Jackie Dunn on Marshall Claxton

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

Marshall Claxton

The Dickinson family

1851
oil on canvas
Gift of Miss H M Dickinson 1899

After six months spent with loved ones at too-close quarters, Claxton’s ‘study-in-colonial-self-importance-disguised-as-a-sweet-family-portrait’ is suddenly speaking to me in a different voice. As always, I see a family, the Dickinsons, a girl and her dog. Only now I also hear the voice of another family, another dog, another girl, another Dickinson…

The ghost of American poet Emily Dickinson is calling, reminding me that at the very moment this was painted, she was loving her dog Carlo as Helen Mary is learning to love her Tiny. Carlo was Emily’s companion, protector, ally. ‘Dogs are better than human beings’, she declared, ‘because they know but do not tell’.

But Emily’s ghost still recognises a central, human, relationship – the same one Claxton is trying to get me to see. ‘Hold dear to your parents’, she tells the antipodean Dickinson child before me, ‘for it is a scary and confusing world without them’.

Jackie Dunn, special exhibitions curator and lover of the strange connections artworks conjure

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