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Buried deep down in the cool darkness of the Library’s framed picture store hangs a beautiful portrait of the young Mrs F O’Brien. It was painted in mid-1841 by naval surgeon-turned artist Maurice Felton from a death mask.
On 10 February 1841, a special black-bordered issue of the Sydney Monitor announced the death of 21-year-old Sophia Statham O’Brien, ‘beloved wife’ of the newspaper’s proprietor, Francis O’Brien, and third daughter of its founder, Edward Smith Hall.
The Hall, Statham and O’Brien families were interconnected by friendship, community, business and marriage. Edward Smith Hall had started the Monitor in 1826 but, within a few short years of publishing his strong views, he was deluged with actions for libel — and even spent a term or two in gaol. On 18 June 1838, Francis O’Brien and Edwyn Henry Statham — Hall’s nephew and the NSW Government Printer (1836–41) — introduced themselves as the new editors of the re-branded Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser. The two men cited their ‘many years’ experience in conducting ‘the Press’, noting that Hall would continue to write ‘the political and agricultural articles’.
Soon after, on 23 October 1839, Francis O’Brien married Sophia Statham Hall, his business partner’s cousin, by special licence at St Phillip’s Church, Sydney. Their son, Francis, was born ten months later, in August 1840.
The couple lived at the O’Brien estate, ‘North Dapto’, about 50 km north of Sydney at Brisbane Water, near the township of Gosford. Conrad Martens captured the area in his 1848 painting Brush Scene at Brisbane Water. O’Brien stated, in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1846, that ‘The scenery is allowed to be equal to any in the colony’, and went on to describe his home as being ‘fit for the occupation of a gentleman's family, for which it was built, at a large outlay. It has a frontage of half a mile to Brisbane Water, with a good depth for the Sydney Packets, which pass daily.’
According to family folklore passed down to an O’Brien descendant, Sophia’s father had warned that his daughter did not have the constitution to withstand the physical demands of marriage, and it seems his prediction became fact. The young bride survived for less than two years. Mr O’Brien was left with an infant son to raise, and is probably responsible for commissioning Maurice Felton to paint the posthumous portrait of Sophia O’Brien now held at the Library.
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.
The subject is depicted with a favourite pet — a smooth-coated, piebald (brown/white) greyhound, perhaps of the Australian-bred type known as a ‘Kangaroo dog’. She wears a necklet of pearls — one of the few jewels, along with diamonds and jet, permitted for mourning attire — and a gold longuard ‘watch chain’ of unusually heavy linkage (more commonly associated with the Georgian period, possibly an heirloom piece). Her off-the-shoulder black-and-white evening gown is in a ‘classical’ style, rather than the prevailing fashion, lending an air of timelessness to the image.
Felton painted many society portraits in the few years of his colonial residence, and his painting of Mrs O’Brien employs a familiar composition. The subject is posed at a slight angle, offering a display of her womanly curves, and looks towards the painter or viewer. She appears clear-eyed, with a peaceful expression on her heart-shaped visage, surrounded by glossy ringlets. Set amongst foliage with a view to the distance, she stands beside an iconic-fluted sandstone column, a popular feature of nineteenth century Australian domestic architecture.
Memorial portraits were often kept in a prominent place in the home as a vivid reminder of the mourner’s loss. The condition of this portrait at the time of its purchase in 1975 suggested that it had been hung over a fireplace for an extended period.
Two years after his wife’s death, on 15 March 1843, Francis O’Brien married Sophia’s younger sister Georgiana Elizabeth at ‘North Dapto’. But the O’Briens did not remain in the district much longer. Perhaps prompted by past associations or the 1840s economic depression, the ‘Banana Plantation, Garden, and Gentlemen’s Residence, situate[d] at Brisbane Water’ was available for lease by December 1846.
Early in 1851, members of the extended Hall/O’Brien clan took up residence at an 80 hectare property at Bondi Beach known as The Homestead. Young Francis attended Sydney Grammar School and was later among the first crop of full graduates of the University of Sydney. He lived a long life and also fathered a son — the next elder son in a succession of four generations of O’Briens to be named for his father.
The second Mrs O’Brien also died young, and was probably laid to rest alongside her sister in the family’s mausoleum built at their Bondi estate. This tomb was a great source of interest for visitors to the area until vandals began stripping the lead coverings of the coffins for sinkers. The Library purchased a pencil drawing of this structure — attributed to Georgina Sophia O’Brien (named for her aunt, but known as ‘Sophie’) — along with the portrait in 1975 from Sophia’s great-grandson, Francis William Hall O’Brien.
The mausoleum at Bondi was demolished in 1928 and approximately 17 bodies were reinterred under the O’Brien family monument, facing the sea at Waverley Cemetery. Recent inspection of the monument’s long inscription confirms that this was, indeed, Sophia’s final resting place.
Curator, Research and Discovery