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Postcards

Reflections on portraiture

This year (in March) we will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the formal establishment of the National Portrait Gallery. In the life of institutions, twenty years is not a long time. From the vantage point of middle age, twenty years certainly feels disturbingly brief. I suppose it all depends on how you take the measure of time. Twenty years ago the Art Gallery of South Australia didn’t have or use email. We managed perfectly well without it, but I can’t quite remember how. Quite often I yearn for those less frenetic and far less constantly distracting days. In that context, twenty years feels like an eternity. Anyhow, this has prompted me to think about the ebbing and flowing rhythms of time.

The first index I created was for my first book, and, to my astonishment, that was almost twenty-five years ago. It earned me a certificate of accreditation to the Australian Society of Indexers in Melbourne, which I still cherish. Indexing a book (and even our own annual report) is a wonderfully absorbing task, and nowadays under-appreciated. Not that serious bibliophiles do not appreciate a good index. Rather, it is becoming a widespread misconception, even among some editors and publishers, that somehow keyword searching and computers or even, God forbid, book indexing software, can somehow take the place of an indexer with a brain, a measure of judgment, and a beating heart. This is simply not the case (even though the software can be mighty helpful).

At first glance, this small watercolour group portrait of her two sons and four daughters by Maria Caroline Brownrigg (d. 1880) may seem prosaic, even hesitant. Yes, it is the only known work by a relatively able amateur with no more training than was conventionally meted out to young British ladies in what passed for a genteel, certainly gender-specific late-Regency education. However, securely fixed to the drawing-room of “Yarra Cottage,” Carrington, on the north shore of Port Stephens in the Hunter Region of New South Wales in 1857, this picture stands at the intersection of a number of grand colonial, indeed imperial narratives.

Some years ago my colleague Andrea Wolk Rager and I spent several days in the darkened basement of the Rothschild Bank in New Court, St. Swithin’s Lane, in the City of London, inspecting every one of the nearly 700 autochromes created immediately before World War I by the youthful Lionel de Rothschild.