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Reflections on portraiture

Dr Helen Nugent AO, Chairman, National Portrait Gallery at the opening of 20/20: Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions.

Books seldom make me angry but this one did. At first, I was powerfully struck by the uncanny parallels that existed between the Mellons of Pittsburgh and the Thyssens of the Ruhr through the same period, essentially the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The best horror stories are real. A flea sinks its proboscis into the skin of a sick black rat, feeds on its blood, and ingests lethally multiplying bacteria. In the confined space of its tiny alimentary canal, the bacteria multiply to such an extent that they form a blockage in the stomach of the flea. In desperation, after it senses a drop in the body temperature of the rat, which is by now dead, the increasingly ravenous flea jumps ship.

Where do we draw a line between the personal and the historical? Although she died in Melbourne in 1975, when I was not quite eleven years old, I have the vividest memories of my maternal grandmother Helen Borthwick. Mrs Borthwick was the eldest daughter of the Hon. William Pearson, MLC, who represented the Province of Gippsland in the upper house of the Victorian Parliament through the years at either side of Federation, and was a member of the powerful Joint Committee on Defence. The highlight of the Pearsons’ extended visit to England, commencing towards the end of 1912, was when Lady Reid, the wife of the Australian High Commissioner, Sir George H. Reid, sometime fourth Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, 1904–05, presented Great-Grandmother Sophie Pearson to the King and Queen at an evening court at Buckingham Palace, and Mrs. Pearson in turn presented her daughters.