Maurice Felton’s painting Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark brings us north to Sydney and a world away in terms of social strata at the time. The first impression on viewing this portrait is of ostentatious display of wealth. That impression persists – this portrait is a clear declaration of wealth and social position. The artist has lavished attention on the silk, lace, pearls, diamonds, sapphires and exquisite detail of the ensemble. “Mrs Spark’s fine gown features the decade’s distinctive V-shaped waist and lace bertha” notes a volume on the history of Australian fashion, which devotes a full page to this image as an exemplar of the fashion and aspiration of the period (Joel, p. 17).
The lady looking out at the viewer is not overwhelmed by her finery. She appears calm, clear-eyed, a firm chin, a hint of a smile. She has a book with her – a flash of red and gold that lifts the image, on the leather binding a family crest with the crest “Virtute et valore”. There is education, virtue and valour with this beauty and wealth. The book also gives an opportunity to display a delicate wrist and hand loaded with gems.
She stands on a terrace with a broad expanse of land behind leading to an expanse of water. The empty space balances with the foreground figure while a tree frames and curves protectively around her. Angels Trumpet flowers echo the white and curves of the clothes and jewellery, and give a hint of the exotic. The straight lines of horizon, balustrade and book play against the curves throughout the image.
The frame adds to the impressive size and decoration of the picture and is the restored original.Maurice Felton arrived in Sydney in 1839. He was a qualified medical practitioner, but appears to have spent most of his time in Australia in his secondary occupation as a painter. In the few years before his death in 1842 Felton painted many society portraits. The example on the right shows many similarities – a woman with carefully dressed hair, similar face and expression, well dressed, framing foliage, view to the horizon and the pop of red this time provided by the shawl. Not all Felton’s subject appear quite so similar. In the collection of the National Gallery of Australia is A woman of NSW, which shows an older, larger woman with decided features, wonderful earrings and a most remarkable headdress (http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=200464).
Apparently Felton painted some landscapes as well as portraits, but I have not been able to locate any examples. Much early colonial art has this focus on specific people and places, with few if any paintings of “higher” historical or mythological themes. This could be related to the “provincial” nature of the colony. Joan Kerr wrote “In fact, the primacy of some non-aesthetic purpose might be said to be a distinguishing characteristic of provincial art. In colonial New South Wales, painting or collecting portraits and views might be summarised as souvenir hunting for a specific purpose: … to prove one’s triumphant survival…” (Kerr, p. 15).
Sydney’s economy had boomed in the 1830s and the wealthy wanted to advertise their fortune and raise their social standing. Joanna Gilmour has explained “Felton’s subjects, though from a mix of spheres and origins, largely shared the supposed taint of commercial motivations and the experience of finding in colonial life and enterprise a high degree of wealth or social profile… In their ornate gold frames (some supplied by Felton’s brotherin- law, Solomon Lewis) and in his attentive rendering of fabrics, fashions and jewellery resides proof of the aspirations, pretensions or vulgarities of Felton’s sitters” (Gilmour, 2011). The fact that Felton worked in oil made it even more attractive to the very wealthy. The picture was commissioned by Alexander Brodie Spark, who “grew from a speculative trader to a rich banker and merchant, churchman, landowner and private collector. In the artificial aristocracy of the colony he was established as a leading citizen who had to ear and favour of the governor” (Abbott and Little, p. 1). Spark had married Maria 27th April 1840 and engaged Felton for her portrait on 18th May. The frame was chosen in June (from Lewis) and the final touches on the portrait completed 18 August. (Spark maintained a diary, giving a helpful amount of practical information from the period). Spark also used his wealth building his home at Tempe (architect John Verge, the same who oversaw the building of Elizabeth Bay House – see 30-Nov-2013). The extensive garden combined both kitchen and ornamental plants, with cuttings provided from Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and a team of 13 convict labourers working under an English gardener (Morris, p. 70). It seems likely that the extensive view and exotic plant in Felton’s painting is another reminder of Spark’s wealth and taste.
In November 1841 the Sydney Herald opined that Felton’s work signalled that “the day was not far distant when we should no longer be characterised as a mere money-getting and money-loving people; but that we should become conspicuous for the … cultivation of those arts that at once improve the heart and mind” (quoted in Gilmour, 2011). As it happened, in the early 1840s the economy crashed, undermined by over-speculation in land and a prolonged drought. This was the same crisis that brought an end to Alexander Macleay’s control of Elizabeth Bay House, and it eventually bankrupted Spark. He and Maria survived by tending the garden themselves and selling their produce.
In evaluating this painting I would like to compare it with another hanging nearby at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.Dian dreams (Una Falkiner) by Violet Teague was painted around 69 years after Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark, and I suspect in Melbourne rather than Sydney. Both pictures are of beautiful women in fashionable, luxurious, expensive gowns.
The differences are significant, beginning with the genesis of each painting. Unlike Felton who made his living from commissioned society portraits, Teague was a financially independent woman. At times she chose to accept commissions, but this painting was not one. It was included in the Women Painters Exhibition of 1911 for sale at £105, a premium price.
Felton’s work is a familiar composition, the subject standing at a slight angle (more visual interest, a display of womanly curves) and gazing towards the painter / viewer. In a more modern composition Teague’s woman is seated with her back to the viewer, her face in profile. It is a very conscious pose, displaying a graceful, feminine form, but the subject is allowed her own thoughts. Anna Clabburn suggests Teague provides “a consistent sense of the sitter’s inner energy” in her portraits of women (Clabburn, 1999). “Her averted eyes are not deferring to a pressured male audience… but instead suggest a quiet independence and sense of self” (Neville, p. 56). The self-possession of this figure has disturbed some viewers. In a London exhibition in 1911 the painting was “attacked by a ‘madman’ with a knife, who justified his actions, ‘because she wouldn’t look’ at him” (Holmes, p. 42). At some time after the subject, Una le Souëf, married the next year, her husband purchased the painting and is reported to have “complained that his wife would ‘not sit with her back to a party'” (Neville, p. 53). Although not traditional a similar pose can sometimes be seen in works by other artists. John White Alexander was mentioned by Neville as one of the artist who influenced Teague, and his 1898 work The Blue Bowl (risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/1016_the_blue_bowl) shows similarities. A Capriote (1878 https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/a-capriote-32955) by John Singer Sargent shows the subject woman’s back and profile, but in a more twisted pose that links her into the countryside. Closer to home, Tom Robert’s La Favorita (c. 1889 http://www.portrait.gov.au/magazine/article.php?articleID=354) could well have been seen by Teague in Melbourne.
Felton’s work displayed “the technical skill and showy sensibility that lent [his] work so effortlessly to the requirements of colonial clients” (Gilmour, 2011). Teague had more painterly ambitions. Her “rich dark palette … shows a keen sense of the chiaroscuro light contrasts used by Velazquez or the Italian masters Titian and Carravagio… ” (Clabburn). Teague was exploring colour and tone and shows the influence of Whistler. Neville claims “her paintings were more than portraits: they were as much about the act of painting and her ability to orchestrate a tonal palette as they were about people” (Neville, p. 53). There is a certain flattening of space, any depth limited by the flat geometry of wall and piano, a deceptive simplicity in the design, showing Teague connected to the sweep of painterly concerns in the late nineteenth and through the twentieth century.
I wonder if Teague also placed her work in the “higher” realm of mythological painting. Internet searches on variants of “Dian dreams” have yielded limited results. Endymion slept and perhaps dreamed of Diana, moon goddess – which doesn’t fit here. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummernight’s Dream Hermia is given a choice of accepting her father’s choice of marriage or lifelong chastity worshipping Diana as a nun. Apart from the possible link in the title I have no reason to suggest that Una was reflecting on her options the year before her marriage to Otway Falkiner. It seems clear that Felton had no deeper purpose than celebrating the prosperity of the new Mrs Spark and her husband. Just possibly her face is a touch tired, a touch sad, hinting at her previous marriage at age around 16, the eight children of whom five had died young (cholera, drowning in shipwreck, fire), or perhaps a more recent loss suggested in her husband’s diary entry of 8th June during the time Felton was painting her portrait: “Drove Maria to town for another sitting. She complained of a pain in the side, extinguishing late hopes…” (Abbott and Little, p. 120).
So clearly showing a person in her particular culture, meeting that culture’s specific needs and concerns, Felton’s Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark now appears almost ethnographic in nature. Teague’s Dian dreams seems more introverted, less focused on the needs of the viewer, both in the averted gaze of the subject and the painterly concerns of the artist. There is thought and emotion, but a slight separation. Neither work shows the open depth of emotion of Truganini’s portrait bust by Benjamin Law (13-Mar-2014), bowed with grief and loss not only of herself and her family but of her people. Another link of the three works is Teague’s efforts raising money to bring a permanent water supply to an Aboriginal Mission suffering under a long-term drought. Her letter to the editor of The Argus in 1934: “Sir, Many people, among them artists, think that the best way to begin the Centenary year is to do something useful for the Australian Aborigine – for some of those who have survived the 100 years of our occupation … When it is remembered that all the land and all the water were the aborigines’ inheritance, this will seem a small act of restitution” (quoted in Clabburn).
There is a lot more information available about the women I have recently researched – Truganini, Frances Maria Spark, Una le Souëf Falkiner and Violet Teague – that hasn’t been included in this post / annotation. It would be interesting to revisit using a feminist framework, focusing on the challenges and constraints in their lives, and the choices they made.
Abbott, G. and Little, G. (1976) The respectable Sydney merchant: A.B. Spark of Tempe Sydney: Sydney University Press.
Clabburn, A. (1999) The art of Violet Teague: Education Kit. [Parkville, Vic.] : Ian Potter Museum of Art. (sheets unnumbered).
Gilmour, J. (2011) More cash than dash. Portrait: Magazine of Australian & International portraiture 41 (October – November 2011) [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/magazine/article.php?articleID=349 (Accessed 15-Mar-2014)
Holmes, K. (1992) Diaries as Déshabillé? The diary of Una Falkiner: A careful dressing. Australian Feminist Studies 7 (16) [preview online] Preview available from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08164649.1992.9994660#.UydaNPmSzCZ (Accessed 14-Mar-2014).
Joel, A. (1998) Parade: The story of fashion in Australia Sydney: Harper Collins Publishers
Kerr, J. (1988) “Views, visages, invisability: Themes in the Art of colonial New South Wales” In McDonald, P. and Pearce, B. (ed) (1988) The Artist and the Patron: Aspects of Colonial Art in New South Wales. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Morris, C. (2008) Lost Gardens of Sydney. Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales
Neville, R. (1999) “Violet Teague’s Portraits” In Clark, J and Druce, F. (ed) (1999) Violet Teague 1872 – 1951. [Roseville, N.S.W.] : Beagle Press.
UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Annotate a portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Annotate a portrait