Harriet and Julia Swan were daughters of the successful colonial merchant John Swan (1796–1858), who arrived in Hobart around 1823.Despite being shunned by some as a shifty character (in England he had been tried for and acquitted of receiving stolen goods), Swan became a wealthy and notable member of the Hobart community via his property and business interests. Around 1826, he established Swan’s Stores, on Elizabeth Street; by the end of the decade it was one of Hobart’s best shops, trading in clothing, millinery, fabrics (‘which for quality and fashion have never been equalled in the colony’) and also ‘household furniture and upholstery of the best description’. Swan and his wife Mary Anne (née Cameron, 1800– 1869) had fourteen children. Harriet (1826–1853) and Julia (1834–1853) were the fifth and eighth respectively of the Swans’ nine daughters. Harriet married an army officer named Edmund Isdell in Hobart in December 1850. Her first child, a daughter, was born at the Swan family home, Beaulieu, in present-day North Hobart, in December the following year. In July 1853, Harriet gave birth to a son but died a fortnight later, presumably of complications arising from childbirth. Julia died of scarlet fever, aged nineteen, at Beaulieu on 6 August 1853, a week after the death of her sister.
Before being purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2013, these portraits were owned by a private collector who had acquired them directly from a descendant of Maria Swan, one of Harriet and Julia’s many sisters. The portraits were held by family tradition to have been painted by Thomas Bock (1790–1855), a miniature painter and engraver who in 1823 was sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for fourteen years. Bock had earned his freedom by 1833 and thereafter succeeded in becoming one of the colony’s most successful artists, his portrait- painting skills – and the demand for them in a prosperous, parvenu society – being such that the taint of his convict background could be easily overlooked by prominent and respectable patrons.