Mary Aikenhead – An alternative depictionPrint
The lead up to the 2019 relocation of the Congregational Archives presented a number of challenges and opportunities.
The extensive planning process that took place in advance of the move involved staff assessing the entire Archives collection, to ensure each item was accounted for and could be transported safely.
This logistical planning exercise afforded Archives staff the opportunity to access and assess those collection items dormant for many years.
One such item was a large oil portrait of Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Congregation. This portrait was transferred to the Archives in 1993, following many years of display at St Vincent’s Convent and the Generalate at Potts Point.
The portrait had effectively been in storage for more than twenty-five years with no opportunity to be displayed and fully appreciated. Painted in 1880, the portrait is signed with the initials “J.A.”
Research on the history of the painting and to identify the artist is ongoing. It is believed the portrait was more likely painted in Australia rather than Ireland, as the subject is depicted wearing the Australian-style collar as a part of the religious habit, not the Irish split collar Mary Aikenhead would have worn.
The painting is striking for several reasons. Many readers will be familiar with the most frequently reproduced depiction of Mary Aikenhead, the 1844 portrait painted by the Irish portrait artist, Nicholas Joseph Crowley (1819–1857).
As there are no known photographs of Mary Aikenhead, all depictions of her appearance are creative works, most of which have been based on the familiar Crowley portrait.
The oil portrait in the Archives collection offers a remarkably different depiction of the foundress of the Congregation.
Prior to the Archives’ relocation, significant professional conservation work was undertaken on the portrait, preserving and stabilising the fragile work to ensure it can continue to be appreciated for generations to come.
The relocation of the Congregational Archives and provision of appropriate storage allowed this (and other) artworks to be stored in an accessible format and displayed so they can be viewed and appreciated by visitors.
The reactions of visitors to this previously unfamiliar work have been fascinating. They have ranged from “That’s not Mary Aikenhead!” to instant appreciation and adoration.
An alternative depiction of a notable figure such as Mary Aikenhead is an invaluable resource.
Any Sisters with recollections of this portrait are invited to contact the Congregational Archives Collections Registrar Imogen Kennard-King at firstname.lastname@example.org to share their memories.