True to Life

Oil portrait of an old lady wearing a black dress and lace bonnet tied at her chin with a pink ribbon.

DURATION: 3mins 35secs

Sarah Cobcroft, 1856
by Joseph Backler
presented by Lady Colin Davidson, 1962
ML 169

Mitchell Librarian

This is a portrait of Sarah Cobcraft, who, when it was painted, was 86 years old. She came out to New South Wales in the 1790s as a free woman, but her partner, John Cobcroft, was a convict. It seems she was allowed to travel to New South Wales with him because she had midwifery skills and they were obviously to be valued.

The Cobcrofts were given land at Wilberforce, which they farmed very successfully. They didn’t marry until the 1840s – John Cobcroft and Sarah Smith – and really the only reason they married was so that their property that they had built up together could then easily be distributed amongst children.

When Sarah died she left most of her money to her grandchildren for their education. When we look at the early colonial experience the view of it often is that all these convicts had a terrible time, but for many people, it was an opportunity for them to be incredibly aspirational. They were given access to land, they had decent food, they had a new society in which they could build a new life for themselves. And Sarah, when she signed her will, she signed it with a cross, so she was illiterate, she couldn’t write. Nonetheless, by having access to the property at Wilberforce, by their own initiative and skills they forged a new life for themselves, and the fact that she was leaving her property to her grandchildren for their education is kind of classic social ability behaviour, so she was clearly seeing that she was building something for a family dynasty.

Now, an interesting thing, I think, with this portrait, is that it’s not a flattering depiction. And this probably would have been the first oil painting that she ever could have thought that she would be commissioning. She has chosen as her artist a man called Joseph Backler, who had come out to New South Wales in 1832 as a convict. He was a young man, 18 at the time. He seems to have been a bit of a tearaway. The newspaper accounts of his trial in England suggest that he had essentially defrauded his father, who was quite a well-connected stained-glass window manufacturer who had links to really prominent British artists. But young Joseph, something had gone wrong. He ended up in New South Wales, re-offended in Sydney and was sent up to Port Macquarie. He got into trouble for drunkenness and he ended up for about a year in chains in Port Macquarie.

He came back down to Sydney in the 1840s - he was given a certificate of freedom - and then began a career as an incredibly prolific portrait painter. I have counted about 150, 160 paintings that he’s made, so he’s one of Australia’s most prolific 19th century portrait painters.

He had a very tight client base and the people who employed him were all successful working class, lower middle-class tradesmen. Middle class people never used him and I think although Australians like to see themselves as classless, in fact, particularly in the 19th century, class was a huge issue and where you were in a class position was – you were actually quite firmly fixed there and to move out of it was often seen as very inappropriate behaviour.

So my supposition about a lot of Backler’s clients is that they knew what their circumstances were, they knew they weren’t part of the middle classes, but they wanted to celebrate their success, they wanted to be painted, but they didn’t want to be seen to be moving out of their social sphere. And I think what is fascinating about Backler is, in a way, you actually see what people really look like. There’s no way you would look at this portrait and see Sarah as someone from the middle classes. He didn’t airbrush you, he didn’t put your teeth back in, or anything like that. I think they’re fabulous portraits because you do get a real sense of someone looking back at you who is honestly looking back at you. They’re fascinating things. I love them.