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An Opus of the Chief

Social.
Oil painting portrait of a smiling bald man with grey moustache, wearing a tan suit.

DURATION: 2mins 10secs

Edward DS Ogilvie, 1894–95
by Tom Roberts
oil on canvas
presented by Mrs Giselda Carson, 1972
ML 687

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Executive Director, Library and Information Services and Dixson Librarian

Tom Roberts, one of the founders of the Heidelberg School, is so well known for his iconic Australian landscapes that his skilful portraiture is often overlooked. Roberts’ accomplished portrait of English-born pastoralist Edward Ogilvie shows him gazing directly at the viewer, and while his image doesn’t quite fill the frame, Ogilvie’s self-satisfied pride certainly does. As a projection of that pride, Roberts’ portrait succeeds perfectly. Ogilvie clearly embodies a sense of importance and confidence in what he has accumulated during a lifetime and takes pleasure in his success.

In 1894, Roberts had visited Ogilvie’s extensive Clarence River property, Yulgilbar. The library holds not only Roberts’ portrait of Ogilvie but also the letter Roberts wrote from Yulgilbar to his close friend Samuel Pring, describing his visit to paint the local Indigenous people who lived and worked at Yulgilbar. He painted a portrait of local woman Maria Little, hung here alongside the portrait of Ogilvie, and then created an opus of the chief, “aged 80, with no sign of mental fatigue, military type in mind and physique. I got along first-rate with him, disagreeing at nearly every point. Painted him in the interior court of the house. They are delighted. It’s more solid than anything I’ve done,” Roberts wrote.

Richly coloured, with a flat, red background, the portrait and letter give an insight not only into Ogilvie’s character, but also Roberts’ approach to the chief. But possibly the most obvious sign of Ogilvie’s character is in the elaborate framing and presentation of his portrait. Following one of Ogilvie’s visits to Italy, it seems he returned to Yulgilbar with this late 17th century elaborately carved and gilded wooden Florentine frame which was then used for Roberts’ portrait. Neither the frame nor the canvas has been altered from their original size, suggesting the portrait was created specifically to fit this frame.