Also known as
Theresa Susannah Eunice Snell Chauncy,
Walker received little formal education, but as a young woman showed considerable talent in the art of modelling. She would become very well known for her wax medallion portraits and exhibited them around the world, including in Mauritius and Paris.
painter, photographer, wax modeller and poet, was born at Keynsham near Bath, England, elder daughter of William Chauncy and his first wife Theresa, née Lamothe. She received little formal education, her father being chiefly responsible for teaching the family during her early years. After living in France with her father, stepmother and siblings, she returned to London in the early 1830s. Her only recorded art training was obtained there as a member of Edward Irving’s church and it was of short duration; its quality too is perhaps suspect. Theresa’s brother Philip Chauncy writing on the experience, however, stated that even then she was 'decidedly clever’ in the art of modelling.
Arriving at Holdfast Bay, South Australia on 14 February 1837, with her brother-in-law and sister Martha Snell Berkeley in the John Renwick , Theresa soon began to make the wax medallion portraits for which she is best known. As early as 1841 she exhibited two of a local South Australian Aboriginal couple at the Royal Academy, London (possibly those now in the National Gallery of Australia [NGA]) – the first resident Australian artist to be shown in that august institution. Over the next ten years she exhibited in Adelaide (1848), Sydney (1845, 1847 and 1849: medallions of two unnamed women, clergymen of the Church of England and Bishop Broughton in 1849) and Melbourne (1853 Sir Charles FitzRoy and an unnamed portrait medallion, 1854 Sir Charles FitzRoy and Bishop Broughton, and 1861 medallions of Burke and Wills). At Geelong in 1857 she showed portrait medallions of F.R. Nixon and Governor Sir Henry Young, 'from life’.
An incompatibility of sisterly temperament decided Theresa on visiting Van Diemen’s Land in 1837. On 17 May 1838 she married Lieutenant John Walker, harbour-master at Launceston. Then they returned to Adelaide and established a business. Excessive high living resulted in Walker’s bankruptcy and imprisonment in 1841. Theresa Walker’s only known two-dimensional artwork is a South Australian pastel drawing (c.1839, Art Gallery of South Australia) showing what is thought to be part of their property, Hayering, on the Upper Torrens River. After John was released the Walkers moved to Sydney then returned to Launceston at about the end of 1850. John died there in January 1855; Theresa’s wax portrait medallion of him is in the La Trobe Library (State Library of Victoria). In a letter to his sister dated 4 March 1855, the botanist William Harvey noted meeting the widowed Mrs Walker at Launceston soon afterwards. Describing her as 'a very odd person’ with an abrupt and self-opinionated manner, he nevertheless admitted:
She has considerable artistic talent – paints well, but particularly excels in modelling & makes wax medallions of heads &c. The likenesses are said to be very good. One of Mrs. Fereday [ Susan Fereday ] I can answer for, but I had not seen any of the other originals. She also had specimens of photographic seaweeds, remarkably well done & one of them which she had tinted in colour was so well executed that even I took it at first for a dried specimen.
All her photographs have disappeared but would presumably have been salted paper prints.
On 24 September 1856, Theresa married Professor George Herbert Poole, a Swedenborgian minister. They moved to Victoria seeking their fortune on the goldfields until 1861 when Poole was appointed manager of a vineyard on the Upper Murray. That year Theresa showed wax medallions of Burke and Wills at the Royal Society, Melbourne (examples NGA). In 1864, probably because of the failure of the vineyard venture, Poole returned to Mauritius and resumed his former post of professor at the Royal College of Arts. In April 1865 Theresa joined him. The following year she was awarded a certificate in a local exhibition for her wax 'Representations of Fruit’, which subsequently gained her a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition. An epidemic was then sweeping the island and the Pooles temporarily moved to Calcutta. They returned to Mauritius then moved to South Australia in 1868. Poole’s health declined and he died on 29 July 1869. Shortly afterwards Theresa left Adelaide for Victoria, spent a few months with her half-brother William Chauncy at Wodonga, then became housekeeper to her widowed brother Philip and his children. For a short time she was lady superintendent of the Alexander College at Hamilton, but failing health caused her retirement to a house in South Yarra, Melbourne. She died there of breast cancer on 17 April 1876.
As a wax modeller, Theresa Walker links with a tradition that gained impetus as an art form during the sixteenth century, particularly in Italy. Its decline came in the late nineteenth century with the rise of cheap popular photographs. The Art Gallery of South Australia has a good collection of Walker’s medallions, most notably a set of twelve South Australian colonists executed in 1848. Other works are in the National Gallery of Australia (family donation 1992), including a youthful self-portrait, the Mitchell Library, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All are competently modelled but there is great variation in quality when an overall assessment is made and it has not been established which were reproductions from other artists’ moulds. Although many are known to have been taken 'from life’, the evidence of the Hobart Town Courier (22 August 1849) confirms that her portrait of Sir John Franklin was reproduced work only (possibly remodelled on a smaller scale), possibly from Burford’s wax medallion shown in the 1846 Hobart Town Exhibition. A surviving large wax medallion of Franklin (ML) is probably Burford’s original rather than Walker’s copy.
Due to the constant environmental changes throughout her life, Walker’s output was spasmodic. She was a deeply romantic figure, expressing her feelings not only through her artistic practice but also through the poetry she often wrote. It was fortunate she chose wax modelling as her medium since it required little equipment and was extremely portable. Photography at the time was more cumbersome and she is not known to have practised it outside her relatively settled Tasmanian years. No surviving photographs are known. Her brother Philip’s biography concentrates on Theresa’s unconvincingly saintly character and does not even mention her taking photographs.
WORKS: Deutscher Menzies 1 May 2002, lot 112 (est. $9,000-12,000), had medallions of William Wills and four unidentified figures (one Governor Gipps, a bearded man, an elderly woman and a pair of children) – no provenance; entry by David Thomas claimed that of her 70 or so known figures, more than half have been identified.