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Costantini's convictions

by Joanna Gilmour, 23 March 2017

George and Jemima Billet with family, c.1852 by C.H.T. Costantini
George and Jemima Billet with family, c.1852 by C.H.T. Costantini

The fact that his passing got a mention in the papers wasn’t necessarily an indication that George Bellette was considered a distinguished or exceptional citizen. ‘The deceased gentleman was 74 years of age’, stated Launceston’s Daily Telegraph of the 24th of March 1885, ‘a quiet, inoffensive man, [who] had all his lifetime followed the pursuits of a farmer’. The Hobart Mercury likewise mentioned little more than his farming career, many friends and few enemies. Seemingly, it was the long, blameless and inconspicuous nature of Bellette’s life that made his death worth noting. As an ‘old colonist’ – to use the descriptor that often connoted those whose origins were in convict times or ex-convict stock, or both – it’s as if he was noteworthy in being ordinary, or for being an illustrative study in Tasmania’s transition from blighted penitentiary to prosperous, if prosaic, province. Born in Hobart to parents whose misdemeanours had originally seen them exiled to Sydney, and from there to Norfolk Island, Bellette was from one of the many Norfolk families who thrived after relocating to Van Diemen’s Land, and a classic example of the colonial-born man of modest means made good.

This also made him a member of the group regularly captured by portrait painters; the artists were capitalising on those conditions that gave the socalled middling classes access to the ownership of land, houses and the usual accoutrements of honest domesticity. As the Royal Academician Henry Fuseli once whined, whereas portrait painting was formerly ‘the exclusive property of princes, or a tribute to beauty, prowess, genius, talent’, by the nineteenth century it had been downgraded to ‘a kind of family calendar … of parents, children, brothers, nephews, cousins, and relatives of all colours’. Having one’s likeness taken, by this estimation, was an exercise in sentimentality and consumerism, an opportunity to project gentility and identity through the documentation of one’s self and one’s stuff.

‘Rosy Vanyan’, Forcett. Property of Mr Jas Rollings 1855 by Charles Henry Theodore Costantini

Close attention to details like interiors and possessions is thus a common feature of the portraits made of such sitters. They were produced by artists who plied their trade at the peripheries of empire, within communities composed from humble, industrious people and the mercantile-minded individuals for whom the new world represented an opportunity for a nicer, more consequential life. In settler societies like Australia or America, the population mix could mean more members of the emerging middle class, the level of society with whom portraiture was becoming increasingly associated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Writing of the clients typically found in regional, post-Revolution America, for example, historian Richard L Bushman has elucidated why so many sitters were able to enter what he calls the ‘society of pictured people’. Not unlike the Australian colonies, lateeighteenth century America, Bushman says, ‘presented opportunities for people with capital and a habit of enterprise’, and those who were ‘elevated by the economy from their previous obscurity, ambitious for achievement, and eager to embrace the culture suitable to their position’. For them, as a number of studies of provincial-style portraiture of the period have observed, the concept of a ‘good likeness’ might encompass the accurate delineation of clothing or carpet as much as the convincing capture or transcription of physiognomy, psychology and person. Portraits, like other material possessions, thereby became desirable to formerly ‘un-pictured people’ either as outward signifiers of social position or as personal, domestic reassurances of respectability and so forth. In this equation, ‘high art’ values such as originality or imagination were immaterial, and an artist’s professional pedigree or class credentials were secondary to his availability, affordability and adaptability, and his skill at rendering the markers of domestic contentment and material success. Portraits were positioned as decorative or otherwise ‘useful’ items, and those who produced them were categorised as artisans or tradesmen supplying a similarly utilitarian and agreeable service.

For a long time, these artists suffered from the type of backhanded art-historical compliments that variously categorised them as folk, naïve, vernacular, or plain, and their ‘non-aesthetic’ or money-making output as that of untutored amateurs, a by-product of isolated conditions wherein training, if available, was rudimentary and workmanlike, and notions of ‘taste’ might be similarly unsophisticated. It was the province of the provincial painter to supply his clients ‘with flattering but recognisable likenesses’, to quote the British historian Trevor Fawcett, ‘which meant painting them as Mr and Mrs Such-a-one, not as studies of light and shade’. As a result, it was work best suited to artists prepared to relinquish or ignore rarefied notions of ‘art’, and the ranks of American portraitists are populated accordingly by practitioners noted for their versatility, pragmatism and tradesman-like approach. Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855), for example, having suffered an accident that left him unable to walk, took up painting in the hope of making a living as a portraitist, ultimately producing some 900 portraits. Others such as painter and inventor Oliver Tarbell Eddy (1799– 1868), or Henry Walton (1804–1865), adapted their training in printmaking and draughtsmanship to the careful delineation of unassuming sitters: mute, doll-like and serious; outwardly unobtrusive but inwardly proud. More recently, however, the painters who catered to the newly-pictured classes have come to be appreciated for the honesty, directness and vitality of their portraits. As scholar Carrie Rebora Barratt has said, the portraits created by the now-celebrated itinerant American painters of the first half of the nineteenth century ‘describe socially reticent sitters eager to record a likeness but shy of declaring personality and emotion’, and for whom the concept of a ‘recognisable likeness’ was integrated with the literal, exact transcription of their surroundings and belongings. Developing a flat, restrained and portable portrait template that prioritised colour, pattern and decoration, these painters produced a rich, if inadvertent, chronicle of material culture and consumer goods, an emporium, almost, of fashion, toys, jewellery, footwear, and furniture, and a catalogue of Victorian-era trends in such spheres as floristry, millinery, hairdressing and interior decoration.

Family portrait c. 1850 by Henry Walton

The same traits can be found in the portrait commissioned by George Bellette in the early 1850s from Charles Henry Theodore Costantini (1803–1860), who in style, experience and journeyman inclination parallels closely his so-called plain American contemporaries. Frenchborn and of Italian heritage, a surgeon, thief, probably a forger, Costantini served back-to-back sentences of transportation in the 1820s and thirties. In the first instance he was convicted of stealing jewellery and had his death sentence commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life. Only two years into this term he was granted a pardon, but was found guilty of thieving two £5 notes soon after landing back in England, and was banished to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years. His entry in the Convict Department’s conduct register describes him as ‘disposed to be very troublesome’, and also shows that Costantini continued to transgress after arriving in Hobart in early October 1827. Dispatched soon thereafter to the penal station at Macquarie Harbour, he was put to work in the hospital as a dispenser of medicines, but attracted the attention of the settlement’s commandant, James Butler, who in January 1828 wrote to the colonial secretary of his intention to employ Costantini in making sketches ‘in order to afford His Excellency an idea of this Station and its Localities’. To this end, a box containing the prisoner’s brushes and colours was sent from Hobart. The resulting watercolours, in their simplicity, flattened perspective and attention to detail, anticipate the portraits of places and people Costantini would later make as a free man. At Port Arthur from 1831, he again worked as an assistant surgeon and hospital superintendent while also picking up floggings and stints of solitary confinement for ‘highly insubordinate and disrespectful conduct’ along with other offences. He managed, nonetheless, to receive his certificate of freedom in March 1834; by 1838 he was in Launceston, spruiking his availability for the execution of ‘portraits in the most correct style, also, views, and sketches of gentleman’s farms, &c’.

Ergo, for Mr Kennedy Murray junior, a constable and another son of erstwhile Norfolk Island detainees, Costantini produced a portrait of his residence at Evandale, the watercolour of the two-storey Georgian-style cottage demonstrating a precise, painstaking degree of observation. Each shingle on the hipped roof of the Residence of Mr Ky. Murray, Evandale is delineated, likewise the bricks in its keystone and the weatherboards of its barn, the detail extending to the blooms nodding in the garden beds and the ribbons on the bonnets of the little girls perambulating around them. Costantini applied the same treatment in his Front view of Windsor Park (1854), a view of a Murray family property at Glenorchy. Similarly, much of the foliage in ‘Rosy Vanyan’, Forcett. Property of Mr. Jas. Rollings (1855) is carefully drawn, the view of this farm north-east of Hobart foregrounded with cattle and the image of the riflewielding landowner surveying his domain from the fence. The manner in which Costantini depicted people is equally meticulous, with the likenesses unreliable in the photographic sense, but irrefutable as signs of how his sitters saw themselves. The portraits produced by Costantini during the 1840s and 1850s are distinct in their stillness and tight brushwork, in the finesse with which he painted fabrics and other surfaces, and by the attention paid to the minutest of details: the lace edges of handkerchiefs; the stones set in rings and brooches and fob chains; the sheen of taffeta, ceramic and polished cedar. George Bellette, shown in Costantini’s portrait with his wife Jemima and seven of their twelve children, appears as a quiet but industrious and upright man, his well-dressed self, wife and children a quiet, irrefutable proof of his class status. Bearing the preoccupation with colours and patterns and the woodenness of figures characteristic of his mid-century American counterparts, Costantini’s portraits also betray the impact of photography on the itinerant painter’s practice, suggesting an attempt to recreate with watercolour and pencil the astonishing and incontrovertible accuracy of the daguerreotype.

It would seem that Costantini found the majority of his clients from among his own ilk – not the highranking officials or prominent citizens who might commission portraits from someone like his more qualified contemporary Thomas Bock, say, but sitters otherwise often undocumented beyond the facts of their births, deaths and marriages. Ex-convicts or the offspring thereof; smaller-scale yet prosperous landowners or merchants; their wives and children. In short, the people who in spite of distasteful or commonplace origins took particular pride in their status, fecundity and good fortune and who sought portraits as a way of projecting and preserving the evidence of these simple blessings. While this was previously assumed by some to have mitigated against Costantini’s reputation in his lifetime, or to have relegated his work to the realm of the decorative, the quaint, the bourgeois or the documentary, it has since come to be understood as the element which in fact enriches and complicates the reading of his ostensibly flat, awkward or unsophisticated images. It lends them instead a solidity derived from their location at the quiet, inoffensive intersections of social circumstance and artistic production.

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