Sydney’s Mitchell Library recently doubled the size of its exhibition gallery space.  In a new initiative, 300 works of art were selected for permanent display. Some have rarely been seen by the general public.

As a member of the Library Circle I feel privileged to be sponsoring one of the selected works. It is a small oil painting of an Aborigine, believed to date from 1810-1821.  It  made a huge impact on me when I first saw it about twenty years ago.  The young warrior  is wearing a rose pink, feathered headdress and a fur trimmed cloak.   His eyes seem to reflect the intense pride of his race,  but also  the bewilderment and pain  created by  white settlement.

Painting of Aborigine befriended by Governor Macquarie
The portrait purchased by the Mitchell Library. (Library of NSW)

The intriguing acquisition details of the painting led me to spend many years researching the extended family of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, both in Australia and Scotland.


In 1914 a woman living in New York, Agnes Flockhart (nee Porter) , contacted the Mitchell library offering to sell a number of items once belonging to Governor Macquarie. The last named item would turn out to be  completely misidentified.

Macquarie relics owned by Agnes Flockhart and offered to the Mitchell Library in 1914.

The relics were obtained by  Mrs Flockhart’s  father Robert Porter, almost certainly  by nefarious means.  Porter was the manager of  Lachlan Macquarie’s Scottish  estate of  Glenforsa in the 1860s.  At the time the  property was occupied by Isabella Macqurie, widow of the Governor’s son Lachlan Junior.  Eventually Isabella moved to England, renouncing her lifetime tenancy  of Glenforsa.  This was a disaster for Robert Porter, who had a large family to support and had now lost his job.


Isabella instructed her solicitor Mr Sproat  to have  many of her possessions moved  from Glenforsa’s  mansion house into storage at the solicitor’s home.  Robert Porter was entrusted with the task by Sproat. The solicitor’s papers are preserved in the archives at Lochgilphead, the administrative centre for Argyll and Bute.  I was able to access his extensive correspondence with both  Isabella Macquarie and Robert Porter.

Pauline Conolly in the archives at Lochgilphead. Researching the mystery painting.
On the trail of the Macquarie relics, in Lochgilphead.
Robert Porter and family, who came into possession of the painting.
Robert Porter and his large family.  A young Agnes is just behind and to the  left of her father

The Porter family’s  story  passed down through the generations is that the items were a retirement gift  to their ancestor from Isabella Macquarie. However,  since she and Robert parted on very bad terms this is extremely unlikely.

From the list of items provided by Agnes Flockhart the Mitchell Library acquired only the final one; the painting incorrectly identified as a portrait of  Governor Macquarie’s  body servant (who was Indian born, not Maori).  The Porter family clearly had little knowledge regarding the provenance of the relics.

Mitchell Library staff  had no idea who the subject of the portrait  was either, and it was renamed,  One of the Aborigines of NSW Befriended by Governor Macquarie.   Of course there is presumption in this title as well.

The artist responsible for the portrait is another mystery, although John Lewin is one possibility. It was difficult to obtain oil paint in the early days of the colony, but in 1812  Lewin wrote to a friend that he  had finally begun painting in oils.

Governor Lachln Macquarie
Lachlan Macquarie

The current controversy surrounding Lachlan Macquarie’s legacy in light of the Appin massacre of Aborigines in 1816 invests this powerful work with even more meaning.

Memorial Plaque at Appin
Memorial plaque at Appin

It also raises an important question; how appropriate is the title bestowed on the painting by the Mitchell Library all those years ago?

UPDATE – October 5

The painting of the young warrior  now  hangs in the new galleries. It also features prominently in the catalogue highlighting selected works from the permanent exhibition.

The painting hangs in Library of NSW's new Pictures gallery.
A place of honour.
About the mystery painting.

Oh yes, and he features on notebooks sold at Library’s shop.  Agnes would be amazed.

The painting features on notepads.

Please consider making a beqest to the Library. My husband Rob and I are delighted to be able to contribute to the conservation of their historic works of art. CLICK HERE

NOTE – Governor Macquarie’s portable campaign desk also found its way into the possession of the Porter family.  In 2002 it was purchased by the Museum of Sydney from a descendant of Alan Porter, Agnes Flockhart’s younger  brother. It is disturbing to think that other  items of historic value may have been disposed of by Robert Porter many years earlier.

Governor Mcquarie's campaign desk
Image of the desk and its fittings.
Governor Mcquarie's campaign desk.
The open campaign desk
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