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Maria Caroline Brownrigg

by Angus Trumble, 22 November 2017

An evening at Yarra Cottage, Port Stephens, 1857 by Maria Brownrigg
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An evening at Yarra Cottage, Port Stephens, 1857 by Maria Brownrigg

At first glance, this small watercolour group portrait of her two sons and four daughters by Maria Caroline Brownrigg (d. 1880) may seem prosaic, even hesitant. Yes, it is the only known work by a relatively able amateur with no more training than was conventionally meted out to young British ladies in what passed for a genteel, certainly gender-specific late-Regency education. However, securely fixed to the drawing-room of “Yarra Cottage,” Carrington, on the north shore of Port Stephens in the Hunter Region of New South Wales in 1857, this picture stands at the intersection of a number of grand colonial, indeed imperial narratives.

In 1971, the late Linda Nochlin published one of the most influential art-historical essays of our time. Its title “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was not a rhetorical question. Rather, it was originally put to Linda Nochlin by the art dealer Richard Feigen, and it steered her towards a distinguished career of feminism in art history. Her essay was an attempt both to answer the question and to dismantle its premiss. The present painting, a remarkable survival, would have strengthened her case on both grounds.

As with so many of their peers, the Brownriggs’ path through the British Empire was peripatetic. Maria Caroline was the daughter of a Captain Matthew Blake who by 1829 was stationed with his family at the Cape of Good Hope. There, on 19 January of the following year, she married Lieutenant Marcus Freeman Brownrigg, R.N. (?1800–1884), the second son of Major-General Thomas Brownrigg of Medop Hall, Gorey, Co. Wexford. General Brownrigg’s more famous brother General Sir Robert Brownrigg, Bart., G.C.B., was for a time Military Secretary to the Duke of York and subsequently third British Governor of Ceylon under the old Honourable East India Company dispensation. Born in Dublin, Marcus Brownrigg was a typical product of the middling ranks of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy for whose relatively impecunious younger sons the Royal Navy, the Church of Ireland, Trinity College and the law provided conventional berths, normally secured by patronage.

Maria Brownrigg is scarcely knowable by any means other than the present painting—wherein lies much of its value—and through the career of her husband. No letters from or to Maria have yet been identified in the archives; she is barely a shadow at her husband’s side, which is, alas, not unusual for many mid-Victorian colonial women. However, even by nineteenth-century HEIC and Colonial Office standards, the Brownriggs’ life-long itinerary was impressive.

The Brownriggs spent the first two years of their married life in Cape Town, before Marcus, a first lieutenant aboard H.M.S. Sparrowhawk, was posted to the Nore Station. This may have been the first time the Brownriggs ever set foot in England, but their sojourn, probably in Kent, did not last for long. In 1834, Marcus went on half pay, was promoted Captain, and only once re-entered active service in later years. Their first child, Marcus Blake Brownrigg (the young man seated here at the piano) was born in London in 1835, and shortly afterwards Brownrigg was appointed confidential agent at Mauritius for Messrs. Cockerell & Co., a predominantly East India trading firm in the City of London. They duly sailed to Port Louis where Marcus Senior’s sister, Martha Henrietta Danford (d. 1845), already lived with her husband and family. Soon afterwards, the Brownriggs continued on to Bombay. It seems likely that, although he had died in 1833, the lingering influence in East India Company circles of Marcus’s powerful uncle, Sir Robert Brownrigg, drew them there. Certainly, in 1836 Brownrigg set up a new “house of agency” for Cockerells in Bombay. He soon became Chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce and a Director of the Government Bank. This turned out to be the apex of his mercantile career.

In the meantime, by 1839 Maria had produced three daughters—Emma Blake, Annie Henrietta and Katie; she must have been more or less constantly pregnant; the children arrived at more or less ten-monthly intervals. She (and they) were fortunate to survive the depressing prevalence of memsahib and Anglo-Indian infant deaths from dysentery, or worse. A second son, Crosbie Blake, soon followed, as well as a fourth daughter Carrie. In 1843, the Brownriggs left Bombay and sailed to Liverpool where Marcus established a new branch of Cockerells. Whether this was a case of over-reach, or else the new enterprise fell foul of the free-trade crisis during and after the Irish Potato Famine (which also affected Scotland), the Liverpool business soon failed, and by 1847 the firm’s local creditors managed to recoup only about seven to ten shillings in the pound.

Intriguingly, at this low point Brownrigg accepted a fresh commission in the Royal Navy. He may have had no choice, and it seems likely that patronage played a part in steering him toward the opportunity. This time, Brownrigg was stationed in Plymouth until 1851, when he was gazetted Commander. Soon afterwards, he was in Glasgow with the Colonial Land and Immigration Commissioners, which post appears to have prompted him to apply for the General Superintendency of the Australian Agricultural Company’s million-acre pastoral and coal operations at Port Stephens and Newcastle, New South Wales. He gave his age as 50. It certainly helped that a cousin of his, J. S. Brownrigg Esq., M.P., was the Company’s Chairman of Governors, and also sometime Chairman of the Bank of Australasia.

In November 1852, the Brownriggs (accompanied by two servants) arrived in Sydney via Melbourne aboard a vessel that had brought them all the way from London. There they joined Marcus’s brother William Meadows Brownrigg, a surveyor, but stayed initially at Government House as guests of the Governor, Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy. Soon afterwards the family was en poste at Port Stephens. It is worth noting that this was the third colonial outpost to which Brownrigg proceeded in which members of his own family were already embedded.

Not knowing much about cattle, or indeed the extraction of coal, Commander Brownrigg was obviously ill-suited to his position. In 1856 he was dismissed for incompetence, and was also sued—an early, but by no means the first, instance of colonial private enterprise demanding a somewhat higher degree of ability than was exacted or indeed expected by successive colonial secretaries in Sydney. On the other hand, his dismissal was so regretted at Newcastle, in particular, that a public meeting of gentlemen was organized and a friendly address to Brownrigg was adopted by acclamation. Others followed, as well as a lively, probably embarrassing, correspondence in the Sydney and Hunter press hotly defending Commander Brownrigg’s management of cattle, in particular, and deploring the loss of a gentleman at Port Stephens whose family had set such a conspicuous example of Christian piety. True, such effusions may have been merely conventional, but this last observation certainly redounded to the credit of Maria Caroline Brownrigg.

When Maria executed this group portrait in 1857, Commander Brownrigg was absent in Sydney attempting to clear his name, and the family had moved to “Yarra Cottage,” Carrington, on the north shore of Port Stephens, a discreet distance from the household of his newly-appointed successor. Rather like Elizabeth Macarthur and many other colonial ladies who preceded her, in her husband’s absence Maria was effectively placed in charge of household, servants, convicts, children, horses and livestock. Commander Brownrigg was evidently more or less successful because by 1859 the family had moved to “Glencoe,” Rollands Plains, on the Wilson River near Port Macquarie, and Brownrigg was police magistrate, secure in a relatively undemanding office under the crown. There, their second daughter, Annie Henrietta, married William Cowper, son and namesake of the Australian Agricultural Company’s former chaplain, with whom they had obviously worshipped and socialised at Port Stephens.

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By 1860, the Brownriggs were at Albury, on the Victoria and New South Wales border, where Marcus Senior was once again police magistrate. Marcus Junior, by then a Church of England clergyman (one of the three foundation students at Moore Theological College under the same William Cowper Senior), married the daughter of a Commander Shapcote, R.N.—and was eventually appointed Rector of St. John’s in Launceston, Tasmania. There, he interested himself in the spiritual welfare of “half-caste” Aborigines involuntarily subsisting on Flinders Island in Bass Strait, which regular visits aboard a home-made yawl-rigger he recorded in a well-meaning but ponderous volume, thoroughly undistinguished except for its title, The Cruise of the Freak (1872). Tasmania did not agree with Canon Brownrigg’s health. On medical advice, he was subsequently translated to several incumbencies in Queensland, at first in Gladstone and then in Rockhampton. He outlived his father and namesake only by six years and died in 1890.

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The first and most obvious point about this group portrait of her children by Maria Brownrigg is that, although the furniture and decorations and evening pastimes all mimic various aspirational features of the colonial landed and mercantile interests, for the Brownriggs they were merely temporary. To that extent, the picture evokes more accurately the life and interior of a colonial rectory or vicarage, for this drawing-room was not occupied by the Brownrigg family for more than two or three years (from 1856 to 1859 at the latest). We know from advertisements published in the colonial press that moving any distance, even within the same colony, often involved selling everything (down to carefully enumerated pots and pans) and starting again from scratch. Yet here, presumably buoyed by Commander Brownrigg’s shortlived salary and/or a generous line of credit extending from it, we find a set of four handsomely framed landscape paintings and a smaller oval portrait hanging on freshly papered walls. The orientation of the portrait, exactly above the head of Marcus Junior, strongly suggests that it portrays the absent paterfamilias, Commander Brownrigg. There is a small bust, probably plaster, mounted on a rather insubstantial wooden bracket over the door (General Brownrigg?).

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A songbird perches in a domed birdcage made of wire, which in turn stands on a whatnot with twisted members. This stands between a settee or chaise longue in the corner on the left and a fashionably encrusted mahogany upright piano, which Marcus Junior is playing from a score illuminated by a pair of glass candlesticks. (Other scores presumably rest on the bottom shelf of the whatnot.) A relatively capacious bookcase stands in the other corner; it is filled with an impressive number of sets of bound volumes. Crosbie, the younger son, stands behind a large round late Regency Centre table on triangular base, helpfully equipped with shallow drawers, at which his four sisters are seated on elaborately carved mid-Victorian side chairs. These appear to be covered in the same fabric as the settee. Two sisters are writing, and two are sewing—each of the latter armed with a conspicuous pair of scissors. The two eldest, on the left, wear identical dresses. Were they twins? Judging by the modest scale of the sheet, Maria Brownrigg probably executed the present work at the same table. Another side chair in the foreground, presumably Maria’s, another pair of candlesticks, a vase, an inkstand, several work baskets, a sewing box, a few other books, and the little black dog complete the picture, but for the French windows on the right which are partly visible through curtains drawn against the night. We can only speculate as to which of the family’s possessions they brought with them from home, and which were acquired locally, or in Sydney. Not surprisingly, historians of Australian furniture and of interior decoration regard this work of art as one of only a handful of vital documents of mid-nineteenth-century Australian colonial taste and material culture.

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Look a little more closely, however, and you will observe the puzzle that Maria Brownrigg set for herself to solve. A number of tiny elements of the composition—several of the books, the empty chair, the workbasket that sits on the floor near the feet of the daughter on the right—have been painted separately, then carefully, painstakingly cut out and glued onto the present painting as elements of collage. As far as possible, they conform to the slightly wobbly spatial arrangements of the whole room, and its carefully drawn planes and surfaces. Why?

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Somewhat condescendingly, the article on “Collage” by Lewis Kachur in the Grove Dictionary of Art adheres to the old view that collage was invented and first effectively exploited by the early twentieth-century French avant-garde, despite occasional and well-documented usage by much earlier artists and “wide informal use in popular art” (whatever that means). In 2009–10, the Art Institute of Chicago organised an exhibition, Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, which, touring to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, dealt with a branch of gendered artistic production in the nineteenth-century British drawing-room and conservatory. There, mothers, wives and daughters of means turned meticulously cut-out photographs of the heads of husbands, fathers and sons into bottle stoppers; doggedly affixed them to the bodies of moths, slugs, and other pests, or suspended them from spiders’ webs (among other, presumably deeply satisfying proto-surrealistic, certainly pre-Freudian scenarios). That exhibition was revelatory.

Maria Brownrigg appears to have practiced an earlier and evidently more cautious branch of essentially the same practice. The fate of respectable colonial Englishwomen was to find ways of filling long and otherwise completely evacuated stretches of time between the ministrations of servants, of which we have seen the Brownriggs travelled with at least two, and probably had more at Port Stephens. “Work,” was one such method: needlework, sewing, et cetera. Writing endless letters was another. And so was sketching, but the task could not be made too onerous or painstaking or complicated—as in the present, gloriously myopic example. The fact that Maria Brownrigg takes as a big part of her subject the “work” being undertaken in more or less identical social and domestic conditions by her own four daughters, and in her own clearly affectionate company, makes this portrait and this situation all the more affecting.

No doubt, the family felt some precariousness arising from Commander Brownrigg’s temporary predicament before the Supreme Court of New South Wales (and his prolonged absence in Sydney). If, as seems likely, Maria perforce pinned some hope on her promising eldest son, aged 22, the future clergyman, perched here on a fashionably encrusted swivelling piano stool, one might speculate whether these anxieties were only partly alleviated by their well-documented religious devotion. I think those anxieties found expression in the sheer will, the concentration, with which Maria so carefully summoned her portrait into a busy evening state of domestic cheerfulness, slightly shrill in its insistent mid-Victorian materialism. There is, in Maria’s unpretentious drawing, a contest going on between maternal affection, faith and unabashed pride. As an artist, she moves across the sheet switching from the mode of direct observation—getting the pattern of the wallpaper just right, for example, or the construction of the wooden wall-bracket and the piano—to a mode virtually dictated by love: the children, the dog, and maybe the little bird in its cage. Yet there is real accomplishment in the symmetrical construction, chromatic rhythms and tonal depth of the group around the table, especially, which suggests that Maria Brownrigg aspired to something altogether more ambitious than the condition of drawing-room sketcher or hobbyist.

The system of transporting convicts to New South Wales was only abolished seven years before Maria painted her family, so there were still plenty of men and women very close by (indeed within earshot, possibly in their own kitchen, scullery or stables) who were still serving their sentences, and under the lash.

Having followed husband from Cape Town to Kent and London, back to Mauritius, onwards to Bombay, back to Liverpool, Plymouth, Glasgow, and then to New South Wales, and finally to Tasmania, on 6 May 1880 Maria Caroline Brownrigg died suddenly on a brief visit to Sydney. By then she was a veteran of at least four intercontinental voyages that lasted many weeks (accompanied by at least four, sometimes six infants), and many other, briefer ones. No doubt, on board ship Maria and her family had been assiduous in attending divine service in the saloon on successive Sundays, when at times the following verses from Psalm 107 must have resonated powerfully:

They that go down to the sea in ships: and occupy their business in great waters; These men see the works of the Lord: and his wonders in the deep.

So far, this most unusual painting remains Maria’s only known or surviving utterance for posterity but, like it, the Brownrigg saga is more broadly, I think, an emblematic early- to mid-Victorian colonial odyssey in miniature. And it unfolds across a network of interlocking threads of influence: the Anglo-Irish ascendancy; the Royal Navy; the East India Company; the Australian Agricultural Company; the Church of England; inter-colonial trade; the City of London; the Colonial Office, and its global web of more or less profitable possessions. Whether or not the Brownriggs saw themselves in these terms—probably not, any more than Maria did in her charming portrait—they were, at different times, bound to each and all.

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