Sunday, April 26, 2020

A seldom-seen image of Mathinna

©Trustees of the British Museum
The sad lot of Mathinna, an indigenous Australian girl who was adopted and later abandoned by Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane, haunts the edges of their historical legacy, posing uncomfortable questions and standing as a symbol of the colonial presence in Tasmania -- one which led to the near-genocide of the indigenous population.

For many years, most people's image Mathinna has shaped by Thomas Bock's well-known watercolor portrait, showing an almost-smiling girl wearing a red dress that had been given her by Lady Franklin. And yet now, from the archives of the British Museum, another, much less well-known portrait has emerged. A drawing by John Skinner Prout, it's monochromatic except for Mathinna's face, arms, and feet -- this may yet be the red dress, but its color has gone. It was among a series of portraits made in February and March of 1845 on Flinders Island; by that time, Mathinna's erstwhile adopted parents were long gone back to England, and Sir John was getting ready for what would be his final, fatal voyage. There is no smile on this girl's face, but there does seem to be a kind of clear-eyed reflection on her circumstances, and those of her people.

The portrait was among a series that Prout brought back to England, which he sold to Joseph Barnard Davis; when Davis died in 1881, he willed the collection to the British Museum. Davis, who himself has served as a surgeon aboard an Arctic voyage, may have been interested in the Franklin connection, but more pertinently it fit with his collector's interest in ethnographic portraiture; a special interest was early skulls from the British Isles. It was not published or widely known, and although several of Prout's portraits were exhibited in Tasmania in 2019 as part of an exhibition, "The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania's Black War," it's not clear whether his sketch of Mathinna was included. I reached out to Booker-Prize-winning Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan -- whose 2009 novel Wanting took up Mathinna's story -- he told me that he had "never seen the image, nor heard of it," calling it "beautiful and enigmatic." It's a small example of how sometimes, even work that has been consigned to the careful care of a national museum can lie hidden in plain sight.


  1. There are, I fear, very few of Britain's colonial heroes/antiheroes' stories that aren't tainted by stories such as this - most of which of course there will be even less record.

    Richard Flanagan's work is fabulous. Delighted to see him mentioned here.

  2. Davis did not will the collection to the British Museum. It was sold at auction in 1883 by Sotheby's and many items were acquired by A W Franks, British Museum keeper, for the BM collections.