Maybe no-one had stolen art in Victoria in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Australian thieves or reporters had no interest in art for it wasn’t until 1924 that a local art theft is reported in a Melbourne newspaper.
In The Argus on page 18 under the unlikely heading “Country News”: “During Mr George Whaley’s absence from Cowes a few days ago someone broke into his boathouse and stole 14 paintings.” There are no other details or further reports about the theft.
The anonymous reporter had made one mistake, the paintings had been stolen from Whaley’s houseboat, not boathouse.
“The artist began building another vessel, about the year 1919. On the beach in front of the Bay View site, his house boat the Ophir gradually took shape. This odd-looking scow was 30 ft. long, flat-bottomed, with bluff ends, and a stateroom that took up all the deck space, in which its owner used to cook, eat, sleep and paint. After 12 months here, an attempt was made to tow the Ophir to new surroundings. She was floated off on a high tide one morning, but was found to be leaking badly, and on coming abreast of Erehwon Point began to sink. Feverish baling and a hurried beaching succeeded in saving her, and on subsequent tides, she was coaxed almost up to the tea-tree. The artist, who continued to live on board for another year, covered the walls with paintings of seascapes, nudes, and portraits. This quaint abode however then began to fall to pieces through exposure, and its owner sold it for five shillings.”
J. W. Gliddon Phillip Island in Picture and Story (Cowes, [Vic.] : Committee of Trust “Warley”, Cowes Bush Nursing Hospital, 1968)
It can’t have been very difficult for a thief to break in to the Ophir beached near the tea-trees in a dilapidated condition.
George Whaley painted for the emerging post-war tourist trade in Cowes selling his paintings for 7s 6d, about $50 each. So the fourteen stolen paintings could not have made the thief a fortune, even if he was able to sell all of them.
George Whaley was born in 1862 in England, the son of a Nottingham lace manufacturer. He was not yet twenty-five when arrived in Melbourne on 4th February 1887 on the RMS Potosi. Why he moved to Australia is not clear was he seeking his fortune or was he pursuing the romantic dream of becoming an artist? He described himself on the shipping records as a ‘clerk’, perhaps he had worked for his father in that capacity. Whaley had also received some training in art for soon after he arrived in Australia he completed a competent oil painting of The Ferry Genista in Sydney.
When Whaley arrived in Melbourne in 1887 he would have found a city undergoing a boom in real estate prices. Six years later there was a banking crisis and eleven banks collapsed around Australia. Somehow Whaley found work throughout this turbulent period and in 1899 the thirty-eight year old Whaley married Ida Bridget Martin the daughter of German immigrants. They had four children. It is not clear what work Whaley was doing but he and his growing family moved around Victoria eventually settling in Castlemaine.
In Cowes Whaley lived his bohemian beachcomber life while Whaley’s wife, Ida remained in Castlemaine, perhaps Whaley was visiting her at the time of the robbery. George Whaley died on 3rd April 1933 in Castlemaine.
Thanks to John Jansson of the Phillip Island and District Historical Society for all his research into George Whaley and the images without which this post would not be possible.
I am currently researching art theft in Melbourne, so if you have been the victim of art theft, or the thief, and would like to discuss it with me please contact me.