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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.

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Elizabeth Macarthur once advised a friend to ‘look out for good sense in a husband. You would never be happy with a person inferior to yourself in point of understanding.’  So why did Elizabeth choose to marry the man she did?

1 Reputedly Elizabeth Macarthur, 1785-1790 Unknown. Dixson Library, State Library of NSW. 2 Elizabeth Macarthur, undated Unknown artist. Dixson Library, State Library of NSW. 3 John Macarthur, c. 1850s Unknown artist. Dixson Library, State Library of NSW.

Elizabeth Macarthur was one of very few ‘ladies’ in Sydney in the 1790s. She was young, attractive, passably educated and in a place where women were so outnumbered that the usual rules around intercourse (sexual or otherwise) didn’t really apply. She might have married an amiable, erudite chap had she been single, but she’d arrived in Sydney with her husband John. Elizabeth recalled that no one ‘thought that either of us had taken a prudent step’ in marrying, and historians wonder too why a woman now lauded for her grace and capability, in life and in business, could have tolerated a man who’s best known for involving himself in duels, enmities and litigation. That their first child was born five months after the wedding might partly account for it, but the reductionist explanation does Elizabeth a disservice. In fact, she proved equal to the challenges entailed by her choice of husband – and perhaps even relished having the chance, and the nous, to surmount them.

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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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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