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Sketch portrait of Sir Alex Onslow
, 1896

by Tom Roberts

oil on canvas (frame: 40.2 cm x 34.7 cm, support: 32.8 cm x 27.8 cm)

Sir Alexander Campbell Onslow (1842–1908), judge, arrived in Western Australia, then under the governorship of William Robinson, to become Attorney-General in 1880. In poor health almost from the day he arrived, he took his seat as chief justice in 1883. By 1884 he had severely antagonised the new governor, Broome. Tensions between them escalated until, in 1887, Broome forbade Onslow to exercise his office. Onslow became a hero to anti-government factions, who burned Broome in effigy. He returned to the bench in May 1888, but more trouble ensued when the proprietors of leading newspapers accused him of open prejudice against them. After various enquiries, the Legislative Council found that Onslow’s occupancy of his position was an impediment to ‘peace and harmony’ in the colony. Onslow took nearly a year’s leave, but he returned to the bench in 1891, welcomed by the reinstated Robinson and a conciliatory West Australian. Retiring sick in 1901, he lived in England for the last years of his life.

Roberts’s painting of Onslow was unknown to Roberts scholars before it emerged at auction in 2006.

Tom Roberts’s (1856–1931) painting of Onslow appears to be a life sketch for a more formal commission that seems never to have eventuated; it was unknown to Roberts scholars before it emerged at auction in 2006. According to Sotheby’s, it was painted in Sydney, where Onslow was knighted in 1895, and where Roberts may have met him through judicial or musical connections.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased with funds provided by L Gordon Darling AC CMG 2006
Accession number: 2006.80