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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

200 Years of Portraiture

by Malcolm Robertson, 20 July 2023

1 William Robertson, 1866 Thomas Adams Hill. 2 Margaret Robertson, c. 1863 Batchelder & O'Neill.

When I look at the portraits and early photographs of my Robertson forebears, the first of whom arrived in Hobart 200 years ago, it is difficult to lay their early struggles to establish themselves in this harsh country against what we now understand about the true nature of the displacement of First Nations people.

These portraits do, however, give us a glimpse into the Robertson family’s lives, social rise and art-collecting habits, which were mirrored by photography’s increasing popularity as a portrait medium at the time. A number of images, which have survived from the earliest days of photography in the 1840s, are included in the National Portrait Gallery’s new photography collection display in Gallery 7, curated by Joanna Gilmour.

Escaping their native Scotland, a country reduced in opportunity due to war and famine, William and John Robertson emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1822. The brothers were granted 700 acres each at Campbell Town and were soon setting up their new properties.

Their younger brother James arrived in 1825 and was granted 800 acres near Richmond. He was followed in 1829 by the two youngest siblings, Daniel and Christina, accompanied by their older brother John who had returned home to bring them out and to buy stock for a new venture that the brothers were planning. Financed by the sale of their two farms, William and John set up Robertson Brothers, an early department store on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins streets in Hobart. The business thrived and it soon expanded to Launceston where James and Daniel operated their own store. By 1835, the four Robertson brothers, and their sister Christina and her husband Archibald Smith, were established members of Tasmanian society.

At the entrance to the Art Gallery of South Australia’s colonial collection is a set of family portraits of John and William Robertson, William’s wife Margaret (née Whyte) and their eldest daughter Jessie, painted in Tasmania in the 1830s and 1840s by Thomas Bock. The artist was also among the early adopters in Australia of the new photographic technology developed in France by Louis Daguerre. With careful preparation and skilful handling, this process produced the first true-to-life images of its subject matter.

1 William Robertson, c. 1852. 2 Margaret Robertson, c. 1852. Both an unknown artist.

William and Margaret were captured in the early 1850s in two daguerreotypes that are now in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. Given the relationship between William and the artist, it is likely that the daguerreotypes were made by Bock in his Hobart studio. Also made around that time is an image of William and Margaret’s second eldest son, William, aged about thirteen. One of the daguerreotypes is thought to be of their second child John, but little trace remains of his life. He died in 1875, leaving a son who was later killed in the Boer war and three daughters who all ended up living in England.

1 William Robertson jnr, c. 1852. 2 Portrait of a young man, held to be John Robertson, c. 1852. Both an unknown artist.

William was sent to Oxford University in 1857 where he read law, rowed for the university (the first Australian to do so), graduated and married Martha Mary Murphy, daughter of brewing magnate JR Murphy. They eventually settled in Melbourne and he was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1864. With his three brothers, William inherited a quarter of his father’s property at Colac, Victoria, and moved back there in 1874. He represented his local community in the Victorian Parliament for many years, but also took an interest in the continued development of the farm his father had started, now a thriving cattle stud of national renown trading as Robertson Brothers.

1 William Robertson and Martha Mary Robertson, 1863 William Edward Kilburn. 2 William Robertson’s brother George Pringle Robertson (centre) and William’s brother-in-law Mike Murphy (second from the right) celebrate Lewis Child’s victory in the International Toboggan Race, c. 1888. Courtesy Penny Robertson.

But it is William’s photography that stands out today, as much for its quality as for its subject matter, and especially for the technology he used. One fascinating photograph, most likely composed and taken by William in early 1888, shows his brother George Pringle Robertson, a founder of the famous Cresta toboggan run at St Moritz, Switzerland, relaxing with family and friends outside a Swiss cabin. Cameras lean up against the cabin walls. These early instruments, mounted on heavy timber tripods, probably still used glass plates to capture their images, and the bellows-style cameras themselves were a significant size and weight.

Over a period of several years, William took many photographs which he developed himself in a darkroom at home, often experimenting with different exposure times and photographic papers. The best images he compiled into family albums, and several survive. His own sons, William and Jack, also attended Oxford and his albums went with them to remind them of the family at home.

In another well-composed photograph taken by William in England in January 1892, showing young Jack Robertson in military uniform standing in front of a tent flanked by his father on one side and his commanding officer on the other, you can see the cord running from William’s right hand that he used to activate the camera – an early example of the ‘selfie’.

An intriguing earlier photograph was taken in about 1885 during the painting of the now well-known portrait of his eldest daughter, Elise Christian Margaret Robertson, known as Dolly, by the artist Robert Dowling. Dowling was commissioned by William to paint three portraits, one of himself, one of his late father which Dowling painted from a photograph, and the one of Dolly which is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

The painting of Dolly shows her in sombre clothing with her favourite cocker spaniel Charlie at her feet, a serious look on her face and a book in her hands. But a quick look through William’s family album from the period reveals a different story. This beautifully composed photograph shows that the artist originally painted Dolly in much brighter clothing, looking relaxed on a timber chaise in a garden setting. Anecdotal family lore relates that Dolly’s mother was quite firm with her in relation to suitors with several being deemed unsuitable and turned away. On seeing the original portrait, Dolly is reputed to have stamped her elegant foot and ordered a repaint. ‘If I am never to be married,’ she stormed, ‘then I shall be painted in black!’

Her father’s fascinating photograph adds both history and provenance to her iconic portrait. It also reminds us of the value of photography in portraiture and the legacy early photographers such as William Robertson, although an amateur, created for both his family and the nation.

For more information about the Robertson family see Brothers on Farms.

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