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The Dissecting Room

by Joanna Gilmour, 9 December 2015

Joanna Gilmour accounts for Australia’s deliciously ghoulish nineteenth century criminal portraiture. 

According to the caption on the lithograph issued as a souvenir of the occasion, John Jenkins was twenty-six years old when he met his death in the yard of the Sydney Gaol in November 1834. A Londoner and sailor who had arrived in Sydney in June 1833 to serve a seven year sentence for theft, Jenkins was hardly the only felon done away with in the batch of hangings that took place in Sydney late the following year, but he was possibly the only one whose execution was such a keenly anticipated event. Not only had Jenkins invited vengeance and disgust with the 'atrocity of the deed' he'd committed, the defiant and gleefully unrepentant conduct with which he greeted his trial and conviction for murder had made him the subject of outrage and fascination. Jenkins 'made such an impression on the minds of the Public', said the Sydney Herald in its account of his hanging, that at 'the time appointed for his execution, the neighbourhood of the gaol was crowded to a degree never before observed on any similar occasion, to witness the last scene of one the most depraved of the human species.'

Some months previously, around August or September 1834, Jenkins had escaped from a chain gang and taken up with two other bolters before proceeding on a series of attacks on settlers to the immediate south-west of Sydney, bailing up isolated huts and relieving their occupants of cash, clothing, food and firearms. After a few weeks on the run, he and his mates, Thomas Tattersdale and Emanuel Brace, established a hut on land that was part of the Petersham estate, a farm extending south from the Parramatta Road to the Cook's River and belonging to Robert Wardell, a barrister, co-founder of The Australian newspaper, and a close associate of some of Sydney's most powerful citizens. On 7 September 1834, in the midst of making 'a general inspection of the condition of his property', Wardell came across Jenkins and his cohorts at their shanty in the bush. Easily construing that they were runaways, Wardell engaged them in a brief exchange and tried persuading them to give themselves up, at which suggestion Jenkins shot him. Wardell’s body was found the next day. 

The three offenders were apprehended in the vicinity of a pub on the Liverpool Road less than a week later, and brought before the magistrate almost immediately on a charge of wilful murder. Brace, the youngest of them, agreed to 'turn approver' against Tattersdale and Jenkins; when they came to trial the following week the court was 'crowded to excess', with spectators shocked and enthralled in equal measure by the callousness of the offence, but in particular by the contempt for proceedings and utter absence of contrition evident in its perpetrator. 'The countenance, as well as the demeanour of Jenkins, indicated him to be of a most reckless and ferocious disposition', stated the Sydney Gazette, and The Australian reported on the 'desperately audacious character' Jenkins displayed in physically attacking his co-accused in court. On being found guilty and sentenced to death, Jenkins said that 'they might have well have sent him a bloody old woman as the counsel he had...  that he had not had a fair trial, but that he did not care a damn for anyone in the court; and that he would as soon shoot any of the persons present as not'.

 

Violent, shameless, rancorous, murderous: Jenkins was exactly the type of individual whose likeness was ripe for commercial exploitation, and his activities, happily for Sydney's small but mercantile-minded artist community, coincided with the emergence of the local printmaking industry and the development of a market for depictions of peculiarly colonial subjects. As historians of Australian colonial art have often explained, the 1830s was the decade during which locally-based artists and printers began being able to capitalise on the numbers of free settlers encouraged to the colony during the previous decade, transforming Sydney and Hobart from brutish outposts into thriving and respectable municipalities replete with the usual commercial features of British provincial centres. 'The muses and graces are not inimical to our southern climes', wrote Presbyterian minister John McGarvie in 1829; 'there are several good painters and engravers in Sydney, and bank plates, shop bills, silver plate arms, lettering, cards & c. and all that is technically named job work may be executed here with as much beauty and accuracy as in any provincial town in Britain.'

The transportation system having already supplied the Australian colonies with a number of proficient printmakers, the increased free immigration of the twenties and thirties bolstered the available numbers of artists versed in the 'useful rather than the ornamental' branches of the profession, and those who chose to come to Australia for the economic opportunities afforded by middle-class, consumerist communities. This meant a setting that was no longer primarily concerned with the production of natural history, ethnographic and topographical images that served a curiosity or propaganda purpose and were intended solely for the satisfaction of interests and authorities at 'home', but, rather, one that had local consumers and collectors in its sights with the types of images that reflected colonial quirks and experience.

As colonial art scholar Richard Neville has explained, the printing industry in pre-1850 Sydney was 'competent but limited', unable to equal the technical quality of works produced in London, and making few pretensions to 'high art', but sufficiently equipped to create 'provincial imagery...  for a market which did not require highly finished works of art.' In communities with such a history of malefaction to draw on, it is perhaps to be expected that the depiction of various types of ne'er-do-well forms a small but distinct vein in the output of certain artists working in Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century, and whose works constitute an Australian edition of the catchpenny criminal images and execution broadsides that had been a feature of the English popular print trade since the early 1700s. 

Portraits of criminals were printed and collected for various reasons, not least of which was the growing currency of the theories of phrenology and physiognomy, which held that mental faculties and character could be understood by an analysis of skulls, features, bones and anatomies. Souvenir lithographs such as that of John Jenkins, or of the dead bushranger John Donohoe, killed in a gunfight near Campbelltown in 1830, were of interest for such reasons and would have been consulted for physical 'evidence' of the subjects' predisposition to violence and destructiveness. Many, evidently, were interested in how criminals looked, in the dock or standing on the scaffold, and a standard component of newspaper reports of executions was to describe the villain’s pre-death demeanour or their appearance in the exact moments before they met their awful fates. Were they repentant, defiant, resigned, petrified, unmoved? And were they weeping, whimpering, sneering, smiling, quivering, or praying fervently in the moments before they dropped to their deaths? Printmakers responded, producing portraits which satisfied the appetite for real-life, salacious, sordid and gruesome stories, but which equally were promoted, sold and accepted as didactic, scientific and morally fortifying texts. 

Consider some of the portraits created by Charles Rodius (1802-1860), who arrived in Sydney as a convicted thief in late 1829. German-born and French-trained, Rodius' skills as an artist and draughtsman were made use of soon after his arrival in Sydney, and by 1832 he had begun working independently. Like other artists in Sydney at the time, Rodius' practice was by necessity diverse, accommodating the tastes and sensibilities of the elites along with the more prosaic requirements of a provincial market. In addition to topographic views, portraits of his patron's houses and estates, and likenesses of eminent citizens, Rodius produced works of grittier or urban flavour, most notably the lithograph of Jenkins, advertised by publisher John Gardner Austin within days of Jenkins' execution in November 1834. Rodius was also among the artists who cashed in on the hanging of murderer John Knatchbull in February 1844. 

Transported to New South Wales for robbery in 1824, Knatchbull's suitably villainous colonial back story included a subsequent conviction (for forgery), a commuted death sentence, incarceration on the Phoenix prison hulk, a poisoning attempt, and a stint on Norfolk Island, where he became involved in a convict escape plot to steal a ship and sail it to South America. Knatchbull only escaped the noose in the case of the latter offence by informing on his co-conspirators, and was returned to Sydney and thence Port Macquarie to complete the remainder of his fourteen-year sentence. He gained a ticket of leave in 1843, but early the following year was arrested for the horrendous assault carried out on a woman named Ellen Jamieson, a Sydney widow and shopkeeper. Knatchbull is said to have gained access to Jamieson’s shop after hours 'on pretence of purchasing a pint of vinegar' before attacking her with a tomahawk and stealing her pocketbook. The alarm was raised, and Knatchbull - whom witnesses had earlier seen lurking in the neighbourhood looking as if he was 'after no good' - was soon located hiding behind a door, his trousers bloodied and his victim insensible on the floor. She lingered for a fortnight before dying of her injuries. The inquest into Jamieson’s death attracted 'intense interest', and on being committed to stand trial for murder Knatchbull was subjected to the 'hootings, hissings and cheers of the several hundred men, women and children' who had congregated outside the public house where the inquest and committal proceedings were conducted. During his consequent trial for murder, Knatchbull’s defence barrister, the politician Robert Lowe, attempted to persuade the court that his client should be found not guilty on the grounds of 'moral insanity'. He failed. Lowe then appealed against the penalty of death duly meted out, arguing that the sentence was invalid because the judge, William Burton, had neglected to give the order in sentencing that Knatchbull's body be anatomised and dissected. This appeal, unsurprisingly, failed too. 

In the weeks leading up to his execution, various printers were advertising the availability of Knatchbull portraits, all claiming to be 'just published' and 'taken from life, as he appeared at the Supreme Court'. Similar instances - of publishers clamouring to outdo their competitors as soon as the prospect of a bankable hanging was announced - are documented as having occurred in England, with historian Vic Gatrell pointing out how the law reforms which afforded offenders a chance to appeal against their sentences played nicely into the hands of the profit-focused print fraternity. No more the scenario wherein a malefactor was sentenced to die one day and dispatched the next; instead, there might exist a period of days or weeks in which a series of build-up portraits and accounts might be produced. In Knatchbull's case, for example, publisher Edward Barlow began by offering customers 'a correct likeness of this inhuman monster', and several weeks later advertised the availability of a view of Darlinghurst Gaol taken during Knatchbull's execution, presumably an image which depicted the thousands of people who were said to have gathered for the event. 

Barlow’s rival, William Baker (c.1806-1857), was another who got in on the action, his Hibernian Printing Office producing a before-and-after lithograph showing Knatchbull in life, apparently in the dock,  atop an illustration of his head in profile, shaved and laid out in the deadhouse. Within a week of Knatchbull’s conviction, Rodius too was respectfully acquainting the public with his intention 'to publish a lithograph likeness of John Knatchbull, convicted... of the murder of Ellen Jamieson, of whom a likeness in profile will in the same drawing be subjoined.' Rodius' print could be acquired for a shilling and was later 'pronounced by several cognoscenti to be the only correct likeness of Knatchbull now published.'

Despite the many newspaper references attesting that these portraits and their like were created in Australia, extant examples are now comparatively few. Produced cheaply and quickly in response to the stories and scandals of the day, it is to be assumed that their appeal or collectability just as rapidly became outmoded as their subjects disappeared from public commentary and view. 'The expensive and exquisite has been treasured and guarded from the day it was made', British Museum curator Sheila O’Connell has stated of popular prints, while 'the cheap and the crude has been thrown away once it served its purpose.' Extant examples of the various prints made of Knatchbull are rare, as are copies of Rodius' lithograph of Jenkins, whose demise was seemingly a cause for public celebration. By contrast, the death mask taken of Jenkins’ victim Robert Wardell has been preserved as the basis of the marble portrait medallion installed at St James Church in Sydney, underlining the correspondingly poor survival rate of printed portraits of despised, unconventional or ephemerally interesting sitters. As one Sydney Morning Herald contributor said in regards to the brief bout of enthusiasm among Sydney printmakers for the documentation of Knatchbull’s features: 'To preserve the portraits of the virtuous is an excellent way of keeping them in remembrance, but we do not approve of anything likely to perpetuate the memory of such a man as Knatchbull; the sooner he is forgotten, the better.'  

This is an edited extract from Chapter 5 of Joanna Gilmour’s Sideshow Alley: Infamy, the macabre and the portrait, available for purchase from the Gallery store