Charles Nuttall's painting

HRH The Duke of Cornwall and York opening the First Commonwealth Parliament, painted by Charles Nuttall to commemorate the opening of Federal Parliament on 9th May 1901
Nuttall's painting of the opening of the first Federal Parliament shows the splendour of the event.
Image: Charles Nuttall
Source: Museum Victoria

Charles Nuttall was born in 1872 in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy and was a well-known illustrator and cartoonist, whose work appeared in books, postcards and publications such as the Bulletin. He began work on Opening of First Federal Parliament by HRH the Duke of Cornwall & York on 19 August 1901, setting up a studio in the Exhibition Building. He commented in 1905, "It was a somewhat fearsome work, involving endless trouble, a tremendous amount of labour, and a great deal of running about." In his large painting (almost 4 by 2.3 metres) he sought to communicate the grand scale of the event. The painting has an unusual sepia tone, adopted by Nuttall partly due to his colourblindness.

Following his brief to represent as many 'heads' as possible, among the vast crowd he included 344 recognisable portraits of local and international dignitaries. To achieve this, he organised sittings of the various subjects so that he could make sketches. He said of these sittings: "Posing is not as easy as it looks. It is largely a matter of nerves and effects people in different ways. Mr Barton [the Prime Minister] was restless and irritable but finally settled down and sat well; Mr Reid promptly went to sleep, and only consented to sit seriously when I threatened to publish a sketch I made during his nap."

In 1905, Nuttall travelled to America, where he worked as a staff artist for the New York Times and contributed to other publications. He returned in 1910 and continued to paint and draw, as well as write for books and magazines.

Reproductions of Charles Nuttall's painting in photogravure (an early form of print-making, involving etching on plates), the largest ones then on record, were made by Goupil et Cie in France. Reproductions were sold with the slogan "No Australian Home will be complete without a Copy". For the next 50 years, the painting was the predominant image of Federation, hanging in many homes, public buildings, schools and libraries. It was expected that the painting would hang in the main hall of the Federal Parliament but it returned to the Exhibition Building. Unfortunately, the painting was somehow forgotten; it was neglected in the basement and became extensively damaged by damp. In the early 1980s, conservator Amam Siddique and his team spent two years restoring the painting. The reproductions provided valuable information for the repainting of missing sections.

Image Gallery

Key to Charles Nuttal Painting HRH The Duke of Cornwall and York opening the First Commonwealth Parliament, painted by Charles Nuttall to commemorate the opening of Federal Parliament on 9th May 1901