Thomas Bock review – an extraordinary glimpse of 19th-century Tasmania

By Laura Cumming

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Shipped as a convict to Tasmania in 1823, Thomas Bock made his name there with portraits of exceptional empathy, both of colonists and those they displaced

There is a painting in this riveting exhibition of a child in a red muslin frock with puffed sleeves and a black velvet sash. The year is 1842. She might be any Victorian sitter, posing for her portrait with hands sedately clasped in her lap. But there are signs of strain in her sweet face, the feet are bare and her dark hair is cropped. Mithina is the child's name, and she is an Indigenous Australian from Flinders Island off the coast of Tasmania. The painter is evidently a strange figure to her.

He is Thomas Bock (c1793-1855), and quite possibly unfamiliar to us as well. For Bock was a convict artist. He started out with a considerable reputation for engraving and miniature painting in Birmingham, where he lived, and is now being brilliantly revived by the city's Ikon Gallery. On the evidence of his fine and sensitive images, he would surely have become a celebrated portrait painter.

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