original portraits’, its collection to consist of likenesses ‘of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in arts, in literature, or in science’.  

It was unsurprising, then, that when NPG London opened in December 1856 – ‘having been hailed with satisfaction alike by the lover of art, the antiquary, the historian, and the patriot’ – it enshrined the idea that historical records and national identities were constituted of public, masculine pursuits and that portraits, correspondingly, should function much like sepulchres, before which the public could contemplate the deeds of great men. This sentiment was reflected in the institution’s foundational acquisitions: all portraits of sitters who were white, male and dead. The inaugural addition to the collection was a painting of Shakespeare, for instance, and portraits of former prime ministers Spencer Perceval and Henry Addington, Elizabethan courtier and explorer Walter Raleigh, composer George Frideric Handel, and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce were among the first works acquired in 1857. These set a stylistic tone, too, one that conferred greater status on the type of portraits held in grand houses or by illustrious individuals. Oil paintings primarily, in bust or three-quarter format, the subject posed so as to suggest wisdom or gravitas, or looking thoughtfully, proudly, seriously out at the viewer. These were portraits that lent themselves to preservation and ongoing veneration, not only in their subject matter but in their materiality, oil paint on panel or canvas being more durable than the comparatively inconsequential or ephemeral mediums – watercolour, paper, pencil, shards of ivory – employed by artists producing portraits for private adoration.

It was the latter variety of portrait, however, that arguably held greater meaning for the middling classes in whose supposed interest the portrait gallery had been established. While, on the one hand, the founding of the institution represented an affirmation of the talismanic aspect of portraiture that underpinned its widespread appreciation, on the other it overlooked the varied and occasionally prosaic ways in which the majority consumed it. Portraits, by the 1850s, were no longer the terrain of the eminent and powerful, and people of all classes had embraced other means of gratifying admiration and affection, longing and loss. The role of creating cherished, authentic likenesses was increasingly the domain of photographers, sketchers, printmakers and others who made portraits for the popular and personal markets, and of practitioners who, for one reason or another, made art without any expectation that their work would be publicly admired or exhibited. 

Consider what is known about nineteenth-century Australia from the output of women who were here at the behest of husbands engaged, to varying degrees, in the imperial endeavour. In an especially fortuitous proof of what some have termed the accidental nature of colonial Australian art, these so-called ‘lady painters’ – hitherto a pejorative term – captured people and places that were deemed beneath official notice, or were depicted in artificial, idealised ways. Judged as serving little purpose other than to be as domestic, as demure and as pleasing as their persons, the work of many of these women was for a long time dismissed by historians as a side-effect, and by art historians as decorative or twee. That examples of their work survived has occasionally been accidental too. Many of these pictures were kept for reasons of affection and sentimentality, thereby presenting a counterpoint to cadaverous public effigies in every conceivable way. Writing in the 1980s, art historian Joan Kerr described the ‘added piquancy’ of the work of colonial women artists and the way in which it gives a ‘different dimension to the impersonal perfection’ of the formal or accepted visual record. 

Some of these artists are now well-documented. Martha Berkeley (1813–1899) is acknowledged as having produced an important visual chronicle of Adelaide’s development through her likenesses and landscapes, and with images such as The first dinner given to the Aborigines 1838. Ostensibly a record of a goodwill gesture hosted by Governor George Gawler, this detailed group portrait also provides an index to the composition of the rough-and-ready settlement. 

1 Self portrait as Ophelia, 1830s, by Mary Morton Allport. 2 Morton Allport, c. 1850, by Mary Morton Allport.

Mary Morton Allport (1806–1895) arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1831, her husband – a solicitor by trade – having acquired land which he proposed to farm in partnership with Mary’s brother and a number of other acquaintances. The results were unpromising and seven months into the experiment Allport sought to supplement the family’s income by advertising her availability for making and copying portrait miniatures. ‘The charge for original Miniatures will be 10 Guineas, and, for copies of such as do not exceed the usual size, 5 guineas’, her ads stated.

Along with self-portraits, her family and friends were her usual subjects, and she had a habit of situating them in identifiably Tasmanian settings. Her portrait of artist John Glover, for example, shows him at his easel and backgrounded with a river – the Derwent, presumably – fringed with tendril-like, Glover-like eucalypts; and an early 1850s portrait of her eldest son employs Mount Wellington as a glowering backdrop. Like Berkeley, Allport also made pictures of and around Hobart, which was her home from 1832. 

The highly-accomplished miniaturist Georgiana McCrae (1804–1890) created a similarly expressive, collective portrait of early Melbourne following her arrival there in 1841. Like Berkeley and Allport, McCrae somehow managed to fit painting and sketching into an existence already burdened with the usual domestic and social duties, and punctuated at regular, relentless intervals by pregnancy and childbirth. Her journal for October 1841, for example, records that the sittings for one of her first Melbourne subjects, Octavius Browne, a merchant and frequent dinner companion, coincided with the construction of Mayfield – the Yarra-riverside bungalow which Georgiana designed – as well as a continual round of visits, dinners, needlework and letter-writing.

Browne’s portrait, perhaps unsurprisingly, was never finished. McCrae also applied herself to her surroundings: a fine watercolour of Mayfield, for instance; and scenes of the house and garden at the family’s subsequent home at Arthur’s Seat. Unlike her counterparts, though, and despite precarious family finances, McCrae begrudgingly refrained from making money from her painting, as to do so would supposedly have been too insupportable an insult to her husband’s pride and masculinity: ‘There is a living to be had here through my art of miniature painting, for which I have already several orders in hand, but dare not oppose the family wishes that “money not be made in that way”!’ She seethed at having to quit Melbourne, as dishevelled as it was, for the even more inconvenient Arthur’s Seat in 1845.

For many women settlers ‘of superior rank’, painting and sketching was foremost a form of recordkeeping, an accomplishment and signifier of leisure – and thus idealised femininity – or a combination of both. Equal parts art and archive, the output of those engaged in this category of practice traverses collecting boundaries and is as likely to be found in libraries and historical societies as in art museums. A richness of architectural or topographical information or, alternatively, an obsessive attention to costume, interiors and accoutrements makes the work of its exponents coveted by collectors and curators, who relish what they reveal about the machinations or mundanities of colonial life and the colonists’ pretensions to gentility and sophistication. Ladies might do much to ‘assist their husbands in the arduous task of establishing themselves securely and agreeably in a new country’, stated a guide for prospective Australian Agricultural Company employees published in 1849. ‘The good conduct of home matters must depend on them just as much there as anywhere else,’ it continued, ‘though there can be no doubt that the variation of the ordinary sedentary occupations of females, by taking part mechanically in the domestic occupations of a new farm, would neither diminish beauty, health and usefulness, nor prejudice the personal enjoyments of the individual.’ 

As supercilious as this is, it is a sentiment borne out in works such as Major and Mrs Errington’s house in Van Diemen’s Land, John on the floor, a meticulous, comprehensive transcription of a mid-century middle-class drawing room, complete with portraits. Its author, Eliza Errington (1808–1869), was the wife of the commanding officer of an army regiment stationed at Port Arthur.

An equally telling perspective is found in the only extant work by Maria Caroline Brownrigg (1812–1880), whose husband Marcus Freeman Brownrigg, it so happens, was appointed superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Company’s operations at Port Stephens in 1852. If her group portrait of her six children is any guide, Maria must have been an exemplary lady by Company standards. The exquisite, painstakingly-rendered An evening at Yarra Cottage, Port Stephens, recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, displays a dignified and intimate, textbook Victorian domestic scene. The elegantly-attired daughters are suitably, companionably engaged in writing and embroidery; the soon-to-be-frocked clergyman son Marcus junior is as upright as the piano at which he’s seated; even the dog is a model of chipper propriety. Her husband, on the other hand, proved decidedly less satisfactory: he was dismissed on grounds of mismanagement, and Maria’s portrait documents not the interior of the Company’s official residence but the temporary home the family occupied while he was in Sydney clearing his name. The work survives as the only tangible trace of an otherwise marginal or implied presence, someone known and quantifiable only with reference to who she was married to or fathered by. The unnamed missus whose arrival in Sydney was mentioned in the shipping news in November 1852; or the ‘amiable lady’ who took an interest in the local school and other matters touching on ‘the moral and religious welfare of the people’ at Port Stephens, but who, with the exception of her death notice, was never referred to by her first name. 

Others include women such as Brownrigg’s antecedent, Isabella Parry (1801–1839), who dutifully followed her husband William to the antipodes when he, after spending much of the first part of their marriage on an expedition to the Arctic, was appointed commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company in 1830. Like Maria, Isabella fulfilled the various charitable functions evidently expected of high-ranking wives, her projects including schools for children and adult convicts, a lending library, and the design of the chapel built at Stroud in 1833. In addition, she too found time for making drawings and watercolours, her output including an image of the coal works at Newcastle and several scenes of her home at Tahlee. 

Catherine Augusta Mitchell (1812–1899) spent much of the 1840s on the Tasman Peninsula, her husband having been appointed superintendent of the station for convict boys at Point Puer. Mitchell made many sketches there and, later, at locations on the east coast, her work characterised by detail and candour. Her carefully delineated view of Port Arthur, for example, notes the location from which she surveyed the scene (‘taken from a boat about here’) while her drawing of the settlement’s burial ground, Isle de Mort – Port Arthur, is inscribed ‘My two first darlings lie here Francis Keast Mitchell and Henry John Mitchell’, a reference to her sons, who died at eight and ten months of age, respectively.

Emma Macpherson (d. 1915) and Mary Elizabeth Martindale (1824–1902) created visual accounts of overland journeys in New South Wales – in Macpherson’s case her trip from Sydney to her husband’s holding in the New England district, and in Martindale’s her occasionally incommodious excursion across the Blue Mountains with her husband in his capacity as commissioner of roads, railways and the electric telegraph in 1860. Both women took care to wryly insert themselves into these otherwise blokey narratives. Martindale, for example, depicted herself, seated and with sketchbook in hand, atop the precipitous edge of the Grose Valley at Blackheath. Macpherson’s untutored drawings – some of which became the basis for lithographs illustrating her book My experiences in Australia: being recollections of a visit to the Australian colonies in 1856–57 – represent incidents such as ‘Crossing the Hunter in a flood’.

‘Life in the bush is really a trial for any lady’, Macpherson’s narrative advised, but ‘certainly, the wife who fulfils all the domestic requirements of her station, and still retains her intellectual tastes and refinement, may fairly be termed a crown to her husband.’ In a satisfying, subversive twist, it was in the exercise of their feminine accomplishments, their intellectual tastes and refinement, that women quietly insisted on their presence, supplying a tantalising sense of themselves and an alternative perspective on the nation-making process. In striving to find a substantial, palpable indication of historical Australian lives, we would do well to seek out their purportedly quaint, inconsequential or imperfect images – not because they show us what people looked like, but because they show us how these people saw themselves.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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