Myth-busting Trove corrects record

Myth-busting Trove corrects record
Parliament researchers jog House’s fading memory
22 May 2017

old building

Parliament House, Spring Street, Melbourne at the time of the Federation celebrations, May 1901.

The truth is out there – just waiting for Trove to find it.

Trove is proving to be more than just a vicarious time machine or a research tool, its users are discovering real power in the way it can set the record straight and bust myths.

Despite the keeping of records and writing of newspaper articles, memories fade, files gather dust and stories grow in fertile imaginations where detail is lacking.

Even in a place like the Parliament of Victoria, or maybe because of what it is, erroneous tales can prosper and the facts can be glossed over, if not completely dispensed with.

Coordinator, Heritage and Collections at the Parliament, Victoria Spicer has found Trove invaluable in solving some mysteries and correcting some longstanding errors of record, which has meant the Parliament’s tour guides have had to rewrite some of their material.

Researching the recent exhibition, Something Borrowed, 1901-27, the Federal Years at Victoria’s Parliament House, Ms Spicer discovered the guides had it wrong about how the Parliamentary Library’s treasured crystal chandelier had been assembled from three chandeliers left in a box after being taken out of the Legislative Council when the Federal Parliament left for Canberra.

“The largest of the three chandeliers was put in to the Library, and we discovered that from Trove because it was reported in quite a few newspapers at the time,’’ Ms Spicer said.

 Then there is the portrait of Sir James Patterson, 17th Premier of Victoria, painted by Gordon Coutts in 1893.

Until 2015, the Parliament did not know that the commission, from friends and admirers of the Premier, had in fact gone to another artist W. Lorck, who had promptly outsourced the work to Coutts, then an unknown student doing a nice line in third-party portraiture.

painting of bearded man

The portrait of Sir James Patterson, 17th Premier of Victoria, painted by Gordon Coutts, oil on canvas, 1893.

Six weeks after its unveiling, at which Lorck had gracefully acknowledged the high compliments paid to his artistic talents, The Argus revealed that Lorck, whose name appeared in artistic characters in the left-hand top corner of the picture, did not paint the picture at all.

“Lorck had signed his name to the portrait, turned up to the unveiling, accepted the toasts and then the Argus uncovered the real story, that it had been in fact painted by somebody else,’’ she said.

The enterprising Coutts had not even met the Premier but painted the portrait in two weeks from a photograph.

The portrait, with Coutts’ signature in the bottom right-hand corner, now hangs in Premiers’ Corridor, and Coutts went on to achieve fame as an artist.

Trove also solved the mystery of who was depicted in two portraits found in a cupboard at Spring Street.

 “We were actually able to match one of them to photos in our collection but we verified that this was in fact the correct gentleman from newspaper articles – we could tie the artist to this particular portrait and there was a record of the unveiling,’’ she said.

 It was in fact T.G. Watson, whose esteemed career at Parliament (1882-1912) included being Clerk of the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly. He also compiled The First Fifty Years of Responsible Government in Victoria.

The truth will out eventually they say but now it’s got a whole lot harder for it to hide.

The Trove Roadshow rolls into Melbourne on Thursday, when you can learn how your collection can join millions of others in the treasure that is Trove.

Find out where the Roadshow is heading here – and book in to join in if we are coming to a town or city near you.