After life

Looking at the portrait of this young woman, so full of life, you would never think it was painted after her death. But we know the sitter, posed so serenely in this picture, had died six months before it was exhibited at the artist’s Sydney studio in late September 1841.

Imagine if a beloved spouse were suddenly to die — what would you do to secure a lasting visual memorial in the days before photography? Whether this portrait was commissioned early as a life study; or posthumously, following the swiftly unravelling chain of events that led to the loss of her young life, cannot be known with any certainty. What is known is that Maurice Felton’s portrait of 21-year-old Sophia Statham O’Brien was reported to have been painted from a ‘cast taken after her death’ and an ‘engraving said to resemble her’.

Naval surgeon-turned-artist, Maurice Felton (1803–42) may also have officiated at his subject’s demise, in his capacity as a doctor registered to practice in the colony. Sophia died on a Sunday in February, at her home in Brisbane Water. Felton needed to travel several hours from Sydney by steamer to be on hand within the first 24 hours after Sophia’s death to make a plaster cast of her face before rigor mortis contorted her features. During recent conservation work, infra-red photography of the canvas revealed the ‘mask-like’ quality of the artist’s underdrawing. (The portrait had been in extremely poor condition when it was acquired from Sophia’s great-grandson.)

The Library also holds Felton’s Victoria 1st (August, 1841), based on Charles Wainwright’s engraving (1839) of Thomas Sully’s life study of the young monarch (June 1838). Known to have inspected Sully’s work in London, there are striking compositional similarities between these two Felton portraits and both were hung in the artist’s 1841 exhibition. Almost an exact contemporary of Sophia, could this widely-circulated royal image have provided Felton with the perfect body double for his memorial commission? Assuming the same half-turned smiling stance, as if her name has just been called, Sophia is preserved for all eternity as queen of her earthly colonial domain.

Margot Riley
Curator, State Library of NSW

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