The Gentle Stranger—A Primrose from England Downunder

The Gentle Stranger—A Primrose from England Downunder

Nat Williams tells the stories behind the Library’s treasures

This ambitious lithograph by John Robert Dicksee (1817–1905) was taken from an oil painting by Edward Hopley (1816–1869). The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855 and it purports to describe the momentous arrival of a primrose in the colonies.

An engraving derived from Hopley's painting and the Dicksee lithograph were published in the Illustrated London News on 16 October 1858 along with the following story:

Two or three years ago it was reported in a newspaper of Melbourne, Australia, that an English primrose had been imported in a wardian-case, and would be brought on shore from a ship in the harbour, to be exhibited in the city. The announcement excited a great sensation. Upwards of three thousand people turned out into the streets to see the gentle stranger brought ashore, and the pressure of the crowd was so great that it was found necessary to call out the police to preserve order, and to make a line, through which the primrose might be escorted on shore, to be seen by all her admirers

J.R. Dicksee (lithographer, 1817–1905) after Edward Hopley (painter, 1860–1869), A Primrose from England, 1856, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, nla.cat-vn1672870

Hopley imagines a scene in the ship’s storeroom. The cramped space is densely populated with admiring onlookers and opportunists. With nearly 40 people squeezed into the scene, we can see the hierarchies at play in mid-nineteenth-century colonial society. People are paying an admission fee to witness the unveiled primrose. A burly, bearded armed guard at the door secures the scene, as a cane-waving dandy pays his way in. Prosperous white middle-class onlookers (and a dog) swoon at the fragrance of the primrose, watched closely by various ‘types’: a goldminer, a sailor and an Aboriginal man, who is holding a gun and being conversed with, but ignoring, another ‘type’, the gold rush immigrant. People crowd the door, eager to glimpse the primrose, and a policeman can be seen coming to render assistance. 

A crate, at upper right, is stamped ‘Patent goldwasher’ and carries a label, ‘E Hopley for T W Kennard’, a subtle dedication from the painter of the scene to Thomas William Kennard (1825–1893), the original owner of the oil painting. Hopley clearly knew Kennard as he had painted the prosperous British engineer’s wife in 1854. 

Here, Hopley seems to have been inspired by nativity scenes in which the Christ child is illuminated and central to the composition, being adored by the various characters drawn to him. The newly arrived primrose, a symbol of spring and a memory of home, sits basking in the adulation and nostalgia of those who have been lucky enough to get in first to experience it. This could almost be a scene from a Dickens novel, capturing as it does his great interests in emigration and colonial life and settlement in Australia, replete with symbolic characters for us to learn from.

In this complex image, Hopley, and Dicksee after him, manage to convey the emotional landscape of the immigrant longing for the ‘motherland’, but simultaneously aspiring to make a new and prosperous life on the other side of the world. This is a sentiment not too far removed surely from that experienced by those who voyage to Australia to start again today. The original painting is now held in the Bendigo Art Gallery. It was donated in 1964 by the Lansell family, who were among the city’s most successful mining entrepreneurs.

Nat Williams is the Library's Treasures Curator. The Treasures Curator is supported by Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund.