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The Quiet Australian

by Brian Dale, 1 December 2001

Robert Oatley talks about the repatriation of the John Webber portrait of Captain James Cook.

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, 1782 by John Webber
Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, 1782 by John Webber

When Robert Oatley joined John Schaeffer on stage to witness Prime Minister, John Howard’s unveiling of the John Webber portrait of Captain James Cook at the National Portrait Gallery in August last year, few in the audience would have known who he was – and that’s the way he prefers it. 

The intensely private man, known universally as Bob Oatley, would rather talk about his beloved Rosemount Estate wine or sailing than explain in any detail why he agreed without hesitation to help fund the return of the Cook portrait to Australia.

The path that led Bob Oatley to the National Portrait Gallery was one laid out by his close friends Gordon and Marilyn Darling. What his friends told him of the Webber portrait, then reposing in a vault in London, found strong support when aligned with his unremitting love for Australia and the sea.

‘Australia is the greatest nation in the world, it has everything and it has a future,’ he says, ‘but often people don’t have a true sense of our history.  With this portrait, hanging in one of our premier galleries, and in the nation’s capital, Australians of today along with future generations can view the most exact likeness of one of our most important and historical figures.  When Gordon and Marilyn Darling told me of the Cook portrait and the opportunity to bring it back to Australia I felt I had to act.’

On a visit to London shortly after he was first approached, Bob Oatley was taken to see Webber’s interpretation of Cook. 

‘As soon as I saw it, its power struck me. We’ve all seen other portraits of Cook but this one, painted by an artist who was with Cook on his voyages, is as close as you can get to an appreciation or an understanding of the man.  I think on that day, in that quiet part of London, I wanted to take it with me and get it back to Australia.  With the tremendous involvement of John Schaeffer and the Australian Government, we got to a situation where the Gallery’s Director Andrew Sayers could actually come and get it – and bring it back to Australia,’ Mr Oatley said. 

Bob Oatley’s enthusiasm for the portrait, and his opportunity to assist in its repatriation, only flickered once – when he had to get up on stage and, with Mr Schaeffer, witness the Prime Minister’s unveiling.

‘It was a proud moment for me and my family,’ he says. 'It also gave me that rare chance to be able to acknowledge the tremendous support Australia has given Rosemount over the years. It was one tangible way to say a collective thank you. I believed the Cook portrait should be in a public gallery and not acquired by and individual. It was too important to Australia for that to happen.’

The man who had a mid-life change in business direction, from the coffee plantations of Papua New Guinea to a fledgling vineyard in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW, is happy to talk about Rosemount Estate, the winery he founded, more than himself.

From that first vintage, Bob Oatley grew a wine company that, prior to its merger with Southcorp Limited in February this year, became acknowledged as the premier Australian family winery and one of the leading private wineries in the world. Bob Oatley is now a Director of Southcorp Limited, Australia’s largest wine producer and largest wine exporter.  His life revolves around family, wine and sailing.  He will talk about the last two, but not the first.