The age-old rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne flared in 1912 over a painting by Italian born Chevalier Eduardo de Martino (1838-1912).
The story began in 1901, when the Duke and Duchess of York visited Australia for the opening of the first parliament, held in Melbourne. The couple sailed aboard the luxury ocean liner Ophir, which was serving as the royal yacht. Bloaters and pigeon for breakfast…..interesting!
On the eve of the ship’s departure King Edward told his son; ‘Be sure to ask de Martino to paint a picture of your landing in Hobson’s Bay [Melbourne].’ De Martino was accompanying the royal party as official marine artist.
The new federal government agreed that recording this historic event for the nation was a wonderful idea. De Martino was duly commissioned and after the celebrations he sailed back to Britain with his preparatory sketches. It was years before word came from him that the oil painting was ready. By then many people had forgotten all about it. Andrew Fisher was now Prime Minister and the Duke had become King George V.
There was shock and anger when the canvas finally arrived, resulting in the Sydney Sun’s cheeky headline.
Melbourne is in a state of indignation over a picture commemorating the landing of King George in Australia, which arrived here last week, and is temporarily hung in the Federal Parliamentary Library……For reasons best known to himself, the artist altered history, and shows Farm Cove as the official landing in Australia instead of Hobson’s Bay, with the glorious views of factory chimneys. The fake is generally understood to have been done due to ‘insidious Sydney influence.‘ (The Sun, March 6 1912)
The opportunity for humour at Melbourne’s expense was simply too much for the reporter to resist. Articles on the matter appeared elsewhere, but the tone was very different. After condemning the artist for ‘altering history’, the following piece continued;
‘Even this could have been excused had he more thoroughly entered into the spirit of his task. There is absolutely nothing commemorative about the picture, which is simply a pretty sketch of Sydney Harbour, and it might just as well have been a yacht race which the artist presented to the public as a notable ceremony. A ship, which one might suppose to be the Royal Yacht Ophir, is seen lying in the harbour with two or three men-of- war in the background….There are a dozen or so small yachts scudding about and away in the distance the landing stage can be imagined. That is all. Much more was expected.’ (The Western Australian, March 5 1912)
The controversial painting remained in the Parliamentary Library, amid debate about the circumstances of its commission. Sir Edmund Barton, Australia’s first Prime Minister, confirmed that he had ordered the work, albeit verbally. However, he was unable to find any subsequent documentation recording the details or the price agreed upon. He thought the amount was about five hundred guineas. No departmental records relating to the painting could be located either; ‘…although successive ministries have from time to time attempted to discover what really had taken place.’ In the end Prime Minister Fisher felt that the 1901 contract had to be honoured. It was agreed that High Commissioner, Sir George Reid, should pay De Martino his five hundred guineas. The artist died that year, so he had little time to spend it.
EVIDENCE THAT THE ARTIST FAILED TO DELIVER
While researching this article I was amazed to find that among Sir Edmund Barton’s official papers is this note written by De Martino aboard the Ophir in 1901, confirming the commission. The computer age has transformed archiving and accessing of records, so I don’t claim a lot of credit for the discovery.
Well well, there we have it! Subject of the work to be the arrival of the Ophir in Melbourne, a promise to deliver it in 1902 and no hint of artistic license being part of the bargain. So did further ‘unofficial’ discussion take place between Barton and Eduardo de Martino? Far be it for me to cast aspersions on Sir Edmund, but he was Sydney born. 😎.
Surely the Victorians would have been within their rights to send the wretched thing straight back!
The painting moved to Canberra in 1927, listed among ‘Commonwealth Art Treasures’. Its official title is, ‘Arrival of Duke and Duchess of York at Farm Cove, Sydney, 1 June 1901.’
Nearly a century later a smaller version of the same scene was listed on the site of Bonham’s London Auction House as having sold in 2009 for £12,000, a somewhat lower figure than expected. I think the Art Gallery in Sydney should have bought it, or perhaps the NSW State Parliament. 😍
There is an account of the royal tour by one of the crewmen aboard the Ophir. Click here for details.
NOTE – I did find one watercolour sketch of the Ophir docked in Melbourne. And look at that signature!