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Making History

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Oil painting of the Union Jack flag being raised on the shore of a bay. Men in colonial military uniform watch on.

DURATION: 03mins 42secs

The Founding of Australia. By Capt Arthur Phillip RN Sydney Cove, Jan 26th 1788, 1937
by Algernon Talmage RA
oil on canvas
presented by Mr Robert O Albert AM, 2000
ML 1222

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Mitchell Librarian

So this curious painting is a re-creation of the foundation, as it is described, of New South Wales on 26th January in 1788. It was conceived probably around 1936, 1937, by a colonial historian, Douglas Hope Johnston, who was a wealthy barrister. He was descended from Colonel Johnston, who arrived on the First Fleet and was a leading figure in early colonial history, and was very proud of his antecedents, as it was said that Colonel Johnston was one of the first Europeans to step ashore in 1788.

In 1937, we were coming up to the sesquicentenary of the establishment of Australia as a European settlement, as a European colony, and this painting was a celebration, I suppose, of European and British achievements over the previous 150 years. It is a re-creation because there is very scant literature about this actual event, the arrival of the ships of the First Fleet into Sydney Cove.

The convicts were kept on their boat but the officers came ashore the evening of the 26th. A flag was raised, which was toasted with some alcohol and a colony was proclaimed, if you like.

Now, it’s rarely mentioned in any of the contemporary texts, this event, but it is clearly something which Johnston, when he was thinking about his own family’s involvement with the establishment of New South Wales, that sense of claiming possession of Australia was this kind of key moment, what would be seen as an honourable moment in British imperial history, and so it was a very deliberate choice by him.

It’s a complete fabrication, though Johnston read all the early accounts to try and re-create it, so the central figure in the painting is in fact Arthur Phillip. It is a picture which celebrates just one tiny aspect of the whole process of invasion and colonisation, without any consideration of any impact that they had on the local Indigenous inhabitants. No Aboriginal people are present, there are no women present, there are no convicts present. It’s just this kind of very masculine celebration of the drama of colonisation.

This is actually a sketch prepared by a British artist called Algernon Talmage to kind of work out the composition, I suppose. Two versions of it were finally worked up. One was a coronation gift, in fact, to King George VI in 1937. The other version has ended up in Parliament House, which is next door to this library.

The paintings, when they were being described in the press, were seen as this kind of national picture of national importance, and it had been displayed in England, on the line, which meant it had prominence in the Royal Academy Exhibition. And that was seen as a huge honour for Australia, that British people recognised our history. And it’s a kind of really interesting picture ‘cause you kind of look at it as a fairly naïve, quirky thing, but at the time it had a power which we cannot, these days, I think, understand., that sense of what the importance of positioning Australia within this kind of empire framework, what it really meant to people.

And, you know, to me it’s a fabulous record. You know, it’s not a record of what happened, but it’s a really important document about how people were thinking about Australia’s position within the British Empire in the kind of 1930s, which changed just so significantly within seven years, after the conclusion of the Second World War. And this is a snapshot of a moment in time of the way Australia - probably the apogee of itself as a white, British society that didn’t allow other perspectives.