Benjamin LAW, Woureddy, an Aboriginal chief of Van Diemen's Land Enlarge 1 /1

Benjamin LAW

England 1807 – Melbourne, Australia 1882

  • Australia from 1835

Woureddy, an Aboriginal chief of Van Diemen's Land 1835 Place made: Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, cast plaster, painted Place Published: Hobart

Primary Insc: Signed and dated across rear of bust support column 'B.LAW.SCULPT./.../ 1836'. s Secondary inscriptions: Inscribed across rear of bust support column 'WOUREDDY./AN/ABORIGINAL CHIEF/ OF V.D.L./.../HOBART TOWN./.../.'
Dimensions: 75.0 h x 48.3 w x 27.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.3041

Benjamin Law’s busts of Woureddy and Trucaninny, two of the most celebrated Tamanian Aboriginal people of the 1830s, are the earliest major pieces of Australian sculpture. Woureddy sat for Law at the start of 1835 and, by April, his bust was ready. Trucaninny probably sat a few months later, though Law may only have completed her bust the following year.

Law’s contemporaries recognised that these busts were accomplished works of art but valued them primarily as ethnographic records. When the conciliator of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, George Augustus Robinson, described the bust of Woureddy in 1835, he noted that it recorded the appearance of the Aboriginal people in their ‘primitive state’.1 A few years later, the Polish scientist John Lhotsky observed that the busts were ‘of full size, perfect likenesses ... As the race of the natives of this island is nearly extinguished, these casts will retain a constant historical value’.2

The difference between the two sculptures is profound. Law’s bust of Woureddy gives no hint of the decimation of the Tasmanians. As noted by Mary Mackay, it shows Woureddy ‘as hunter, warrior and man-in-command, a Greek hero in kangaroo skin’.3 Law’s bust of Trucaninny, who saw her mother killed by a white settler and her first husband murdered by two sealers, is probably the most emotional colonial portrait of an Aboriginal person. According to one colonial account, she is ‘sorrowing, mourning the slain members of her family and race’.4

Tim Bonyhady5

1 Daniel Thomas (ed.), Creating Australia: 200 years of art 1788–1988, Sydney: International Cultural Corporation of Australia, 1988, p.92.

2 ibid., p.92.

3 ibid.,p.93

4   ibid., p.93.

5 Text edited from Daniel Thomas (ed.), Creating Australia: 200 years of art 1788–1988, Sydney: International Cultural Corporation of Australia, 1988, pp.92–93.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002