Richard Read junior was a miniature, portrait and historical painter. Although by no means the only portrait painter in the colony, Read's career was one of the longest and most consistent - most of his clients were respectable traders or military officers or members of the the petit-bourgeoisie.
portrait painter, is now thought to be the person of this name born in London on 4 May 1796, third child of the painter Richard Read and his wife, Sarah. A connection between the two Richard Reads in Sydney has always been a matter of speculation; C.E. Greening’s research provides convincing evidence that they were father and son. Read senior was transported to the colony in 1813 but his son, about whose early years nothing is known, did not arrive in New South Wales until 1819 when he disembarked from the David Shaw on 15 November as a free settler. One of his earliest known works, most likely commissioned, is the splendid large watercolour Elizabeth Heneretta [sic] Villa (1820, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney), recording the visit of a boating party to Captain John Piper’s incomplete mansion at Point Piper. The architecture of the house is informatively detailed and the landscape surrounds convey the isolation of the property and its splendid siting on the harbour foreshores.
As 'Reid [sic] junior’, Read placed his first advertisement in the Sydney Gazette on 24 February 1821 describing himself as a 'Miniature, Portrait, and Historical Painter’ and giving his address as 59 Pitt Street. He offered to teach drawing as well as take portraits and miniatures and had for sale a 'most elegant collection of Drawings consisting of Natives of New Zealand and New South Wales, Views, Flowers, &c.’ (There is no firm evidence that he had visited New Zealand; Maoris are known to have been in Sydney.) The advertisement specifically pointed out that he had no connection with any other person of the same name in the profession, thus marking an apparent public estrangement of father and son. There is, however, a hint that the two had earlier worked together. Read senior’s advertisement in the previous week’s Gazette had offered drawings of very similar subject-matter to those now available from his son and employment with his father would explain the similarity of their extant drawings of Sydney Cove (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney; National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT). On 30 May 1821 Richard Read junior married Eliza Hitchcock who, as Buscombe notes, had come to Sydney in 1813 on board the same ship as his mother and sister, a fact which also implies that, initially at least, he acknowledged family connections. The marriage appears to have been childless.
In July 1821 Read was engaged by Mr Harper of George Street to prepare a full-length transparency of Governor Macquarie to celebrate the vice-regal party’s return from Van Diemen’s Land. Allowing for the haste of preparation, the Sydney Gazette of 14 July considered it to have been tolerably well done and the likeness immediately recognisable. The artist was one of the free settlers who signed the address of welcome presented to Macquarie on the occasion. By March 1822 he was advertising his Australian drawings from 39 Pitt Street and adding to his list of services teaching, copying, restoration and framing. He next appeared in the press when he advertised in the Sydney Monitor of 3 November 1826. The range of his business, now located at 61 Pitt Street (possibly just a re-numbering), was essentially the same except that he no longer specifically offered Australian views. Prices of his miniatures on ivory, 'warranted correct likenesses’, varied from £1 to £5.
In 1827 Read painted at least two of the three large masonic tracing-boards (private collection, NSW.) for his Sydney Lodge 260 – the first stationary masonic lodge in Australia. All were related to tracing-board designs introduced to England over 10 years earlier by Josiah Bowring: the first, inscribed 'Designed and Painted by Br. R. Read for the A.S.L. Lodge, no. 260, Sydney, N.S. Wales, 1827’, includes traditional allegorical figures of Faith, Hope and Charity on Jacob’s ladder, Faith apparently being a reproduction of the figure from the warrant issued to the Australian Social Lodge by the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1820. The second board, depicting the entrance to the temple and its two guards above a landscape view of a battle-scene, is unsigned, while the third – a coffin adorned with symbolic signs closely comparable to Bowring’s 1817 board held by the London St. George’s and Cornerstone Lodge – is inscribed only 'Painted [not designed] by Br. R. Read…’ Read had been initiated into the Australian Social Lodge on 1 December 1823 and was intermittently mentioned in their minutes until 3 November 1828, as Linford points out. His only other recorded oil painting, a full-length portrait of Governor Bourke 'copied from a very fine painting’, was commissioned by a Mr Wilson in 1826 as a sign for his Governor Bourke Inn at Penrith.
Read’s earliest surviving authenticated portrait, Mrs Laycock (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney), also dates from 1826. This small oval watercolour is inscribed on the back: 'Sydney Sept 19th 1826. Painted by R Read Jnr No 61 Pitt Street Sydney New South Wales’ (he rarely signed the face of his portraits but often inscribed them in some detail on the verso). Mrs Laycock reveals basic differences between father and son. Whereas Read senior worked in a heroic style his son was much more prosaic in approach. The majority of his portraits are either half or three-quarter length against a plain background and use a sparse, elegant design with cool, matt colours. His sitters appear detached, almost solemn. The greatest attention is given to the face which is built up from strokes of watercolour or pencil. Occasionally Read used white body colour, something his father would never have done, to model costumes and details.
The majority of Read’s clients were respectable traders or military officers, the petit-bourgeoisie, who appear to have been attracted to Read’s simple, sympathetic manner just as the colonial elite sought out his father’s grand style. The greater naturalism of the younger Read was consistent with the early nineteenth-century’s rejection of the mannered idealised styles of the Georgian period, but Read had not forgotten his father’s lessons and could still produce miniatures in a smooth Regency style, such as Selina Tomlins (1828, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney), a watercolour on ivory miniature painted from 89 Pitt Street.
Although by no means the only portrait painter in the colony, Read’s career was one of the longest and most consistent. From the departure of Augustus Earle until the mid 1830s his main rival was the convict Charles Rodius, then from the 1830s onwards he had more numerous and varied competitors, including J.B. East , William Nicholas , Maurice Felton , Joseph Backler and H.R. Smith in Sydney and William Griffith in Parramatta. Against the more sophisticated and sentimental work of Nicholas and Felton, Read’s paintings appear somewhat primitive and old-fashioned. The young Samuel Elyard, who failed to establish himself as a portrait painter in the mid 1830s, noted in his diary on 8 February 1837 that Read’s women looked 'more like pieces of wood’ than real people: 'one would think that his breast is a stranger to love, and all the more beautiful feelings, or he could not help painting better than these wretched things’. To some extent his technique was determined by the client; for instance, Hon. John Blaxland (1845, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney), a pencil and wash drawing in the then popular vignette form, is more conventional in manner, its idealised overtones befitting Blaxland’s perceived social status.
Read remained at 89 Pitt Street until 1835 then began to advertise from 45 Pitt Street. He applied for a land grant but was rejected because the allotment he sought was in Sydney itself. In 1830 a tender he submitted for the government supply of pencils, papers and sealing wax was accepted by the colonial secretary. Elyard bought stationery from Read in 1837 and he seems to have always supplemented his painting income in this way. In 1833 a prominent pastoralist, Dr Bowman, commissioned a portrait for which he was charged £4; the frame, also supplied by Read, was invoiced at £1 5s. Read attached a note to the receipt requesting that if Bowman should 'wish the hand made smaller he will have the kindness to send the Picture per Bearer’.
Details of Read’s life become increasingly sketchy in the 1840s. Together with James Blackett, in 1840 he received a grant of 160 acres in the parish of Willoughby which had previously belonged to his sister-in-law, Maria Hitchcock. When he painted John Blaxland in 1843 and Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Anderson in April 1846 (La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Vic) he was living at Somerset Lodge, Dowling Street, Surry Hills, and this remained his address throughout the 1840s. Despite being included in the Heads of the People 's list of colonial artists on 28 August 1847, Read did not exhibit in the 1847 exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia. He contributed, however, at least four works to the 1849 exhibition and possibly as many as seven—if he was also the artist listed as J.T. Read. In addition, Read lent three works by other artists to the exhibition: River Avon, near Bristol, with the Tower of Cook’s Folly by H.B. Willis, Interior of Fruit Shop in Ghent by an unknown artist and, most interestingly, Portrait of Mr Read, Artist , unattributed.
The four works he definitely contributed to the exhibition were all portraits. One was an unidentified portrait, another a miniature of a gentleman, while Portrait of an Artist was possibly a self-portrait. The fourth, a portrait of Dr William Bland, was described by the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 June 1849 as 'a staring likeness, evidently daguerreotypist’, as was William Nicholas’s portrait of the same gentleman (judged 'several shades inferior’ to Read’s). While it is possible that Read and Nicholas had experimented with the new process (Nicholas’s friend John Rae was certainly exploring photography at about this time), these seem more likely to have been commissioned copies of daguerreotypes, watercolour still being the more permanent as well as colourful medium. A painting, however, was also more expensive than a photograph. In advertisements placed in the Herald on 29 August and 1 October 1849 from 'over Thurlow and Grant’s Chambers, no. 308, Pitt Street’, Read offered to take portraits at 2 guineas each, including the frame – twice the cost of a daguerreotype by Goodman, who charged the top price.
The Sydney Directory for 1851 lists Read as a portrait painter of Botany Street, Surry Hills. Apart from a reference in January 1855 to his 'grotesque’ figures on the music cover for the quadrille, Volunteer’s March (probably drawn earlier), Read then disappears from the Sydney scene. He moved to Victoria, possibly after visiting New Zealand, for he showed New Zealand Native in the 1861 Victorian Exhibition at Melbourne (which could, however, have been one of his 1820s portraits). The Melbourne Directory for 1859 gives his address as 204 Victoria Parade, East Melbourne. He died there on 16 January 1862, aged 65, and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery. His death certificate states that he had lived in Victoria for eight years and gives his profession as artist. He apparently continued to deal in pictures, for an 1860 codicil to his will directs that two legatees were to share equally the first case in a shipment of pictures he was expecting from England.
Unidentified 'Crayon Portraits’ by Read were shown by A.F. Rowe at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute in 1863 and Sir Redmond Barry lent a watercolour portrait of an Old Man (N.S.W. 1836) by 'Reed’ to the 1869 Melbourne Public Library Exhibition but no extant portraits done in Victoria have been conclusively identified.