Browsing through images of paintings relating to early Sydney at the city’s Mitchell Library, I came across a striking portrait of an Aborigine. His eyes seemed to reflect all the pride and sorrow of his people. He was a young warrior, dressed in what appeared to be a fur trimmed cloak and a rose pink, feathered head-dress.
The picture, oil on wood panel, was unsigned and undated. It was titled, One of the NSW Aborigines befriended by Governor Macquarie. An old pencil inscription on the back read, Painting was for years in the possession of Gov. Macquarie. It belonged to Mrs Agnes Flockhart, youngest daughter of Robert Porter; who was for 20 years in the service of Gen. Lachlan Macquarie and his widow as manager for their estate at Glen Forsa, Scotland. [Call No. ML 696] I was intrigued by this inscription, but ran out of time to investigate further.
WHO WAS AGNES FLOCKHART?
Back home, I googled ‘Agnes Flockhart and Lachlan Macquarie’. This led me to a site created by Robin Walsh, then curator of the museum dedicated to the Governor at Macquarie University. There was a reference to the painting, plus mention of a statutory declaration sent to the Mitchell Library by Mrs Flockhart. To my astonishment she claimed ownership of many other Macquarie relics. I messaged the Mitchell, who obligingly sent me a photocopy of the declaration, plus its covering letter;
I, Mrs Agnes Flockhart, now residing at Fifteen West Sixty-Fifth Street, New York City, in the State of New York, United States of America, do hereby make oath and say that I am the youngest daughter of the late Robert Porter who was for twenty years in the service of General Lachlan Macquarie and his widow as manager for their estates at Glen Forsa, Scotland. The relics of said General Macquarie, a schedule of which is hereto attached, were bequeathed by General Macquarie’s widow to my father, and were bequeathed by my father to me. They have been in my possession over thirty years.
I declare that the relics mentioned on the attached schedule are the identical personal relics of Major General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1809-1821.
As witness my hand and seal, this 18th day of June, 1914.
It was attested and sworn before Mr Thomas Mills Day, Attorney at Law. The attached schedule read as follows;
Water Color Painting.— Sydney Harbour “1793”
Book. Steel Engravings — Scotch Castles, etc.
Skean Dhu – or Black sword – worn by the General when in full “Highland Dress”
The General’s Library Candle Sticks and snuffer tray.
Sheffield Plate (four).
Four Pictures by the General’s wife, who was Miss Campbell of Jura.
2 Beautiful old Maorian Chiefs Clubs, one finely carved.
One very old Library pen Tray. (Sheffield Plate).
The only Painting in existence of the General’s Maorian Body Servant who is buried at his master’s feet.
It appears that the portrait Agnes described was not Macquarie’s body servant, but that of the young Aborigine. To my mind, passing up the opportunity of acquiring the other treasures was almost beyond belief. Admittedly the descriptions of the items were sketchy, but surely a painting of Sydney Harbour completed only five years after settlement was worth pursuing? Did Mrs Flockhart demand too high a price? We will probably never know, because apart from the statutory declaration all correspondence on the matter has vanished.
The date on the statutory declaration was June 18 1914. This rang a bell as 1914 was a highly significant year in relation to Macquarie relics. In January of that year a major collection of diaries, artworks, and other material associated with the Macquarie family was purchased in London on behalf of the Mitchell Library. The material had been offered for sale by Margaret Drummond, Viscountess Strathallan. The Viscountess was a relative by marriage of James Drummond, a life-long friend of Lachlan Macquarie.
Could this sale have prompted Agnes Flockhart to offer her relics to the Mitchell? It is quite possible that relatives in Scotland sent her a cutting from the London Times regarding the Strathallan sale. On the 24th January 1914 the Times reported that the collection had been sold privately prior to auction. It was described as a valuable archive that would probably find a permanent home in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. The price paid was said to be ‘about £1,800’.
Among those granted early access to the Strathallan collection was Sydney journalist Mary Salmon. Ms Salmon was a great admirer of Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth, and in an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 1st 1914 she referred to the Governor’s account of his historic 1815 journey across the Blue Mountains adding; ‘In another place he [Macquarie] mentions that Mrs Macquarie and Mr J.W. Lewin took sketches of the scenery. It would have been delightful if among the Macquarie collection, even one of these drawings by the first [European] woman who crossed the mountains had been found. But although there is very little doubt that Mrs Macquarie had much to do in helping to preserve and keep together sketches and documents relating to those times in the colony, there is no fragment of her work among the recently acquired papers and sketches.’
How ironic that just a few months later the Library would be offered (and turn down! ) four ‘pictures’ by Mrs Macquarie, which may well have included those Blue Mountains sketches. I wondered whether anyone had attempted to trace the remaining items in Mrs Flockharts’ possession.
During my research I made arrangements to view the painting of the Aborigine. It was not on public display, but held within the art stacks in the depths of the Mitchell building. Seeing the original was very special.
GOVERNOR MACQUARIE’S CAMPAIGN DESK
Shortly afterwards I became aware of another Macquarie relic associated with the Flockhart/Porter family. In 2002, the Historic Houses of Trust of New South Wales acquired Governor Macquarie’s 1805 campaign desk from descendent Alan Porter . The sale upset other members of the family, who regarded it as a family heirloom. They had been told that the desk was a retirement gift to Robert Porter when he left the Macquarie estate.
The desk contains a copy of an 1860 newspaper, posted to Porter on the Isle of Mull. Of course Mrs Flockhart’s statement that her father had been employed by ‘General’ Macquarie and his widow was incorrect. By 1850 both Lachlan and Elizabeth were long dead. It was Isabella Macquarie (widow of the Governor’s son) who had employed Robert Porter and who subsequently leased the home farm to him.
My research eventually took me to Scotland, where I was able to travel to the Isle of Mull and also to access the correspondence of solicitor Sproat.
In 1860 Isabella Macquarie decided to give up her life tenancy of the estate and move to the south of England. The property was sold, and plans were made to build a new mansion house. An aggrieved Robert Porter had to vacate the home farm he had been renting. As he was about to leave, Isabella’s solicitor wrote to him regarding goods and chattels Mrs Macquarie had stored in the old house.
Mr Porter, Jarvisfield. 17 May 1861
I’m favoured with your note of yesterday. I am glad that the delivery of the furniture &c. will go on tomorrow. From what you know of Mrs Macquarie’s instructions you can easily take delivery of the things received by her, according to the Inventory you shewed me yesterday, which agrees exactly with mine as compared by you and me.
You will take particular note of the state of repair of everything. I fear I cannot attend having particular engagements here.
I am satisfied from what passed between us that you can do quite well without me.
Everything will be removed on Monday.
Please have a horse and cart in readiness by 10 or 11 ab.
I puzzled over this rather cryptic letter, particularly the comment that Porter could ‘…take delivery of the things received by her [ Mrs Macquarie] ‘.
I was studying Isabella’s will one day when I noticed the name, Sprot [sic].
The will read , ‘All the things belonging to me so long left in charge of Mr Sprot (Writer) Tobermory, Mull, Argyleshire I leave to him with the exception of any part of them my sister Augusta may select.’
Suddenly the 1861 letter made sense. When solicitor Sproat wrote ‘received by her’ he was speaking metaphorically. Isabella was not taking physical possession of her belongings. Instead, Robert Porter had been instructed to transport the items to Sproat’s home in Tobermory for storage.
The will also showed that Isabella Macquarie did not make any bequests to Robert Porter. In fact, the Sproat archives revealed that their relationship became acrimonious due to unpaid rents and disputes over livestock. My conclusion is that Porter, upset that he and his large family had to leave what had been a good living, ‘appropriated’ a box of Isabella’s possessions during his unsupervised removal of goods. These then, are surely the relics later offered to the Mitchell by Robert’s daughter Agnes in 1914.
Are the rest still in America? And are there other items still in Scotland that might emerge, as the old Governor’s campaign desk did?
I have since become very good friends with members of the Porter family. Several years ago Hamish and Rita Porter came out to Australia. My partner and I took them to see the desk, then on temporary display at Liverpool Library.
For another Macquarie related story, click here
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