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Bright Illusion

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Oil painting of a woman in a red colonial gown, surrounded by four children.

DURATION: 4mins 8secs

Ann Piper and her children, c 1826
attributed to Augustus Earle
oil on canvas
presented by Mrs B Dale and Mr RH Cox, 1921
ML 672

Full length oil portrait of a man dressed in navy colonial military uniform.

Captain John Piper, c 1826
by Augustus Earle
oil on canvas
presented by Mrs B Dale and Mr RH Cox, 1921
ML 6

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Mitchell Librarian

This painting of Mary Ann Piper and her four children and its pair of their husband and father on the other side of this arch are some of the largest and most striking colonial portraits made. These two portraits were painted by an itinerant artist, Augustus Earle, who was well trained and an experienced artist, and he was commissioned by Captain John Piper.

He’d come to the colony in 1792, where he served as a military officer. He had served in Sydney, then in Norfolk Island, where he met his wife, Mary Ann Piper. He returned to England, then came back to Sydney in 1813. When he left the army and applied to come back to New South Wales, he applied for a civil position, as opposed to a military position, and he was given a number of roles, but one of his roles was the collection of customs and excise, so ships coming in and out of the harbour. And he would take a percentage of the value of their cargo and the value of the imports or exports. And that meant that there was obviously a steady stream of money coming in, and just the way he administered it was possibly either maladministration or an optimistic interpretation of the rules, and that gave him a kind of opportunity to significantly enrich himself.

 He was granted a block of land on Point Piper, which now bears his name, and he built THE most extravagant and luxurious house in the colony, which was known as Henrietta Villa. And the house which you can see in the middle of his portrait, you know, was a leading house in the colony and was said to cost £10,000 to construct, which was a huge sum of money. His wife and children are illustrated inside the house and some sense of its grandeur is evident from that.

Piper – one of his biographers said he was a “master of bright illusion” and I think that probably sums him up. He was charming, friendly, given to grand parties, bonhomie. He was the centre of Sydney’s social life.

The important things, I think, about these two portraits are just the sheer statement they make about Piper’s perception of himself as one of the most important people in Sydney’s society. His wife is dressed in all her finery. She was, in fact, the daughter of a convict, so theoretically should’ve been, by most customs of the day, disbarred from participating in colonial society, but Piper’s wealth and kind of general good nature seems to have overcome that barrier. He himself dresses in a military uniform, which, in fact, he was not entitled to, but he seems to have been a chap who thought he looked good in a uniform.

The only person who had their portrait painted on this scale in the colony was, in fact, the Governor, the Governor of Brisbane, and in a way, Piper is laying claim to a similar prestige within colonial society. So they’re portraits which speak to the way portraiture and paintings themselves can allow people to reposition themselves, to present themselves, as things that possibly they’re not. Colonial society absolutely offered people the access to money, to land, to all sorts of resources that would’ve been denied, clearly, to them in Britain, allowed people to reinvent themselves into the colonial elite. But when a new governor, Governor Darling, arrived in the colony, he began to look into the way Piper had administered his duty as a collector of customs and realised there were irregularities and this kind of façade of wealth began to crumble and he, in fact, was made bankrupt.

His biographers have been very neutral in the way they have viewed his behaviour but it’s hard to think he could have become so wealthy without there being some sense he knew what he was doing. Curiously, when it was revealed that his maladministration had led to significant problems, he held a very nice dinner and then had his servants row him out to the Heads and he jumped overboard to commit suicide. But, of course, his servants weren’t going to let him do that so they hauled him back and he had a very extensive property portfolio which he then sold off and moved to Bathurst and lived a much quieter life in Bathurst. But he did actually, in the end, repay all his debts.