Hawkesbury Nightscape (2010). Hawkesbury City Council Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2011. On display, Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Windsor, NSW.
EVER since the mid-19th century, mystery has surrounded a missing portrait of Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821. Commissioned by the residents of the area around the Hawkesbury River in appreciation of the governor, there is speculation that the portrait went missing after it was stowed on a ship bound for Australia from London.
On October 10, 1823, Macquarie wrote to his friend Richard Fitzgerald, who lived in Windsor, NSW: ‘‘ I have had my portrait painted lately, and after being handsomely framed and carefully packed up first in tin and afterwards in a strong wooden case, it has been shipped off a few days ago for New South Wales ... I hope it will come safe to hand, as it is an excellent likeness. Be so good as to write to me when it arrives.’’
The portrait was addressed to Fitzgerald and to the chief magistrate of the Hawkesbury district, William Cox, but once it had been dispatched from London, it seems there was no further trace of the painting.
‘‘ At the time of writing, Macquarie did not know the name of the ship and there is no record of the portrait arriving in the colony or any further contemporary reference to it,’’ according to Warwick Hirst, curator of a NSW State Library exhibition about Macquarie’s governorship.
But there’s a twist to the story: some insist that the portrait made it to Australia and that it is the one hanging district courthouse.
‘‘ Despite the lack of firm evidence, a resilient local tradition, dating back at least to the mid-1800s, asserts that this missing portrait is in fact the one in the Windsor Courthouse,’’ Hirst says, adding that the claim remains unsubstantiated.’’
Whether or not it is Macquarie, the portrait remains a popular drawcard at the Windsor Courthouse and it was the inspiration for an exhibition, Interpreting Portraits: Macquarie 1810-2010, which examined Macquarie’s importance to the colony.
One painting that was commissioned for that exhibition and which now forms part of the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery collection is Guy Maestri’s six-panelled Hawkesbury Nightscape.
Maestri, who was born in Mudgee, NSW, in 1974 was referred to the courthouse portrait as a starting point. Although best known for works based on his observations of environmental impact, he says that once a year he does a portrait, and in 2009 he won the Archibald Prize for his depiction of indigenous musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
In Hawkesbury nightscape, Maestri features evocative, rather ghostly, miniature portraits of Macquarie and his wife, Elizabeth. They are set against a landscape of mountains, clouds, and the dark foreboding of the Hawkesbury River as night falls.
According to the exhibition’s curator, Kathleen von Witt, Maestri’s painting is commenting about Macquarie’s reliance on the Hawkesbury River, with its rich alluvial soil, and the difficulty of managing a fledging colony in a ‘‘ new’’ continent.
‘‘ Maestri’s work also has yet another layer of sensitivity as he makes a comment about Macquarie’s family life,’’ she says. ‘‘ Each of the six panels can be seen to represent one of the six miscarriages that Elizabeth endured before successfully giving birth to Lachlan Jr, thus further illustrating the connection Macquarie had to the Hawkesbury.’’
When I visit the gallery at Windsor, I’m shown Hawkesbury Nightscape by curator Tia McIntyre, who says the picture represents an ancient river carving its way to the sea and a formidable couple shaping the destiny of a nation. ‘‘ Maestri’s masterful use of tone forever entombs the couple in the centre of this vast painting and in turn suggests that the Macquaries have become a part of the mountains forever, eternally a part of the landscape they had such an influence over. Their legacy shaped the landscape and social history of Australia, giving this painting national significance.’’
Oil on linen. Six panels, 107cm x