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Portrait of George Selth Coppin
, c. 1895-99

by Tom Roberts

oil on cedar panel (frame: 73.0 cm x 45.0 cm, support: 61.2 cm x 34.1 cm)

George Coppin (1819–1906), comedian, entrepreneur and politician, cut his teeth in the world of the English itinerant theatre. Arriving in Sydney in 1843, he performed across the country before opening a theatre in Adelaide in 1846. His commercial holdings increased over the next few years, but in 1851 he lost his fortune. Through performing on the goldfields, he rebuilt a portfolio of theatres and hotels. In 1858 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council, but after five years, in serious debt, he resigned and returned to tread the boards. In 1874 he became a member of the Legislative Assembly; he held this post intermittently to 1888, after which he returned to the Council. Victoria’s first Freemason Grand Master, he energetically promoted reforms and innovation in the municipal sphere, including copyright legislation, the establishment of Post Office Savings banks, the St John Ambulance society, the Old Colonists’ Association, the Dramatic and Musical Society, and the development of Sorrento as a tourist destination.

Tom Roberts (1856–1931) came to Australia from England at the age of thirteen, but returned to study art in London. He arrived back in Melbourne in 1885 and established a successful portrait practice. At the same time, he began to paint outdoors with other artists, including Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, and together they came to be known as the Heidelberg School. Roberts himself gained a reputation as the ‘father of Australian landscape painting’, although many of his known works are portraits. The image of George Selth Coppin was included in his 1900 exhibition Familiar Faces and Figures, oil portraits on wooden panels that comprised a kind of prototype national portrait gallery. Roberts painted the prominent figures mindful of ‘how interesting such a group would be to us now, of similar types of, say fifty years ago’, and put the portraits on the market in hope that they would be bought as a group and kept together. Eventually, however, needing cash to take his family to England, he had to let them go to a number of purchasers, and they remain scattered to this day.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased with funds donated by Mary Isabel Murphy 2004
Accession number: 2003.212