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Portrait Assortment

Reflections on portraiture

Books seldom make me angry but this one did. At first, I was powerfully struck by the uncanny parallels that existed between the Mellons of Pittsburgh and the Thyssens of the Ruhr through the same period, essentially the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The best horror stories are real. A flea sinks its proboscis into the skin of a sick black rat, feeds on its blood, and ingests lethally multiplying bacteria. In the confined space of its tiny alimentary canal, the bacteria multiply to such an extent that they form a blockage in the stomach of the flea. In desperation, after it senses a drop in the body temperature of the rat, which is by now dead, the increasingly ravenous flea jumps ship.

Where do we draw a line between the personal and the historical? Although she died in Melbourne in 1975, when I was not quite eleven years old, I have the vividest memories of my maternal grandmother Helen Borthwick. Mrs Borthwick was the eldest daughter of the Hon. William Pearson, MLC, who represented the Province of Gippsland in the upper house of the Victorian Parliament through the years at either side of Federation, and was a member of the powerful Joint Committee on Defence. The highlight of the Pearsons’ extended visit to England, commencing towards the end of 1912, was when Lady Reid, the wife of the Australian High Commissioner, Sir George H. Reid, sometime fourth Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, 1904–05, presented Great-Grandmother Sophie Pearson to the King and Queen at an evening court at Buckingham Palace, and Mrs. Pearson in turn presented her daughters.

In 1904, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia purchased as a gift for her sister, Queen Alexandra, a fan composed of two-color gold, guilloché enamel, mother-of-pearl, blond tortoiseshell, gold sequins, silk, cabochon rubies, and rose diamonds from the House of Fabergé in Saint Petersburg. The Empress paid 325 rubles for it. At the published rates of exchange for January 1904, this was almost exactly the same as £13 7s (The Times, February 17, 1904, p. 13) or $64.25 (New York Times, January 3, 1904, p. 7).