Australian Politicians, c. 1887
How did Australian politicians of the nineteenth century campaign, in the days before today’s pervasive electronic media? They went to where people gathered in their daily lives, and held political meetings in gathering places such as pubs, Mechanic’s Institutes, and open air venues such as a local park or even under a particular tree. These weren’t always mass meetings. Many, possibly the majority, were of small groups of people.
The museum has recently acquired a rare picture of one such meeting in a pub, by the artist William Wadham.
The work shows two men addressing a small group of onlookers – all apparently men - and is set within a simply furnished slab-sided pub, possibly in the bush. The painting is likely to date from about 1887, when the artist appears to have been working in Victoria. One speaker is reading from a book or a pamphlet, while the other is possibly underlining his points. They look as if they are working together, and the title may refer only to them. However APMC Fellow and historian Dr John Hirst suggests that the title might refer to the entire group, and that it may be satirical. The period was one of considerable political change, leading up to the formation of the first mass unions and the industrial troubles of the 1890s. It is possible the speakers depicted here are campaigning in this context, or they might simply be involved in an election campaign.
William Joseph Wadham was born in the UK in 1864 and emigrated to Australia in 1885, first settling in Adelaide. He made a living as a prominent artist in the Adelaide art scene in the late 1800s and as a dealer, exhibiting in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, and in the UK, and travelling regularly between Australia and Europe.
Many of his Australian sales were of English scenes, and vice versa. He also worked in Western Australia and New Zealand. Although most of his recorded works are landscapes, he also painted mining scenes, and it is also possible that this work is set in a pub in a mining or industrial area, signified by the hammer on the floor. Research by the art historian Stephen Scheding suggests this work may previously have been known as ‘Tavern Scene’, but reframing in 2009 brought to light a much older title on the rear of the work – ‘Australian Politicians’.