Monday, May 9, 2011

The Little Girl in the Painting

 Please accept my apologies for the poor quality of the illustration. The photograph on which it is based, printed on cardboard,  is over 100 years old, and has been exposed to much deterioration. However, you can view the original oil painting at Newstead House, Brisbane. The volunteers there will be able to tell you the name of the artist, and the subject, but probably not much about who she was, or how it managed to arrive there.
    It was painted in 1901 by the Swedish-born Oscar Friström, the most celebrated portraitist in Queensland at the time, and it represents my aunt, Ruby Isabel Clarise Smith (later Boyle) at the age of five.
    She was born at St Lucia, Brisbane on 3 August 1896. As I shall describe in the following post, my grandfather, Harry Frederick Smith was a wealthy jeweller, whose shop was a well-known landmark in the Brisbane CBD. By 1901 he had already established two new branches in Ipswich and Toowoomba. He had "arrived", and apparently decided to celebrate by commissioning  portraits of his three daughters (at the time): Millicent (9), Ruby (5), and Dorothy (3).
     Why his son, Harry Jr was not included is anybody's guess. Perhaps a fourth fee of 50 guineas was too much even for Harry Sr. To translate that into decimal currency ($105) is to lose sight of reality. Both the cost and standard of living were much lower in those days. According to Thom Blake's calculator, it would have been equivalent to $7,665 in 2016. Contemporary records reveal that the wages of skilled workers, such as manufacturing jewellers ie her father's staff, varied between £1 and £2 [$2 to $4] a week, and they probably did not think themselves hard done by.
    Growing up, Ruby lived the privileged life of the daughter of an upper class home. I regret to say, however, that although she and I were very close - she often lived with us, and I stayed at her home every school holiday - I never thought to ask the questions which would connect the dots of her life. I don't know, for example, where she was educated, or for how long. Unlike my father, she never told anecdotes about any private boarding school - except for one. Her parents separated when she was 13, and my father 10 years younger, so she was provided with a separate room in a convent boarding school in Ipswich where she could take care of him.

Dressed for a part in "The Toreador", aged 18.
    Nor, for that matter, do I know much about her life on the stage. I gather that she and her brother, Harry were involved in amateur dramatics. Indeed, it may have started when they were young children, in view of a family photo of them dressed up as young children. "I could kick my legs as high as a chorus girl," she once said. (Even in old age, they were shapely.) However, the theatre has its seamy side, and she was ultimately advised to give it up.
    Nevertheless, I suspect that Harry continued his association with the stage for much longer. He was associated with members of Sir Benjamin Fuller's vaudeville company, such as Roy Rene ("Mo"), who used to call him. "Young Harry", after his sidekick of the 1920s, and he had a short-lived marriage with one of the team's performers. My brother and I were often entertained by Uncle Harry's renditions of the old music hall comic songs. He and Ruby used to get free tickets to Mo's shows when he was in town. Aunt Ruby also vetoed Dad's proposed joining Fuller's company as a singer, because of his youth.
    She used to be the official escort for her father on vice-regal occasions, and she was one of the society ladies chosen to be presented to the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, during his state visit in 1920. Just two years younger than the playboy prince, she may well have been the most attractive of the women lined up to meet him. He gave her a wink as she was presented to him. We often heard that story, "But," she added - bearing in mind that she was no longer a society lady, but just another old age pensioner - "I never tell this to people outside the family, because they would think I was 'romancing'".
     She also showed us a small newspaper clipping about she had clobbered a shoplifter in a store where she was employed. But that was probably much later. "I was half my life in the jewellery trade," she once said. She assisted in the family business up until 1926, when her father decided to retire and close up shop, and she advised unsuccessfully against it.
     For nine years or so, if I remember correctly, a boyfriend kept her strung along, but when she finally realised he was never going to propose, she dumped him. In 1935 she married Charles Boyle. He was recorded as a salesman on the register, and she as a saleswoman, and it was said there wasn't a wholesaler in Brisbane who failed to send them presents. They became poultry farmers in Brisbane, first at Rocklea, and then at Eight Mile Plains. However, in 1948 they sold up and moved to Sydney to join my newly married parents' bakery business. When I arrived, I became the substitute for the child they never had. Charles turned to piano tuning when the partnership broke up, but it was reformed when the family moved to Glen Innes in 1952. But a couple of weeks after arriving there, Charles suffered a fatal stroke - in our house, on her birthday.
As I knew her, aged 64.

    Returning to Brisbane, she used her background to obtain a sales position with Wallace Bishop, jewellers, which position she occupied until she reached pensionable age. She finally passed away on 12 November 1976, at the age of 80. She had seen a lot of changes in her life.

What About the Painting?
    Wherever she lived, either in our home, or her own, it always occupied a place of honour. In my memory it looms much larger than it really was, because I was little myself at the time.
    The crunch came in the second half of the 1960s, when she announced to the family that she would soon have to leave the flat she had occupied for the last decade. Questions were raised as to what to do with her furniture, and in particular, the painting.
    Now, she had several times taken me to Newstead House which, at the time, served as headquarters for the Queensland Historical Society. Half of the building was taken up with displays of the society, including two beautiful portraits of Aborigines by Oscar Friström. (They are now on display at the Queensland Art Gallery.) "Why don't you," I suggested, "donate it to Newstead House."
    All agreed it was a good idea. It was even suggested the Newstead House might be able to have it restored, for some of the paint was beginning to peel. (Unfortunately, that turned out to be a vain hope.)
    The upshot was that, shortly afterwards, she and I arrived at Newstead House without any prior announcement, and handed over the painting. They got her to sign the book reserved for important visitors, and I, with my teenaged hubris, added my own. That was how the portrait came into the possession of Newstead House - but I would need to pore through my teenage diaries to find the exact date. The House decided to use it as the start of a collection of childhood artifacts in the Girl's Room.

What About the Other Paintings?
    Aunt Dorothy did not like her portrait. She burned it. Aunt Millicent's portrait devolved to her daughter, Betty Dunn. Betty had no children, and I always assumed that it had disappeared when she passed away in 1994. However, recent information is that her friend, the sculptor Rhyl Hinwood, recognizing its historic value, arranged for it to be donated it to the Queensland Art Gallery in 2000. It has since been conserved and reframed, but is not currently on display.
    But a record of Aunt Ruby's girlhood is on display at one of Queensland's most popular stately homes, and will probably remain there long after she, and the family, have been forgotten.
    And at least I can boast some small part in its being there.