Detail of Diamantina, Lady Bowen by Chris Allen (1867). Pastel on paper, 45.5 x 35.7cm.

Lady Bowen visits Government House: our treasured portrait goes on loan

Diamantina, Lady Bowen (1833-1893) arrived in Brisbane on 10 December 1859 with her husband, Sir George Ferguson Bowen. An experienced colonial administrator, George Bowen had been appointed the first Governor of Queensland, proclaiming the colony’s formal separation from New South Wales.

Born in 1833 on the Greek island Zanthes, Diamantina, Lady Bowen was described by one Australian newspaper as a ‘bird of paradise … with black dazzling eyes [and] a flawless cream complexion.’ She was just 26 years old when she arrived in Brisbane to find a city and a climate very different to what she knew. Brisbane had a population of 4000, most of them men, and the hot summer that welcomed the Bowens was, in Diamantina’s own words, ‘intolerable’.

Despite these challenges, Lady Bowen embraced her role as governor’s wife wholeheartedly, and brought to it her own vision for improving Queensland society. Pregnant three times during her tenure in Brisbane, Lady Bowen was an inexhaustible hostess at Government House, where she helped design the gardens, and was an active charitable patron. She was particularly concerned with the social welfare of women and girls, and in 1866, helped establish the Lady Bowen Lying-In Hospital, the State’s first maternity hospital.

Lady Bowen’s interest in girls’ welfare and education also informed her role as patron of All Hallows’ School, Queensland’s first girls’ school founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1861. She regularly attended school concerts and fetes and supported the Sisters’ fundraising campaigns. A gifted pianist and singer herself, Lady Bowen encouraged the Sisters’ mission to expand music education in Queensland and attended musical soirees and evenings at the All Hallows’ Convent.

Lady Bowen’s departure from Brisbane in December 1867 was felt deeply by the Sisters of Mercy. In a farewell address to their patron, the All Hallows’ community gifted Lady Bowen with an Irish harp brooch, inlaid with Queensland pearls and emeralds. She responded, ‘You could not have thought of a souvenir more calculated to recall to my memory this land of promise … Nor could you have paid me a more acceptable compliment than by choosing … the emblem of music; for, of all the arts that make life dear, music has ever been the dearest friend to me.’ Lady Bowen was photographed wearing the brooch in the 1870s, and it remains a loved heirloom in the Bowen family today.

Lady Bowen’s affection and respect for the Sisters was reflected in the farewell gift she presented to them; a pastel portrait painted by Chris Allen in 1867. It is the only known portrait of Lady Bowen painted during her time in Queensland. Treasured by the Sisters of Mercy as a symbol of their first patron, the portrait hung in the convent and in All Hallows’ School for over 150 years.

On 22 May 2017, the portrait travelled back to the place where it was probably painted—Brisbane’s Government House. It will hang there for a period of one year, under the kind auspices of our current Governor, His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC and Mrs Kaye de Jersey. The Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation are proud to continue their long association with the families of the Governors of Queensland, and to share this unique piece of Queensland’s history with Government House’s many visitors.

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