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Postcards

Reflections on portraiture

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.

There is an unbroken line of thought in western civilisation extending all the way from Cicero through St. Augustine and Coluccio Salutati right up to the present day, in which we have regularly weighed the significance, respective merits and competing priorities of the “active” versus the “contemplative” life. Can they coexist?