Misses Isabella and Fanny, daughters of the Reverend William Browne

Frederick Strangec.1845

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Australian colonists liked to have their portraits painted or drawn and a surprising number of portraitists touted for commissions in Tasmania. Notably, among these artists were Henry Mundy (c 1798–1848) and Frederick Strange (1807–73).

Mundy worked as a painter and lithographer in London before immigrating to Van Diemen’s Land in 1831 as a free settler. After working for seven years as a tutor in drawing, music and French at Ellinthorp Hall (a private school for young ladies near the town of Ross), he moved to Launceston to establish himself as a portrait and landscape painter. He transferred to Hobart four years later, where he opened a school of painting. Mundy tragically died from an overdose of laudanum in 1848, after suffering from depression for several years.

Elizabeth, Mrs William Field c 1842 shows Mundy’s ability to observe the character of his subjects. Elizabeth Field gazes directly out of the picture, her eyes wide and with a gentle smile. Her curled hair, stylish dress, gold jewellery and ornate feathered bonnet suggest she was careful with her appearance. Clothed in black, with a white handkerchief in her hand, she emerges from a dark background, a widow of confidence and dignity.

Elizabeth Field (née Richards or Riches) originally came to Australia as a convict. She was sentenced for life for the humble offence of stealing cotton and lace and was transported to New South Wales in 1805. The following year, she married Private Edward Robley of the 73rd Regiment. They moved to Launceston in 1812, but by 1814 Robley had abandoned his wife and children and moved to Ceylon. In 1815, Elizabeth met William Field, with whom she had five sons. Field’s was a colonial success story. Transported to Van Diemen’s Land for selling stolen meat in his butcher’s shop, he became a pastoralist and amassed a fortune. He commissioned Mundy to paint this portrait of his wife as well as portraits of two of his sons and their wives.

Unlike Mundy, Strange did not come to Australia of his free will. A portrait painter and house painter by trade, he was transported to Hobart Town after he was tried in Colchester on 22 June 1837 for breaking and entering a grocery shop and stealing a watch. The name ‘Frederick Strange’ was an alias he assumed at the time of trial, as he was ‘a stranger in the town’. He moved to Launceston in 1841, where he established himself as a portrait painter and drawing master. He participated in the Launceston Art Exhibition in 1851 and advertised lessons in landscape drawing in 1855, offering to make portraits in oils or daguerreotype. He died of rheumatic fever in Launceston on 31 March 1873.

Misses Isabella and Fanny, daughters of the Reverend William Browne c 1845 is a rare double portrait by Strange. It is his finest known portrait. It includes the children’s pet cat on a balustrade, as well as a floral wreath of freshly picked garden flowers, with roses and fuchsias. The portrait is characteristic of Strange’s work: the thin handling of paint and a sophisticated naivety. Like Mundy's portrait of Elizabeth Field, it sits in a superbly moulded frame by the Launceston frame-maker William Wilson.

The father of the two sisters, William Henry Browne (1800–77) was an Irishman and a Church of England clergyman who was appointed colonial chaplain on 27 February 1828 and gazetted to St John’s in Launceston. Stalwart and independent in his Evangelical faith, he was fearless of man and unawed by authority. Browne’s first wife, Caroline, whom he had married in 1829, died in Georgetown on 26 February 1845.

This portrait was likely painted after the girls’ mother died and the wreath they are holding is in memory of her. Isabella Anne was aged 12 at the time, and Fanny Louisa aged 10. The girls support each other in the portrait: Isabella has her right arm over Fanny’s shoulder, and Fanny has her left arm around her sister’s waist. Isabella has a steady gaze and a wan smile. Fanny looks to the left, with a tentative expression, as if seeking support from her sister. It is a powerful image of siblings expressing their closeness and concern for each other.

These portraits by Mundy and Strange can be viewed as part of the Gallery’s display of early Tasmanian colonial art, arranged in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire. Dowling was inspired by the portraits of Henry Mundy and took lessons from Frederick Strange.

Anne Gray Head of Australian Art

in artonview, issue 63, spring 2010 Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

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