Prior to his own untimely death in 1842, Felton was the colony’s foremost portrait painter. His oil on canvas portraits were desirable symbols of success for a colonial clientele seeking assurance of their status. Set in ornate gold frames (many supplied by the artist’s brother-in-law Solomon Lewis) Felton’s attentive rendering of fashionable trappings confirmed his sitters’ aspirations and pretensions. Close examination of this painting has revealed a ‘back-of-the-canvas’ inscription, of the type found on most of Felton’s portraits, which confirms its title: ‘Mrs F. O’Brien painted by Maurice Felton/ Surgeon Sydney. 1841.’
On 23 September 1841, the Herald described this painting as ‘an excellent likeness of […] Mrs O’Brien […] drawn partly from a cast taken shortly after her death and an engraving said to resemble her’. Creating a death mask to perpetuate the memory of a loved one was not uncommon for wealthy families in the Victorian era. Some were produced as standalone artworks; others served as aides memoire for portrait busts or paintings. What is exceptional about this colonial portrait is that its creation after the sitter’s death can be confirmed.
Timing was of the essence in dealing with the dead. A plaster mask had to be made within 24 hours, while the facial muscles were still relaxed and the expression serene. The plaster was applied carefully to record details of the face, then allowed to dry, and usually removed in three pieces.
Given the distance of the O’Brien’s home from Sydney, it’s also possible that Felton officiated as a medical practitioner at Sophia’s demise, before preparing her death mask. No doubt his surgeon’s knowledge of anatomy came in useful while rendering her portrait in the following months.