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Sketch Portrait of Sir Alex Onslow

Tom Roberts1896

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
Canberra, Australia

Sir Alexander Campbell Onslow (1842–1908), judge, was educated at Cambridge and practised law in England before being appointed attorney-general of British Honduras in 1878. In 1880 he arrived in Western Australia, then under the governorship of William Robinson, to become attorney-general there. Suffering ill health almost from the day he arrived, he took his seat as chief justice in 1883. By 1884 he had severely antagonised the new governor, Broome. Tensions between them involving interpretation of Colonial Office instructions escalated until, in 1887, Broome interdicted Onslow from the exercise of his office. Onslow became a hero to anti-government factions, who burned Broome in effigy and were jubilant when the Colonial Office lifted Onslow’s suspension. He returned to the bench in May 1888, but fell into another imbroglio when the proprietors of the West Australian and the Western Mail accused him of open prejudice against them. Broome held an inquiry in Executive Council, at which Onslow defended himself, but there was no outcome. After other avenues of inquiry were canvassed unsuccessfully, the matter was passed to the Legislative Council, which found that Onslow’s occupancy of his present position was an impediment to ‘peace and harmony’ in the colony. Onslow took nearly a year’s leave. However, he returned to the bench in 1891, welcomed by the reinstated Robinson and a conciliatory West Australian. Throughout his remaining years in office, he discharged his duties competently. Retiring in ill health in 1901, he returned to England for the last seven years of his life.

Tom Roberts’s (1856–1931) painting of Onslow appears to be a life sketch for a more formal commission that seems never to have eventuated; it was unknown to Roberts scholars before it emerged at auction in 2006. According to Sotheby’s, it was painted in Sydney, where Onslow was knighted in 1895, and where Roberts may have met him through judicial or musical connections.

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