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Our founding father

04 Dec 2019

Our founding father Image

By Rhonda Dredge

Artists had their troubles back in the days of Federation as they were conscripted into recording the public life of the new nation.

Tom Roberts was one artist who was commissioned to produce more than 200 likenesses of parliamentarians and VIPs.

It’s on the record that he nearly went mad with the repetitive nature of the job.

The parliamentarians looked pretty similar, if The Opening, Commonwealth Parliament is anything to go by with just six unshaven faces out of more than 100 upstanding gentlemen.

Charles Nuttall was a Melbourne illustrator who was also at the opening of the first parliament in 1901 and he appeared to have relished the job.

In his photogravure of the scene, some 111 gentlemen stand stiffly side by side, facing a group of royal dignitaries with hundreds more in the gallery.

Each parliamentarian has been rendered separately then inserted into his rightful place in the historic tableau like a cardboard cut-out.

If getting everyone right broke the artistic spirit of Tom Roberts, who was paid per likeness in his famous painting now hanging in Canberra, Nuttall appeared to be in his element.

He went on to reproduce the likenesses separately in a series dedicated to “representative” Australians. Now, we might baulk at the dominance of white males.

The parliament print is from the collection of Alfred Deakin, the father of Federation, and is part of an unusual exhibition at Deakin University’s Downtown Gallery.

Exhibits are from the Deakin Library and have been documented but not interpreted so it is up to the individual visitor to put his or her own spin on the show.

If Deakin’s artefacts are anything to go by, our first prime minister was a thoroughly public man.

Most of the items on display are certificates and invitations relating to public life, a precarious time for Deakin in that he lost the office of prime ministership three times in a seven-year period.

Satirists took advantage of this period and one enterprising illustrator got mileage out of this game of political football, producing a postcard with the caption “A Throw-in for Deakin.”

Deakin is depicted in full beard on a footy field in long johns, red socks and a pale green sweater about to catch a football entitled “Office.” There’s an overweight heavily-striped opponent behind him, Sir George Reid, the fourth prime minister.

The exhibition was curated by Kristen Thornton, Special Collections at Deakin Library.

“I wanted to show the range of materials in the collection, so I’ve highlighted Alfred Deakin,” she said. “There’s material that relates to him personally, and to how he managed one of his most significant public achievements – Federation.”

A very special collection, Deakin Downtown, Level 12, Tower 2 Collins Square, 727 Collins St, until December 13.

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