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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.

The Parlour

We are constantly receiving inquiries respecting both the depth and duration of mourning which it is correct to wear … and we think therefore that it may not be uninteresting to the majority of our readers if we publish a short article on the subject, as all are tolerably certain at one time or another to be called upon to mourn the decease of some relative.

The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine February 1876

The Victorian era has been described as one wherein death was an everyday experience. People died at home having been nursed in their final illnesses by family members. The deceased were prepared for burial by the servants or women of the household, and then lay in state in parlours or bedchambers so that others could pay their respects.

Following the example set by their widowed monarch, people throughout the British empire – and especially women – observed the rules regarding mourning wear. Portraiture had a part to play in these rituals. In the case of the passing of a notable public figure, portraits served an official, memorial purpose, inextricably linked to the idea that one might be inspired or 'improved' by looking at the likenesses of dead heroes. In the private sphere portraits of the deceased were copied or created for use as personal, cherishable mementoes.

With the idea of the 'Good Christian Death' holding sway, it was common also to commission posthumous portraits – death masks, drawings or photographs depicting the dead in restful and angelic posesproviding comfort that a loved one was at peace.

9 portraits

1 Robert OHara Burke, 1860. 2 William John Wills, 1860.

Related information

Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask

Sideshow Alley

Infamy, the macabre & the portrait

Previous exhibition, 2015

Death masks, post-mortem drawings and other spooky and disquieting portraits... Come and see how portraits of infamous Australians were used in the 19th century.

The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

The Gallery

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The National Portrait Gallery building at night
The National Portrait Gallery building at night
The National Portrait Gallery building at night
The National Portrait Gallery building at night

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© National Portrait Gallery 2021
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

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.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency