Richard Read (senior) was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation for possession of forged notes and arrived in Sydney on the Earl Spencer on 9 October 1813. He was a miniature, portrait and historical painter. His portraits of public officials display naturalistic features that evince a nineteenth-century sensibility.
painter and engraver, was born, almost certainly in England, to Richard Read and Lydia, née Ames. Nothing is known of his training as an artist, nor of his early life. His wife was called Sarah and they had four children. Read was listed in London directories in 1805 and 1808 as an animal painter; in 1808 he painted a self-portrait which shows him working on a drawing of a horse (private collection, London). In July 1812 he was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation for knowingly possessing forged notes and arrived at Sydney in the Earl Spencer on 9 October 1813. Sarah and their daughter Elizabeth Lydia followed in the Kangaroo . His son Richard came free to Sydney in 1819 and also established himself as a painter but publicly denied any connection with his convict father.
Richard Read senior was soon given a ticket of leave. On 26 November 1814 he advertised in the Sydney Gazette that he was opening a drawing school at 37 Pitt Street. He also offered to make drawings for embroidery and needlework and take miniatures and portraits. The advertisement concluded, 'A Number of Drawings and Paintings of various subjects for Sale’, but it is unclear whether these were by Read himself, imported works or both. Read was now describing himself as a portrait and historical painter, the latter being the first known reference to his interest in neoclassical history painting. His drawing of Raphael Sancto da Urbino , copied from a print in Anton Mengs’s Lives of the Painters (private collection, Sydney), seems to be the sort of picture he would have displayed in his studio as evidence of his expertise and culture, although this example is dated 1820.
In an advertisement placed in the Sydney Gazette on 12 December 1825 (after eleven years’ practice in the colony) Read belatedly claimed to have been a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was possibly old enough to have been a youthful student, yet lacking further evidence one can only conclude that he certainly admired Reynolds’s 'grand manner’ paintings. Two fine watercolour portraits made during Read’s early days in the colony reveal his Regency training and tastes. John Buckland (Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle, NSW) and Elizabeth Broughton (National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT), both painted in 1814, utilise the broad sweep of a historical, generalised background with a miniaturist’s concentration on the slightly idealised faces. Their thin washes and blue tones are characteristic.
Read was principally known as a portrait painter, his grand style apparently attracting the colonial elite. Governor Macquarie and his wife were early patrons; a pair of watercolour on ivory portraits of them (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, Tas) demonstrate his familiarity with late eighteenth-century miniature techniques. The naturalism of the faces in these and other Read portraits, however, evinces a nineteenth-century sensibility. On 8 February 1822, the Sydney Gazette noted that Read had finished a portrait of Governor Macquarie which had been commissioned by Judge-Advocate John Wylde; it was said to be the best performance 'that has yet come forth from the pencil of that Artist’. The newspaper also noted that Read had been engaged to provide a portrait of Macquarie for the Town Hall at Windsor before Macquarie left the colony (on 15 February 1822) but it is doubtful if this ever eventuated (the painting of Macquarie now in the Windsor Court House is by a British artist). On 15 May 1823, however, Read advertised in the Sydney Gazette that he had 'just finished some Portraits [of Lachlan Macquarie], which are framed and glazed, forming a neat furniture picture’. These large watercolours were obviously prepared as multiples, symbols of loyalty to and remembrances of the departed governor. A watercolour portrait of Macquarie which appears to be one of these (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW) is inscribed: 'Take notice that none are Original pictures of Governor Macquarie but what has got the name of Read marked in Latin … Governor Macquarie never sat to any artist in this Colony but Read Snr’.
Other known sitters included the controversial Judge Barron Field, Rev. Samuel Marsden’s wife Elizabeth, Esther Johnston, wife of George Johnston (miniature on ivory 6.5 × 5 cm, made on occasion of their belated marriage attended by 3 sons and 4 daughters; offered Christie’s Australia 14 April 1986, lot 187, ill.), the schoolteacher Mary Howe and the poet Michael Massey Robinson. Read began engraving the last as the frontispiece for a proposed volume of Robinson’s poems but does not seem to have managed to complete the plate. His most notable surviving portrait is a full-length watercolour twenty-first birthday portrait of Miss Julia Johnston (1824, private collection), the English-educated eldest daughter of the prominent soldier, settler and administrator George Johnston and his Jewish emancipist companion (later wife) Esther, née Abrahams, alias Julian. Julia is shown standing, fashionably attired and accompanied by a lap-dog, in a garden adjoining the family vault (designed by the architect Francis Greenway, q.v.). The composition, the naturalism with which Read has depicted the garden, and the open countryside in the background, combined with the neo-classical allusions of the tomb, make this one of his most unusual works.
Read’s application for a pardon in 1816 failed but he was granted a conditional pardon in April 1819. Later that year the Sydney Gazette of 5 November sardonically noted the curious coincidence of Read’s watercolour of a subject taken from the eighteenth book of Homer’s Iliad being displayed in a local shop above an enamelled tea-tray illustrating the same scene. Not all such scenes were available for imitation on Sydney’s household furnishings, however, and Read’s apparent facility for producing neo-classical, allegorical and mythological designs, especially for transparencies, suggests the classical education of an English gentleman.
The dance-floor he painted for the Bachelors’ Ball in 1820 had an allegorical treatment of the British Empire as its subject ( Sydney Gazette , 1 January 1820), and when employed by a butcher, Mr Kelly, to paint a transparency for a dinner in honour of his recently acquired certificate of freedom, Read offered 'Britannia and Hibernia supporting one of their exiled sons, on whose head descends the cap of liberty, while the chains of slavery fall from his feet’ ( Sydney Monitor , 7 July 1826). Another transparency which drew on both allegorical and historical subjects was commissioned by Mary (Mrs Richard) Jones, the wife of a prominent merchant, for a party. Read was also reported as having provided 'pencil’ cartoons of Classical subjects to decorate the walls of Captain John Piper’s Henrietta Villa at Point Piper and 'crayon’ designs for the drawing-room walls of Government House.
On 17 February 1821 Read announced in the Sydney Gazette that he had moved to 6 Hunter Street where he had on sale 'some very superior Views of various Parts of New Holland, together with Drawings of Birds, Flowers, Native Figures, &c.’. He also announced that he was opening another drawing school; by April this had moved to 25 Upper Pitt Street. Granted an absolute pardon in July 1826, Read did not immediately return to England. In January 1827 he was involved in a dispute with the colonial secretary over compensation for the demolition of his cottage in Upper Pitt Street, necessitated by roadworks. He may then have gone home, for there is no trace of him in the 1828 census.
Multiple copies of Read’s rather literal topographical watercolour views of Sydney and Sydney Harbour in the 1820s have survived. They are very similar to work his son was producing at the same time. Three sets of his two-part panoramic drawing of Sydney Cove are in Australian public collections; such multiples were part of a colonial artist’s standard stock, copies often being made for a client who wished to return to England with a picture of the settlement, for example. Sometimes these drawings formed the basis of prints published in England; for instance, one of Read’s drawings of Sydney Cove, supplied by Barron Field, was used as the frontispiece to James Atkinson’s An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales (London 1826).
A skilful portrait painter who was patronised by the public officers and successful traders in the colony, Read nevertheless was able to survive only by capitalising on being one of the few trained artists in the colony at the time and turning his hand to all manner of work, including topographical and natural history drawing. The breadth of his oeuvre shows that colonial society required a wide range of talents from its artists, often with little relevance to their original training.