George Barrington - The convict celebrity
Speculating on the future
20 November 2015
Rex Nan Kivell (1898-1977) was a great collector and a born speculator. He could see a bargain before others and could sort the wheat from the chaff when it came to making almost daily acquisitions. We know he was obsessed with collecting and publishing portraits of the ‘famous’ and ‘infamous’. We also know that when a story caught his attention, such as the Tichborne case or Captain Wilson on Palau, he would collect in considerable depth to document its dimensions and public reverberations. Here we see another good example of his collecting practices as well as an interesting story. He acquired this beautiful drawing of a young man thoughtfully paused in reading, having written a note to someone, and believed it to be the celebrity actor and transportee-made-good, George Barrington (1755–1804), ‘Prince of Pickpockets’. He appears to have been one of Nan Kivell’s favourite characters. He was an infamous-made-famous figure, born in Ireland in 1755; a skilled pickpocket who avoided the gallows and transportation because of his social connections and charm. He erred once too often, however, and was transported to Sydney in 1791 where, in the fluid social order of the day, he first became high constable at Toongabbie and later superintendent of convicts at Parramatta. His ‘gait and manner’ were described by Captain Watkin Tench as bespeaking ‘liveliness and activity’ and his face was ‘thoughtful and intelligent’, descriptions that seem in accord with the man seen here. Barrington's long stretch of good luck ran out when, debilitated, he left his position in 1800 and died a lunatic four years later.
This elegant drawing is clearly dated 1800, although this may be a later addition. Were it of 1800, and of Barrington, the drawing would depict an ailing person of 45. It clearly records a younger man. Research has indicated that the date of 1800 is in the middle of the 15-year period suggested by the man’s attire and the chair on which he comfortably rests. Nan Kivell suggested that the drawing may have been a preparatory sketch for the printed likeness that accompanied Barrington’s volume, An Account of a Voyage to New South Wales, which in fact he did not write, but which appeared in editions from 1795.
Nan Kivell owned two editions of this account, allowing him to compare the book’s portrait with the one he owned, or he may have had the notion that the subject was Barrington planted in his head by the dealer who sold him the drawing. Barrington’s celebrity spawned a number of ‘ghosted’ volumes and pamphlets and he was synonymous with New South Wales in the public mind in Britain during the first decades of the 1800s. He was someone Nan Kivell had to have in the collection and, having earlier purchased the oil portrait attributed to Sir William Beechey (NK13), books and popular printed images, this charming drawing was too good to resist, even if it didn’t depict the subject.
In a sense, the presence of this item in the collection exemplifies Nan Kivell’s role and his largesse. He collected widely and left it to the future to decide the collection’s worth. The material is there to be enjoyed and sifted through for whatever gems may appear. Clearly this drawing was of considerable appeal; a note on the mount in the collector’s hand tells us that it was stolen from his gallery and replaced with a photograph. He writes that he managed to buy it back a decade later. So, who is this attractive young man?