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Long-standing mystery solved

The painting of Geelong’s first Town Clerk, William Weire, normally adorns the corridors of City Hall but detective work uncovering the identity of the artist has led to the painting going on loan to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania.

The identity of the artist who captured the portrait of William Weire in Launceston in the late 1830s has remained unknown for more than a hundred years. Through an unusual turn of events, Mark Beasley, Manager of the Geelong Heritage Centre, has with the help of staff from the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) been able to identify the mysterious early colonial artist.

Having hung in the corridors of City Hall for many years the painting was in need of cleaning and repair to a small tear in canvas. It was during this repair and removal from its frame that some handwritten notes were uncovered. Included in the earliest of the written records was the word ‘Strange’.

Investigations into the meaning of the word ‘Strange’ led Mark to Yvonne Adkins, Honorary Research Associate at QVMAG who was very excited to hear of the portrait and the name Strange on the back. Yvonne, by coincidence, was in the process of researching the life and works of the artist Frederick Strange in preparation for an exhibition of the works of the artist. Yvonne travelled from Launceston in order to inspect the painting and on finding that the portrait may have been painted by Strange, requested the inclusion of the painting in the QVMAG exhibition, The Enigmatic Mr Strange.

Further mystery surrounds the origins of the portrait with the discovery that both William Weire and Frederick Strange were originally sentenced to be transported to Van Dieman’s Land from England making the painting likely to be a portrait of a convict by a convict.

Gaining his ticket of leave for good behaviour in 1841, Strange became recognised for his portraiture and landscapes although he also remains known for his mysterious demeanour. He rarely signed his works which is the case with the portrait of William Weire.

Having served his time, William Weire was granted unconditional freedom and successfully worked his way into influential local Launceston business and society circles ahead of leaving for Geelong in 1848 and being made the first Town Clerk for the newly formed Town of Geelong Council in 1850. He oversaw an incredible period of the earliest development of the Town of Geelong including the first migrant arrivals and the dramatic change that came with the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s. The ex-convict turned Town Clerk was to read the formal welcome address to HRH Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Alexandra on the occasion of Geelong’s first royal visit.

The Enigmatic Mr Strange exhibition is on show at QVMAG in Launceston until 5 November 2017 after which the portrait of William Weire will be packed up and transported once again to Geelong. The Geelong Heritage Centre currently has on display a number of historic items including formal clothing that was worn by William Weire in his role of Town Clerk and a 19th century Family Bible that William Weire presented to his son Austin Batman Weire on the occasion of his 19th birthday.

The portrait of William Weire was originally gifted to the City of Geelong by the Weire family in 1961. Just as its subject had travelled long distances before settling in Geelong, the portrait has now travelled back to the island on which the convict first arrived ahead of being welcomed back to Geelong and the corridors of City Hall later this year.

The Chair of the Geelong Regional Library Corporation, Cr Margot Smith, has commended Mark Beasley and the staff of the Geelong Heritage Centre for their solving of this long-term mystery.

“This work is exactly what the Heritage Centre is about” Cr Smith says. “By uncovering the likely identity of the artist, Mark and the team have unleashed a whole string of strange coincidences and added rich details to the history of the Geelong region.”

“This type of research enables rich story telling about past lives and helps to bring history to life for the community.”

“Who knows what other skeletons we have hiding in cupboards just waiting for our Heritage Centre detectives to come along and shine a light on long forgotten but important stories of our past?”

Image of Yvonne Adkins with the portrait courtesy of Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery

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