Portrait of Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane and her children c.1852
oil on canvas

The portrait of Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane and her children was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1976 from a distant cousin of Maria O’Mullane’s descendants. 

The painting is by an unknown artist of professional training – its oval shape, dark smooth background, genre elements of toys and pet, costume detail and stage-like pose are reminiscent of the work of the fashionable German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter who painted portraits in the Royal Courts of Europe, especially France and England, in the early and mid-19th century. Maria O’Mullane’s head is painted in the detail of miniature technique, while the clothes, and particularly the carpet, are handled in a much broader fashion. Through the window can be seen a century plant, characteristic of the succulents grown in early Melbourne colonial gardens to suit the dry climate. The sparse interior is furnished with chaise longue, footstool and chair; this kind of furniture and the English floral carpet was sold in Melbourne in the 1840s and 1850s.1Information from Mr. T. Lane, Curator, Mrs. R. Clark, Assistant Curator, Department of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria. The tipped-up perspective of the carpet, the carefully spaced figures and the plain background give a charming and naive quality to the painting which is a record of prosperous colonial life of the 1850s. 

The Port Phillip Herald reported in 1840 the marriage of Miss Maria Elizabeth Barber, formerly of Kergingham near Hull, Yorkshire, to Dr Arthur O’Mullane, at St James’ Church on 5 December. A Miss Barber had come to the Port Phillip District as a cabin passenger on the ship William Metcalfe which arrived on 15 November, 1839. Dr Arthur O’Mullane was Surgeon Superintendent on the same ship.2Shipping lists, Public Records Office, Melb. 

Dr Arthur O’Mullane, on settling in Melbourne, formed a brief partnership with Dr Barry Cotter, one of the original settlers from Launceston; an advertisement in the Port Phillip Herald 24 March, 1840, gives Dr O’Mullane’s qualifications as ‘Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, London and Accoucheur’. Garryowen’s Chronicles of Early Melbourne3Garryowen, Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835–52 Melb., 1888, 880. has a brief account of Dr Arthur O’Mullane’s success as a physician in the colony. As well as acting in some official government and welfare medical positions, in 1847 he was elected one of the first honorary physicians to the Melbourne Hospital shortly before it opened,4ibid., p. 236. and was a founding member in 1846 of The Port Phillip Medical Association. His business interests in the 1840s included a part-ownership in the Port Phillip Gazette,5P.P.G. 30.7.1844. Owners’ partnership in Port Phillip Gazette dissolved. (Dr O’Mullane part owner as Trustee for Mrs Mary Spode.) and he bought land in Prahran which he later subdivided, naming Greville and Grattan Streets.6J. B. Cooper, The History of Prahran, Melb., 1924, 24. One of the houses in which the O’Mullanes lived in the 1840s was at 24 Queen Street, one of the first three storeyed houses built in Melbourne, and in 1852 Dr O’Mullane bought Redmond Barry’s house at 97 Bourke Street West,7Rate Books. Corporation of City of Melbourne. where Redmond Barry, later Sir Redmond Barry, Supreme Court Judge, Chancellor of University of Melbourne and Chairman of the Public Library Trustees, had established Melbourne’s first lending library. 

Dr O’Mullane, who originally came from Cork, Ireland, died at his house in Bourke Street on 21 October 1863, aged 51 years.8Death Certificate, Vic. Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

During the 1840s, the O’Mullanes had five children, and this portrait was probably painted shortly after the death of their son, Frederick, in April, 1851. The children from left are Ann Eliza, Jeremiah, Arthur Augustus and George. The little boy in a dress, Jeremiah, was born in 1845, and died in 1856, and as it was customary to keep boys in dresses until they were 7 or 8, this dates the portrait from 1851 to 1853. The two sons, Arthur, holding a book, and George, with bow and arrow, both went to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, and each successively captained the Cricket XI.9R. M. Jukes (ed.), Liber Melburniensis, Melb., 1965. Arthur died in 1865 and George in 1866, leaving Maria and her daughter, Ann, as the only living members of the family. 

Of the four children in the portrait, only the little girl Ann Eliza, had children of her own. She married William Garrard, a surgeon, in East Melbourne in 1868, and when she and her husband died in 1883, her mother Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane, brought up Ann’s five surviving children. This portrait, passed from Maria O’Mullane to her grandson William Garrard, and from him to his son, Basil. When Basil Garrard died recently, the painting then passed to his cousins, together with three miniatures, amongst which was a second portrait of Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane. 

The shipping records of Melbourne’s Public Records Office show no voyage into Melbourne by Dr Arthur O’Mullane or his family during the period when this portrait could have been painted. As there is no evidence so far that the family travelled to Europe, It is highly likely that the portrait was painted in Melbourne or in another Australian colony. 

The gold rush brought tens of thousands of gold seekers to Melbourne in the 1850s and many of our 19th century Australian paintings and works of sculpture are by artists who came to the colonies during this period. The best known include Thomas Woolner, Eugen Von Guerard, Thomas Clark, Nicholas Chevalier, William Strutt and Ludwig Becker. 

Earlier art exhibitions had been held in the Port Phillip District but in 1854 Melbourne held its first ‘Great Exhibition’,10Official Catalogue of the Melbourne Exhibition, 1854, held in connection with the Paris Exhibition, 1855, Melb., 1854. and artists whose work is unknown to us but who exhibited portraits included Nicholas Brennan of Collingwood, Thomas Officer of Sandridge, Henry Holmes of Bourke Street East, Francis Hutton of Collins Street, Andrew McCormack of Collins Street, James Anderson of Victoria Parade, Thomas Roberts of the Melbourne Hospital, and Fortescue Hitchins of Henry Street, Collingwood, who showed three portraits, two of which were of a lady and family. Other artists visited the colony though their activities are unrecorded and it may be one of these who painted the O’Mullane family. 

Group portraits are unusual in Australian colonial art and this painting of Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane and her children is the first formal colonial portrait of a family to enter the collection, and one of its few early portraits. 

Jennifer Phipps, Curator, Department of Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1977).

Notes

1          Information from Mr. T. Lane, Curator, Mrs. R. Clark, Assistant Curator, Department of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria. 

2          Shipping lists, Public Records Office, Melb. 

3          Garryowen, Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835–52 Melb., 1888, 880.

4          ibid., p. 236. 

5          P.P.G. 30.7.1844. Owners’ partnership in Port Phillip Gazette dissolved. (Dr O’Mullane part owner as Trustee for Mrs Mary Spode.) 

6          J. B. Cooper, The History of Prahran, Melb., 1924, 24.

7          Rate Books. Corporation of City of Melbourne. 

8          Death Certificate, Vic. Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. 

9          R. M. Jukes (ed.), Liber Melburniensis, Melb., 1965. 

10        Official Catalogue of the Melbourne Exhibition, 1854, held in connection with the Paris Exhibition, 1855, Melb., 1854.