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Postcards

Reflections on portraiture

Where do we draw a line between the personal and the historical? Although she died in Melbourne in 1975, when I was not quite eleven years old, I have the vividest memories of my maternal grandmother Helen Borthwick. Mrs Borthwick was the eldest daughter of the Hon. William Pearson, MLC, who represented the Province of Gippsland in the upper house of the Victorian Parliament through the years at either side of Federation, and was a member of the powerful Joint Committee on Defence. The highlight of the Pearsons’ extended visit to England, commencing towards the end of 1912, was when Lady Reid, the wife of the Australian High Commissioner, Sir George H. Reid, sometime fourth Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, 1904–05, presented Great-Grandmother Sophie Pearson to the King and Queen at an evening court at Buckingham Palace, and Mrs. Pearson in turn presented her daughters.

In 1904, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia purchased as a gift for her sister, Queen Alexandra, a fan composed of two-color gold, guilloché enamel, mother-of-pearl, blond tortoiseshell, gold sequins, silk, cabochon rubies, and rose diamonds from the House of Fabergé in Saint Petersburg. The Empress paid 325 rubles for it. At the published rates of exchange for January 1904, this was almost exactly the same as £13 7s (The Times, February 17, 1904, p. 13) or $64.25 (New York Times, January 3, 1904, p. 7). 

The southern winter has arrived. For people in the northern hemisphere (the majority of humanity) the idea of snow and ice, freezing mist and fog in June, potentially continuing through to August and beyond, encapsulates the topsy-turvidom of our southern continent. However, there have been many other tropes since first contact.

At a meeting by teleconference of the National Portrait Gallery Foundation last week, I found myself reporting that our forthcoming exhibition So Fine is going to be “a humdinger,” whereupon Tim Fairfax chuckled and said that he hadn’t heard that expression for years.