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Charles Joseph La Trobe
, 1853

by Thomas Woolner

cast bronze relief medallion (frame: depth 5.0 cm diameter 26.6 cm)

Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801– 1875), colonial administrator, travelled widely in Europe and America, cultivating a wide range of interests before beginning his colonial career in the West Indies in 1837. Two years later he was appointed superintendent of the Port Phillip District, in which capacity he was answerable to the governor of New South Wales, George Gipps. Lending no direct support to hopes for separation, La Trobe had some difficulty administering a disparate collection of separatist free settlers who resented control from Sydney, and was attacked in the Town Council and the Argus as the 1840s wore on. However, strongly opposed to transportation to Port Phillip, he gained popularity in 1849 for forwarding a cargo of convicts to Sydney in defiance of the Colonial Office. In 1850, when Victoria became a separate colony, La Trobe was appointed its lieutenant-governor. Gold was discovered the following year, and his new government had to scramble to rise to the nightmarish administrative challenge of the gold rush. Though he kept the government functioning and preserved social order, La Trobe never gained much public or personal confidence in his performance as governor. He left Victoria in 1854, having established the Melbourne Botanic Gardens and having provided key support for the foundation of several important public health and cultural institutions, including the hospital and the university.

Thomas Woolner (1825–1892) was a English sculptor who worked in Australia during the early 1850s. Woolner’s training in art began with lessons from brothers Henry and William Behnes, a painter and sculptor respectively. Woolner worked for William Behnes for several years before, in 1842, being admitted to study at the Royal Academy. His work was admired by the artist William Holman Hunt; this, and his acquaintanceship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, saw him become a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. He contributed poetry to the Brotherhood’s journal, The Germ, but his efforts to establish a successful career as a sculptor were largely fruitless, prompting him to leave for the Victorian goldfields in 1852. After six disappointing months in the Ovens River and Castlemaine districts, Woolner went back to Melbourne to resume work as a sculptor, the patronage of people such as La Trobe subsequently helping him secure several commissions. He exhibited in the Victorian Society of Fine Arts exhibition in 1853 and then spent six months in Sydney before returning to England in July 1854. He became one of the leading sculptors of the Victorian age, a professor at the Royal Academy and a successful poet. Woolner never returned to Australia, but completed a number of Australian commissions throughout the 1860s and 1870s.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2006
Accession number: 2006.77