painter, designer and amateur architect, was born, probably on 10 November 1798, in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England, fourth of the six children of Ann, née Jones, and Lieutenant-Colonel John Dumaresq. She was descended from a distinguished Jersey family of ancient lineage but owing to her father’s premature death on 5 March 1804 grew up in straitened circumstances, from which she was rescued by her marriage to Major-General (later Sir) Ralph Darling on 13 October 1817. She accompanied him first to Mauritius, where he was acting governor and commander of the troops from February 1819 to July 1823, then to New South Wales where Ralph served as governor from December 1825 until October 1831.
After returning to England the family, which comprised four girls and three boys, lived in retirement – first at Cheltenham, where Eliza Darling had spent much of her childhood, later at Brighton. Following her husband’s death on 2 April 1858, Lady Darling moved to a small cottage at Hurstpierpoint in Sussex, then to a farm in Pembury, Kent, and finally to a country residence, The Ridge, Colman’s Hatch, East Sussex, which she shared with her eldest son, Rev. Frederick, and two of her daughters. She endowed one of the buildings on the property as a school for the children of nearby cottagers.
This last step was the culmination of a life marked by a high degree of involvement in philanthropic activities. A devout Anglican of evangelical leanings, Eliza Darling had long shown a practical interest in the wellbeing of less fortunate elements in society. This was particularly evident while she was at New South Wales. Here she used her position as First Lady to establish the Female School of Industry, to assist the women convicts in the Female Factory and to improve the morality of the convicts in general. She patronised the Benevolent Society and the Sydney Dispensary and actively supported the Sunday School movement. In addition, she was a devoted wife and mother whose warm, firm ways helped maintain close family relationships.
Despite recurrent ill-health, frequent pregnancies and a busy domestic and public life, Eliza Darling found time to engage in literary and artistic pursuits. As a child she had been too poor to have a governess or be sent to school and was educated at home by her mother and the older children, but she had an active, enquiring mind and developed life-long interests in writing, music and art. In her youth she wrote poetry, as well as a moralistic story, 'Lascelles’. Her brother, Henry Dumaresq , a pupil of the eminent watercolourist John Varley in the family’s more affluent days, taught her to draw. The first surviving example of Eliza’s artistic work dates from the period after her marriage. It took the form of a picture of her daughter Cornelia, aged four, lying on the floor of the governor’s residence in Mauritius (ALMFA).
Other drawings, whose subjects are unknown, were sent home to Cheltenham and were so much admired by friends that she regretted not having attempted 'a great deal more’. Towards the end of her residence in New South Wales she wrote that she was 'trying something new being employed in taking Scetches [sic] [copies from original views taken by others] either in Pencil or Sepia’. They were intended for a forthcoming charity sale in aid of the School of Industry and all appear to have vanished. Two watercolour views attributed to her are extant (p.c., SA) – Sydney Harbour looking towards the Heads and a distant view of Fort Macquarie – as well as eight watercolours of different native flowers (ML). Most of the flowers have a single plant as their subject, each depicted in some detail though none is identified botanically. 'From nature by E. Darling’ is written on the back of six of them.
Darling’s artistic talents also led her into the field of architecture. She submitted a plan in a competition held by her husband in January 1827 with a view to obtaining the design for a new Government House and was reported to have won. Unfortunately, no drawing or description is known. Earlier, she had informed her brother Edward that she had 'Been drawing plans for all kinds of buildings’ and went on to observe that 'The plans for Govt House are now being copied for Mrs Arthur [wife of the lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land] and shall be sent by the next opportunity’. Previously she had drawn plans for colonial houses, complete with the verandah she considered essential. In all this she was very much an enthusiastic amateur, although she vehemently denied having received assistance in her architectural enterprises from the better-trained Henry. She did, however, acknowledge the help of published works as design inspiration. Her Government House was to be erected with the assistance of the professional architect Francis Greenway , but nothing seems to have come of her Government House designs since the British Treasury proved unwilling to sponsor such expensive proposals.
As an artist Eliza Darling clearly displayed talent but her work retains its interest not because of its merit but because she herself was a figure of historical interest. With so few known art works, her sketches must be of more significance to the biographer than to the development of Australian art.
Eliza Darling painted this small watercolour portrait of her first child, Cornelia, at Mauritius, where her husband, Ralph, was Governor before being appointed Governor of New South Wales (1825-31). She made it for her brother Edward Dumaresq in Tasmania, purely from the lack of any professional artist to record Cornelia’s appearance and growth. It was enclosed with a note to 'Dear Uncle Edward’ ostensibly from two year old Cornelia thanking him for 'the beautiful gold chain’ and a letter from Eliza dated 14 September 1821. Her letter concentrated on the subject of the sketch, then recovering from 'a dangerous attack of croup’ (another reason for making the likeness) and had only a brief comment on the sketch: 'I have sent you an Attempt at her asleep, but it doesn’t do her justice-the Head and the top of the Face is right but there is something about the Mouth, not half so pretty-however I have not time to try again and perhaps should not succeed better.’ Women often apologised for their artistic efforts even when sending informal sketches to the family ( seeFanny Macleay ) and Eliza was never confident in portraiture. Back in England, just before leaving for Sydney, she had a portrait of herself, Cornelia and young Frederick painted by John Linnell (NLA).
A writer in the Sydney Gazette (28-30 July 1829) had a much higher opinion of Mrs Darling’s abilities, noting that she drew 'with great beauty and effect’ and was 'deeply skilled in the minutiae of architectural embellishment’. Since Sydney contained competent portraitists (mainly transported ones) to sketch her increasing brood, her artistic activities were confined to other fields: depicting Australian wildflowers (ML), copying views by other artists for sale at bazaars in aid of her favourite charities (NLA, p.c.), making 'Roses & Lilies, and Golden Crowns &c. &c.’ for the King’s Birthday Ball in 1826, designing furniture, cutting out and sewing clothes for orphan girls and convicts and, most unusually, designing buildings. With the help of the odd print, Eliza designed quite ambitious residences, including new Government Houses for Sydney and Hobart Town (not executed at either place). She made interior alterations to extant buildings and at one stage, she wrote, 'turned overseer , in transforming the orderlies Stables into the School House’ for her pet charity, the Girls’ School of Industry.
Throughout her Australian years Mrs Darling also played the piano, taught her children, kept a journal, carried on an extensive correspondence and had a child virtually every year-a state of near permanent pregnancy that frequently made her ill. She and Ralph finally had ten children, four girls and three boys living. Sketching came a poor third in her life after her family and her devout and practical Christian faith. Whether landscape views, natural history drawings or a slight yet talented sketch of her first child, most of her known sketches were allied with these two priorities.