Sydney’s Mitchell Library is in the process of doubling the size of its exhibition gallery space. In a new initiative, 300 works of art have been 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.
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.
THE PAINTING’S LONG JOURNEY HOME
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Oh yes, and he features on notebooks sold at Library’s shop. Agnes would be amazed.
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.