HERITAGE TREASURES (Number 88)
By Brian Andrews, Archdiocese of Hobart Heritage Officer
The Archdiocese of Hobart has two large important oil paintings executed in London by the major early expatriate American artist Mather Brown (1761–1831). These works, The Resurrection and The Adoration of the Wise Men, painted using live models, are by a man whose portraits of the second and third American presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson respectively, are regarded as major items in the iconography of the United States of America. His large historical compositions, including a series based on the British war in India, brought increased recognition when engraved as prints.
Although initially highly successful, his fortunes changed with the wartime economic depression of the early 1800s. A devout man, many of his latter paintings were of biblical subjects. Two of the last were The Resurrection and The Adoration of the Wise Men. Both were huge works over three and a half metres high. The Resurrection was painted in 1830 and exhibited at the British Institution, London, No. 480. In a letter of 6 July 1830 Brown wrote: “I have recently completed [sic] an historical Painting twelve feet high, representing the Resurrection of our blessed Saviour, with many figures, which was placed in a centre situation in the [British] Institution Pall Mall …”. Brown’s biographer, Professor Dorinda Evans, has written that “The Resurrection is absolutely characteristic of Mather Brown’s late work and very much influenced by the precedent of Benjamin West”. West was a renowned American painter under whom he studied during his early years in London.
Mather Brown died on 25 May 1831, leaving all but two of his unsold paintings to “William Henry Back the pupil of Mr Thomas Christopher Hofland (in whose house I now reside)”. Two of these, The Adoration of the Wise Men and The Resurrection, were shipped to Van Diemen’s Land in 1838.
The Adoration of the Wise Men was purchased for the then huge sum of 200 pounds for the one-year-old St John’s Church, Richmond. Of The Resurrection, the Hobart Colonial Times for 22 May 1838 had the following to say: “The price is so moderate—only ₤65—that we cannot, for a moment, suppose, The Resurrection will be allowed to leave the Colony. The inhabitants of Richmond have shown a good example in the purchase of one. Let us, of Hobart Town, follow that example, and purchase the other; it would ample adorn any religious edifice in the Colony.”
The Resurrection was indeed acquired for 65 pounds and hung in Fr Therry’s temporary chapel, finding a permanent home in St Joseph’s upon the building’s completion in December 1841. From 1856 it had a painted and stencilled ‘frame’ surrounding it on the chancel east wall, visually ‘anchoring’ it in place. This was over-painted with a different decorative scheme by the Hobart architect George Fagg in 1896 and then completely painted out in the first half of the twentieth century.