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Julia Matthews
, c. 1867

by an unknown artist

Woodburytype photograph

On loan to the National Portrait Gallery

More images of this artwork

The London-born actress and singer Julia Matthews (1842–1876) was twelve years old when she gave her debut performance at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney. A year later she was in Melbourne and appearing at George Selth Coppin’s Olympic Theatre, proving her versatility with turns in drama, comedy and burlesque. She then joined a light opera company for a tour of the goldfields and in 1858, while performing in Beechworth, she attracted the attention of the local police inspector, Robert O’Hara Burke. He was so in thrall to her that he proposed marriage, the age difference (21 years) and her overbearing mother notwithstanding. Matthews’ parents, it was later said, ‘were perfectly alive to the treasure they had got in their daughter. … She had been a lucrative investment to them as a child, and now, as woman, she was a fortune.’ Undeterred, Burke proposed again in August 1860 on the night that he departed Melbourne on his expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Indeed, it is suggested that Matthews was one of the reasons why Burke sought appointment to the doomed venture in the first place, believing that the glory and wealth he’d achieve from the expedition would bolster his suit. Matthews again declined to give him a definitive answer, but Burke had sufficient inducement to give her a miniature portrait of himself regardless, having two days earlier made her his sole beneficiary in the event of his death. Matthews is said to have urged a search party once rumours of the expedition’s failure began to circulate in Melbourne, and soon after news of her would-be suitor’s demise was confirmed she placed a notice in the newspapers offering a reward to anyone who recovered the portrait of Burke she claimed to have lost while walking in the Botanic Gardens.

In 1863 she gave a farewell performance in Melbourne and left on a tour of New Zealand where, in April 1864, she married her manager, William Mumford. ‘For a time she retired from the stage’ – i.e. had children – ‘but she eventually returned to it; when she did, ‘her voice had wonderfully improved, and in that dash, humour, and that pleasant abandon which is such an agreeable quality in any actress she stood out with a marked distinctness.’ In late 1867 she went to England with Mumford, their three children and her parents in tow. She made her London debut at the Covent Garden theatre in November 1867, and for ‘several seasons afterwards appeared in opera-bouffe at the Gaiety, the Olympic, the Philharmonic and the Standard Theatres’ before embarking on a tour of the provinces. As with her parents, Matthews’ husband is said to have seen her as a cash cow, and in addition he was unfaithful and a drunkard. The marriage ended in a judicial separation in 1870, after which Matthews toured the UK and the United States to support her children. On her death in Missouri in May 1876 it was said in Australian papers that ‘audiences laugh and enjoy the drollery and applaud the talent of their favourites, little knowing in many cases how hard it is for the performers to make merry or to exhibit their abilities to advantage.’

Private collection
Accession number: LOAN2018.24.6