OSCAR FRISTROM AND HIS ABORIGINAL PAINTINGS

‘Oscar who?’, I hear you ask.

Carl Magnus Oscar Friström (commonly known as Oscar) was born in Sweden in 1856; he now rests in the South Brisbane cemetery (he died 1918). He settled in Brisbane about 1884 where he became first a photographer and then a successful painter. In particular he was a noted portrait painter, of eminences like the Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Wylie Norman – a painting now held by the John Oxley Library.

What is particularly interesting about Fristrom is that he did a number of Aboriginal portraits and paintings. So far I have located seventy-two such works – which is surprising because this was a time in our history when Australians were ignoring, indeed removing and decimating, the first peoples of this land.

One of his favourite subjects was Catchpenny, an Aboriginal woman from Bribie Island well-known around Brisbane town and environs. So far I have located fourteen representations of Catchpenny that Oscar painted. The first representation was in 1887, when he showed two works on Catchpenny in the annual exhibition of the Queensland National Association; one was already sold, the other available for five guineas. Unfortunately we do not know the whereabouts of either of those Catchpennies.

Oil painting on board by Carl Magnus Oscar Fristrom depicting Catchpenny or GWAI-A of the Moreton Bay district. In original frame. State Library of Queensland

Oil painting on board by Carl Magnus Oscar Fristrom depicting Catchpenny or GWAI-A of the Moreton Bay district. In original frame.

A fortnight ago I went with Dianne Byrne, Curator of Original Materials in the John Oxley Library, to the Redcliffe Library to talk about Fristrom and some of his paintings. The John Oxley holds three such portraits – 1889, 1915, 1916. The reason for visiting Redcliffe was that they hold a Catchpenny, dated 1910. This had been purchased by the then Caboolture Shire from an auction in 2006; after the amalgamation process of local government areas this painting went into the collection of the Moreton Bay Regional Council.

Other Catchpennies are held by: the Museum of Brisbane (1898); the Mitchell Library (1898); the Etnografiska Museet, Stockholm (1910); Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery (1915). Sadly, we do not know the whereabouts of the other six Catchpenny portraits; this includes the 1897 painting which was shown in the Queensland International Exhibition of that year. Also missing is the 1899 version he sent to the Greater Britain Exhibition of that year, held in Earls Court, London.

Maybe your great-aunt has, unbeknowns, a Fristrom painting amouldering in the attic; maybe you have some information about Fristrom or Catchpenny. If so, we would dearly love to hear from you at the State Library of Queensland – so that we may make more complete our knowledge of this person, his work and this state’s Memory.

W. Ross Johnston – historian