In the late 1830s the young brothers Jeremiah, Joseph and John Ware, the eldest just twenty years of age, had played a major role in the settlement of the Western District in Victoria. By 1856 they were established and notable figures in the colony and had become significant patrons of the fine arts.
Robert Dowling’s family portrait Masters George, William, and Miss Harriet Ware and the Aborigine Jamie Ware is set in the grounds of pastoralist Joseph Ware’s property, Minjah. The group is headed by the eldest son, George, who bears a staff, the Biblical symbol of leadership often associated with Moses. To the right sits his younger brother, William, on the left is their sister Harriet and the Mopor youth from Spring Creek who took the family name, Jamie Ware. The portrait has remained with the descendants of the Ware family since its commission and is a poignant depiction of interracial accord.
There is an obvious affection between Jamie and Harriet: he reclines comfortably while the young girl drapes her arm casually over his leg. The absence of Jamie’s employers – the children’s parents, John and Barbara Ware, gives added resonance to the work, revealing the trust and intimate position Jamie held in the family. The depiction of the youth in European dress rather than as an anthropological study expresses the family’s concern for harmonious relations with Indigenous people.
Jamie’s inclusion is also symbolic of the Ware family’s awareness of the traumatic post-contact history experienced by Indigenous Australians, an understanding that was not generally shared in mid-nineteenth-century Victoria. By the 1850s it was reported that Tasmania’s Indigenous population had been decimated, which would have been a significant issue for Dowling and the Wares who had all migrated from the southern-most colony. Dowling painted a number of works that were intended as memorials, such as the NGV’s Tasmanian Aborigines, 1856, and Warrnambool Art Gallery’s Minjah in the old time, 1856. While these works look to the past and convey a sense of mourning, the Ware family portrait looks positively towards a more harmonious future and therefore is a transformative work to enter the NGV’s nineteenth-century Australian collection.
Masters George, William, and Miss Harriet Ware and the Aborigine Jamie Ware joins a number of works in the NGV collection that share a Ware family provenance. Joseph Ware commissioned six works from Dowling between 1855 and 1856, and the NGV collection contains works acquired by his younger brother, John Ware, that were donated in 2004 as part of the Joseph Brown Collection. These include Eugène von Guérard’s Spring in the valley of the Mitta Mitta with the Bogong Ranges in the distance, 1863, and the homestead portrait of John Ware’s Yalla-y-Poora, 1864.
Dowling continued to receive Ware family patronage after he left Australia in 1857; his portrait Miss Annie Ware, 1882, the daughter of John Ware, being commissioned during the sitter’s European travels.
Humphrey Clegg, Assistant Curator, Australian Art, NGV (in 2007)