Spotlight: Ned Kelly – the final portrait

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Few images from Australia’s history have such an immediate effect on the viewer as Ned Kelly’s portrait taken on the day before his execution. Few can say they are unfamiliar with the meticulously oiled pompadour, voluminous beard and wistful eyes with delicate crow’s feet making the 25 year old outlaw appear much older than he was. Many, however, are unaware of the second portrait from that session.

Ned Kelly, the bane of Victoria’s establishment, poses defiantly against the bluestone wall of the Melbourne Gaol. On first glance we see a powerfully built young man taunting his captors by jiggling the chains around his legs, his right hand resting on his hip, his knees relaxed casually. He does not appear like a man marked for a short, violent death the next morning and that is exactly how he wanted it to be. Ned requested the portraits to be taken for his family. There are, interestingly, rumours of a third portrait taken of Ned seated on a wooden chair that has been lost to the ages. The portraits were taken by Charles Nettleton who was employed throughout Victoria as a prison photographer, but who was also renowned for his landscape photography. Taken on glass plates, the images could easily be reproduced in varying sizes for multiple copies. These portraits are considerably different from the mugshots that he usually produced and thus can reveal a few details that one might not have noticed.

If we start at the bottom of the image we can see Ned’s boots. Specially made for him to wear during his trial, they sport fashionable undercut heels shown off probably deliberately by his out-turned right foot. Between his ankles can be seen something rather odd. It is the base of a special stand that many photographers had in their kit. Such a device had arms and brackets that supported a body to keep it in position for a photograph, usually utilised in memento mori photography to keep corpses upright for the camera. Here we do not see a dead man propped up for a portrait, but a man who has cheated death only to live long enough to be executed. The stand allows Ned to stand upright long enough for an exposure to be made, his bullet riddled legs far too weak to keep him up for long enough unaided. This also explains the pose whereby he appears to be leaning back.

As we move up we see his trousers bunched up at the waist by the belt that stopped his irons from dragging. The next morning when the irons were removed and the belt thereby removed also a twisted cloth had to be used as a makeshift belt to deny Ned the indignity of having his pants falling down constantly. Here we also see Ned’s crippled hands. His right hand so damaged from bullets at Glenrowan that he could barely hold a pen, hence his final letters being dictated and signed with an X. His left hand was comparatively stronger, but his arm was basically useless from his elbow being smashed in the opening volleys of the Glenrowan siege. The curious thing to note here is what appears to be a ring on Ned’s right hand. It was suggested even at the time that Ned was known to have been engaged to marry and some have even gone so far as to state that Ned had a wife when he was outlawed. Could this be a wedding ring?

As we move up we see the faint, faded white broad-arrow on the right side of his chest showing that his uniform was the property of the government, just as his lifeless body would become property of the government once it had finished hanging for the requisite half hour, after which his renowned locks would be shaved off, a cast of his head made, then his body given to medical students. When we look into the face of the outlaw we are not seeing a man defying his captors, we see a man doomed to die clutching at his dignity and trying to leave a memory for his family of a fighter, a rebel rather than an executed felon. Perhaps this image above all others gives a window into the soul of the most infamous outlaw in Australian history. 

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