Thomas Midwood

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Thomas Midwood

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Thomas Claude Wade Midwood was born in Hobart in 1854. Just as convict transportation ended, that is to say. The fact is the more germane in that father Midwood’s employment was in the Police Department, serving there altogether some thirty years. The family on that side came from Britain’s upper middle class, while Tom’s mother was the daughter of James Ross, man of some culture who as a newspaper editor had been the great support of Governor Arthur’s regime. The Midwoods kept servants (a key social indicator) , as becomes evident in the representation of that ‘lady help and companion, Effie Milne’. So, something of an establishment background, no evidence of convict staining; this was one of those bourgeois families who were confident that THEY were best and true Tasmanians. Our hero’s life overall conformed to pattern: school at Hutchins, long-time if somewhat amorphous association with the Public Works Department, marriage to the daughter of another bureaucrat, two daughters, two sons.

Bureaucrats don’t gain easy sympathy, but they are essential to any community’s function. That applied with perhaps more than routine truth in post-convict Tasmania. Their numbers fell, but the diversity of duties continued, or even ramified. Money and men therefore spread desperately thin, but never broke down. So a major interest of the exhibition is its presentation, even mild celebration of the public service of that day. The depictions include some big-shots – a prod of humour appearing in the emphasis on one being an avid cribbage player, while a couple of others are shown from a posterior view, to considerable effect. (We hear much of ‘history from below’, but this is history from behind.) Down the ranks was ‘Jerry . . one of the boys’ at PWD, and he sure looks that part.

A more formal product of Midwood’s bureaucratic life were drawings of railway projects, part of the exhibition. Another job he did, but evidently now without trace, was a poster ‘giving in simple pictorial form the principal details relating to the prevention and cure of Consumption’, thereby -- further to quote the Public Health head of the day -- pursuing ‘new and excellent development in popular educational method’. Education appears further through the not too kindly but highly expressive depiction of the only other female to have substantial part in the exhibition, Miss Sarah Bignall of the Hobart Ladies College. For the most part, Tom depicted a chaps’ world.

The public service mattered much in keeping Tasmania afloat, but so did business -- as it also did to Midwood’s finances. We have some splendid examples of his work as a commercial artist, pursued on behalf of major Hobart players – Henry Jones I -- XLing, Gibsons’s flour mills, Fitzgeralds department store, Higgins the butcher – that last not so big a businessman, but interesting in this context because his three sons – Arthur, Ernest, Tasman – were to become cinematographers of high order, crucial in the early Australian film industry, carrying pictorial representation to that different order. (Higgins’s shop, one source tells, was first in Hobart to use electric power, so here modernism throbbed.) Tom’s personal depictions add their complement to the business story. That of ‘W. Watchorn, Merchant’ seems to me of especially high order.
Tom played some part in major public events. The exhibition includes photographs of the ‘Apple Arch’ that he designed for the Royal Tour of 1901, the future King George V and Queen Mary then coming to Australia to inaugurate the Commonwealth of Australia. The Tasmanian tour appears to have been altogether successful: King George invoked happy memories when Premier Albert Ogilvie had an audience in London in 1935; much other evidence points in the same direction. Midwood might have helped design another arch of 1901 – that mounted by the Marine Board, and he certainly prepared the Board’s gift to the Royals, a collage of local scenes and insignia. That is not on display, albeit maybe still extant in the vast collections at Windsor Castle. What a case there is for repatriation of such trove. Two years after the Royal tour came the Centenary of British Tasmania. Pertinent celebrations ran at much lower key, but they did include a notable art exhibition, Midwood a contributor.

So our man essentially belonged to upper middle Tasmania. Already however we have had noticed that he could have his jibe, and this earthier, popular story extends further. Biographical facts help make the point. As several of the exhibition items indicate, Tom had affinity for Hobart’s maritime side. Yachting was one of his hobbies from early days. Then at some stage – details are lacking, but I guess in the later 1870s – he set off on adventure abroad, first as a working seaman. But, so it appears, he varied this by a spell as member of a musical troupe in United States. The best record is a sketch – splendid even in photocopy – of ‘Life in America’. It shows a group around a billy-pot boiling on the fire; one of the party strums a banjo, another is in garb of ‘nigger minstrel’ style – that mode of entertainment then having enormous popularity, with other echoes in the exhibition.

Some of Tom’s jibes had a sharpish social edge. In the exhibition we have depiction of ‘the Englishman’ –living on remittance from home that he quickly spent on ‘Alcohol, etcetera’. Another of his pieces, not exhibited, showed a predator on the prowl for young girls. His association with the periodical, the Critic belonged in this context. The Critic was not overly political, but it did have a strong populist strain, telling much of the history of Hobart’s half-world.

Midwood’s art made its appropriate contribution. The biggest single item – hope I’m right – in the exhibition is of ‘Our Boys’ those four enormous fellows from Cascade brewery – and the impact of the piece is appropriately massive. Others in similar mode are that of Morling, the boatman of Bellerive, and James the retired wharfie – a man of colour it appears, perhaps an Afro-American. Chinamen also appear, albeit in more modest way.

My own first consciousness of Midwood pertains to this ‘popular’ theme. When researching the history of the Theatre Royal decades ago I came upon the reproduction in the Tasmanian Mail of a depiction of ‘Patsey Maher’, an ex-convict coster who operated at the Theatre – ‘shouting monotonously. “Grapes, oranges, walnuts! Who says jaw tackle!” ’. So a journalist wrote in 1924, and further: ‘All who love to recall memories of past dramatic joys will remember with them the sturdy figure and fat grinning face of Patsy Maher.’ That style is marvellously captured by Midwood’s pen. The cartoon much delighted Patsey himself.

Other fine items in the exhibition relate to entertainment, all the more pertinent to Tom’s musical skills. Perhaps his two most detailed depictions are of Mr Steinback, described as ‘a popular vocalist of early Hobart’, although I am afraid a stranger to me, and of T.J. Heyward, ‘pianist and choirmaster’, whose name appears in countless reports of concerts and like occasions. To notice such activity as Heyward’s takes us back to the polite stratum of Hobart in the generation straddling 1900. Midwood belonged to that stratum, but surpassed it. His abilities and sensitivities enabled him to evoke the broader society around him with mighty skill — and also humour, compassion, insight. I congratulate Gill and all associated in mounting the exhibition for this recognition of an exceptional man. From


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