“Cedar Lodge”, Ipswich, Queensland; the residence of Abraham Fitzgibbon, first Commissioner and Chief Engineer of the Queensland Railways.
Circa 1865. Watercolour and pencil on paper, 150 x 210 mm, an unmounted leaf from a sketchbook; unsigned; verso inscribed in ink in a nineteenth century hand ‘The Birthplace of Florence Isabelle Fitz-Gibbon, Cedar Lodge, Ipswich, Queensland’; also inscribed, in the same hand, ‘Returned to our dear Belle’; in fine condition, the tiny crease at top right edge pre-dating the work.
The Irish-born railway engineer Abraham Fitzgibbon (or Fitz-Gibbon, 1823-1887) arrived in Queensland from New Zealand in June 1863. On 30 September he was appointed first Commissioner for Railways in the Colony and Chief Engineer of the Southern and Western Railway. Fitzgibbon’s choice of a narrow gauge for the railway was somewhat controversial, but his proposal was accepted and construction began almost immediately, with the first operations of the Queensland Railways opening in 1865.
Fitzgibbon was based in Ipswich, and the last of his five children, Florence Isabelle, was born at his residence, Cedar Lodge, on 19 December 1865. Florence’s mother was Abraham’s English-born wife, Isabelle (née Stovin), whom Abraham had married in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1853; she is the ‘Belle’ to whom the inscription on the back of this watercolour refers.
Fitzgibbon’s contract with the Queensland Railways was terminated at his own request in July 1867. His letter to the Brisbane Courier, dated at Ipswich, July 27 1867, was published on 30 July and attempted to dispel rumours that his contract had been cancelled by the government. Fitzgibbon returned to England with his family prior to 1868. The Brisbane suburb of Fitzgibbon is named after him.
This competent watercolour sketch by an accomplished amateur artist depicts the Fitzgibbon family outside their Ipswich residence. Based on the fashion worn by the woman and two young children who are standing with a horse outside the house, the work dates to around 1865. During the family’s time at Ipswich, Florence Isabelle had only two surviving older siblings: her sister Constance (born July 1855) and brother Robert (born August 1859). These are the two children depicted with their mother, Belle. Mrs. Fizgibbon appears to be wearing a maternity dress, which would firmly date the sketch to late 1865, shortly before Florence’s birth. The top-hatted gentleman in the carriage at left is undoubtedly Abraham Fitzgibbon himself – the artist has even included the detail of his distinctive Abraham Lincoln-style beard (a photographic portrait of Fitzgibbon is held in the John Oxley Library). Although the artist is not identified, the wording of the inscriptions on the back suggests that the sketch was probably made by a female neighbour who had befriended Belle while the Fitzgibbons were living in Ipswich.