The Pipers were conspicuous figures in the early European settlement of Sydney, the city in which the itinerant Augustus Earle resided between 1825 and 1828. John Piper served in the New South Wales Corps from 1791 until 1811 and met Mary Ann Shears during this period. They married in 1816 and had numerous children. After visiting his native Scotland, Piper returned to Australia in 1814 where he took up the lucrative civilian post of Naval Officer. He was rewarded with a large block of land (now Point Piper), where he built a spectacular house, Henrietta Villa. But his ambitions ran ahead of his finances and he suffered a complete financial collapse in 1827.
Earle was responsible for the first large-scale portraits in Australia. These include two impressive full-length paintings of Captain John Piper and Mrs Piper (with children) now in the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. The two portraits in the National Gallery of Australia collection are much smaller and it is not clear exactly how they relate to each other, or to the larger paintings.
Despite these paintings being paired, there is an intriguing stylistic difference between them. Captain Piper is shown in three-quarter view, with a look of ease in his public position. It is possible to imagine this head atop a confident full-length portrait, one that reflects the man’s office. Mrs Piper, on the other hand, is shown rather plainly. She is facing front-on and lacks the refined turn of the head of her husband’s portrait. In short, Captain Piper has bearing, Mrs Piper simple presence.
Andrew Sayers 2002
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002