Yes, as far as we know, she was the first nude and she was beautiful. Her name was Mary Ann.
Once a month or so, of a Sunday morning, I take the drive into Salamnca. There I contentedly potter around the shops and galleries. Occasionally I’ll visit the TMAG as well. One such morn of note, back in October, was just so glorious it made me feel buoyant. Often spring in Hobs is little more than a continuation of winter but, as I strode around my regular haunts, wafting in my nostrils, as well as a tinge of blossom, there was the hint of the summer to come. This was so the case that, before I headed off to the museum in my search, some of my outer layers were dispensed with. People were out and about, no doubt thinking winter had been banished for another year. The first cruise liner of the season was in port and I was on my way looking for Mary Ann.
Before all that, though, I visited the RACT Insurance Tasmanian Portraiture Prize, an annual showing at the Long Gallery. Established and emerging artists/photographers displayed their prowess here and yet again I marvelled at the talent our island state possesses, as I did when I later diverted to the Brooke Street Pier.
The Foundry is a new artistic space on the upper level of the floating attraction. The Tasmanian Photography Exhibition 2018 was being held there for the first time and I could only stand and wonder at some of the images presented. Again I wished I had similar technical mastery with my humble attempts at the skill. And again it bought home just how lucky we are to live on this scenic jewel of an island.
Then I was off to meet Mary Ann. She was waiting for me at the gates of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, naked, fluttering in the breeze in all her glory. She was welcoming me inside to view her in various unclad poses.
There followed a fascinating couple of hours that Sunday morning during which most of it was spent with colonial convict dauber Thomas Bock. He is best known for his 1842 rendering of Marthinna, posing in her red dress. The tragic story of the Aboriginal lass has been bought to life in Richard Flanagan’s ‘Wanting’. There were also his portraits of other First Tasmanians; portraits that have been so beneficial to our knowledge of this island’s original owners. Mostly I’d seen them all before, but I had never laid eyes on Mary Anne.
It’s an easy on-line search to find the details of the life of Thomas Bock (1790-1865). He made an extensive contribution to early Tasmanian society, first as a felon gifted with a certain amount of freedom due to his talents, but later as a free man. It was his private life, though, that fascinated me. Before his transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, in 1823, this trained engraver was married to Charity, with whom he sired five offspring. He also had an affair going on that would land him in deep water. Ann Yates was only 17 years old and he managed to get her in the family way. Hoping to keep himself out of trouble with the missus he conspired to procure for his young mistress a termination using the assistance of one Mary Day Underhill. The pair, Bock and Underhill, were both shopped to the authorities and suffered the same fate of shipment to New South Wales.
The artist’s skills were soon in demand on reaching VDL. Lady Jane Franklin was a source of income and he was used at the mortuary to sketch the faces of the recently deceased. I was incredibly touched by one such of a little baby. Another, of the cannibalistic Alexander Pearce, is well known. Bock also became one of the first skilled practitioners of photography in the colony.
Mary Anne had a wall to herself in the exhibition – and so she should have. She must have been a remarkable woman. Bock was, during his time on the island, in a long term relationship with her and she gifted him another seven children. And she also lovingly, we hope, exposed her body for him to sketch, thus giving us our first nudes of a European woman in the colony, as far as we can discern. She was also of convict stock, but her partner’s tender, exquisite drawings of her are so intimate. I doubt very much if they were intended for wider consumption, but who knows? It did seem that, in his maturity, the artist mended his ways for, on hearing of his wife’s death back in England, he made an honest woman of Mary Ann. These beautiful contributions to the artistic heritage of Tasmania were drawn around 1840. They are small, delicate and quite mesmerising. I was moved by Mary Ann.
I read that Bock died not exactly the wealthiest of men, but the community of the city rallied around his widow, putting together the first exhibition of his works to provide her with funds for herself and his large brood. Several of those went on, in their father’s footsteps, to enter into artistic endeavours as well.
Mary Ann, you must have been something really special.