To mangle the words of Oscar Wilde, for an institution to lose a miniature portrait would be unfortunate, to lose a life-sized framed oil painting sounds more like carelessness.
Catherine Hayes (1818-1861) was a celebrated, Irish born soprana who toured Australia extensively in the mid 1850s. At the end of her season in Sydney she warmed the hearts of the public with her generosity. Freeman’s Journal reported as follows on October 21 1854;
The amount raised was a small fortune at the time. In March 1858 the first children moved into the completed asylum, located at Randwick.
Back in London, Miss Hayes commissioned a portrait of herself for the institution. It was by Italian born artist Attilio Baccani (1823-1906), then recently arrived in London, where he lived for the next 50 years.
Sadly, Catherine Hayes died in 1861, before arrangements had been made to send the oil painting to Sydney. Somehow it was inadvertently pawned. There were doubts it would ever be recovered, until a member of the public came forward and said it had been, ‘in the care of an uncle’. An article in The Protestant Standard on November 7 1874 noted; ‘ it eventually arrived here to occupy the position meant for it, and where we hope it may long remain to recall the noble charity of the lady it represents.‘
Flanked by honour boards listing other significant donors it was hung above the Superintendent’s desk in the institution’s boardroom.
In 1915 the asylum was about to be requisitioned for the army, as a rehabilitation centre for ANZACS wounded at Gallipoli. It was felt that the huge painting should be moved to a safer location. It ended up in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who passed it on to Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music in 1925. There it remained until……well we don’t really know; suffice to say it disappeared. The Conservatorium underwent extensive renovations in the 1970s and many items went into storage, although the picture may have already vanished before then. All efforts to locate it have failed.
I do love a bit of sleuthing, but the delightful author and art historian Robert Holden has already carried out exhaustive investigations into the missing picture. I doubt I would be able to shed any more light on it. However, if it is hanging on your wall, please return it. If it is hanging on the wall of someone you know…..turn ’em in!
Miss Hayes was buried in Kensall Green cemetery in London.
On behalf of the residents of Sydney I would like to apologize for losing your fine portrait Catherine, and to thank you for showing such generosity to those orphaned and destitute children in a country far from your own.