Benjamin LAW, Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy Enlarge 1 /2
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Benjamin LAW

England 1807 – Melbourne, Australia 1882

  • Australia from 1835

Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy [Trucaninny, wife of Wouraddy] 1836 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.SCULP./.../A.D. 1836.' Inscribed 'TRUCANINNY./WIFE OF WOURADDY./.../HOBART TOWN./...'
Dimensions: 66.0 h x 42.5 w x 25.7 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.3042

Benjamin Law’s colonial portrait bust Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy is one of his most important works and one of the earliest known colonial sculptural portraits in Australian art. The grandson of a Sheffield silversmith, Law departed London in 1834 and arrived in Hobart in February 1835, hopeful of establishing a thriving studio in Van Diemen’s Land. Instead, he found a colony in its infancy with little call for the fine arts but significant bloodshed and loss from the tragic, ongoing conflict between the settlers and the Indigenous people. Within months of arrival he modelled from life the bust of Palawa chief Woureddy and a year later he completed its powerful companion, Trucaninny.

Born in 1812, Trucaninny was the daughter of Mangana, chief of the Bruny Island people whose country also included the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. As a young woman Trucaninny had seen her mother being killed by whalers, her husband-to-be shot and her two sisters abducted to Kangaroo Island. Regardless, she played a crucial role in the attempted ‘conciliation’ process in Tasmania. Law sculpted Trucaninny’s portrait at this time, her brow furrowed by her own and her people’s pain. Around her neck is an exquisitely laced maireener shell necklace.

Aboriginal women continue to gather shells from their traditional lands to thread into necklaces, wearing them as a link to their ancestors and future generations of women. The National Gallery of Australia has superb examples of these necklaces in the collection dating from 1920 to the present day, the existence of which profoundly illustrates the continuum and vitality of Aboriginal culture in Tasmania.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014

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