Locked away in the bowels of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery’s Inveresk site is a collection of items that staff treat with awed reverence.
The museum’s foundation collection, made up of objects bequeathed to QVMAG at its inception in the late 19th century, is protected by what are known as the founding documents: an arcane set of rules governing how the collection is handled.
No-one is allowed to touch the collection. It isn’t to be displayed to the public.
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“Those things are very strictly controlled,” QVMAG collections and research manager Christine Hansen says.
Among the items in the foundation collection are those donated by former premier Sir Richard Dry’s wife: Lady Clara Dry, nee Meredith.
Lady Dry was known as an impeccable hostess who would hold court at Quamby Estate at Hagley, sometimes called the Government House of the North.
But she also had a thirst for adventure, something that Tasmanian women in the 1800s couldn’t easily indulge.
And yet after her husband died in 1869, aged 53, the 40-year-old Lady Dry sailed abroad, travelling Europe, the Middle East and Egypt.
Not content with merely seeing the sights, Lady Dry collected artefacts and curios on her travels, amassing an eclectic assortment of them over time.
One of those items was an Egyptian mummy, which she donated to QVMAG in 1891, the year the museum was established.
Records show the mummy is male and trace it back to the reign of Rameses III, c. 1700 BCE.
It’s believed Lady Dry acquired the human remains prior to 1874.
Hansen suspects Lady Dry purchased the mummy from “shady dealers” or “tomb-robbers”.
“Can you imagine a woman travelling alone – she probably had a chaperone – in the 1870s from Tasmania buying antiquities?” she says. “I can’t even conceive what that would look like or how amazing that would have been for her.”
The daughter of prominent settler George Meredith, Lady Dry grew up at the Cambria homestead, near Swansea, which Meredith named after a village in his native Wales.
Historian Alison Alexander says it would have been an isolated life for a young woman like Clara Meredith, compounded by the fact that she had a “very dominant” father.
“He was a nasty piece of work, getting a lot of land by roguery and behaving appallingly to other people,” Alexander says. “He was a major opponent of [Lieutenant-Governor] George Arthur, mainly because Governor Arthur tried to bring him into line and stop him breaking the law.”
In 1853, the young Miss Meredith, then 24, married Sir Richard, 37, who was the son of an Irish convict and later went on to be the first Tasmanian to be knighted.
Two years previously, Sir Richard had been appointed Speaker of the Legislative Council, after having risen to prominence through his vehement opposition to the continuation of convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.
And so Sir Richard and his new wife settled down together at Quamby, his father’s property.
“There she was, this girl … growing up in Cambria, isolated,” Alexander says. “Then she captures the most eligible bachelor in Tasmania.”
“She must have had something.”
The Launceston Historical Society’s Nigel Burch says Lady Dry came to be “extraordinarily popular”.
“She was extremely popular in the district [of Hagley],” he says. “She was always welcoming people to their big house there and arranging functions and fundraisers.”
“She always cared for others … and made her home a centre of the community.”
The Drys never had children, which Alexander speculates would have been a disappointment for Lady Dry.
“She would have felt as though she’d failed … I feel sure,” she says.
Sir Richard became Tasmania’s seventh premier in 1866. He died in office in 1869, at just 53 years of age.
He left behind a 40-year-old widow.
“[Lady Dry] was still quite young when [Sir Richard] died,” Alexander says. “And then she blossomed.”
“Not that he kept her under [his thumb] or anything but she had money and she could travel and buy things.”
While she had gone on shopping trips to Melbourne when Sir Richard was still alive, it wasn’t until after his death that Lady Dry embarked on a grand overseas tour.
She and her late husband had been avid collectors, accumulating art, in particular.
Following Sir Richard’s death, Lady Dry ramped up her collecting habits, scouring the globe for artefacts with an archaeologist’s zeal.
She acquired everything from Middle Eastern textiles and religious objects to Italian ceramics and jewellery.
After Lady Dry moved to England later in life, she donated all the curiosities she’d amassed over the years to QVMAG and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.
“Late in life she started having a few health issues, so even though her home was in England, she’d spend quite a bit of time in Egypt with the warmer climate,” Burch says. “While she was there, she’d go exploring and picking up souvenirs.”
“It was quite an eclectic mix of stuff. Things that people here would never have seen otherwise. So there was quite a bit of interest in it at the time.”
“Without having heirs, no children, [Lady Dry] donated a heap [of what she’d collected] back.
“And, of course, she was running out of money by the end so her estate wasn’t large by the time she died. But she had heaps of artefacts so she just donated them back.”
Hansen says Lady Dry’s story is a “feminist” one.
“She was a woman of her era,” Hansen says. “But she also had this incredible life after her husband died, which is unknown.”
So unknown, in fact, that details of her travels are still relatively scant.
She was a woman of her era. But she also had this incredible life after her husband died, which is unknown.
Christine Hansen, QVMAG collections and research manager
Reg Watson, a historian, says he’s “surprised” more attention hasn’t been paid to Lady Dry and her work: “Much more research will have to be done on her.”
Indeed, Hansen is seeking further information on Lady Dry’s life and work so as to shed light on the items she donated to the museum.
“We can’t … right now get much further with the Egyptian material but that’s not to say that she didn’t leave a diary somewhere,” Hansen says. “Did she have letters? Are they still with the family?”
“If you had an account of her going to an antiquities market in Marrakesh … you might hear more about why she bought [the mummy] or what the story was.”
It’s Hansen’s hope that an honours student may one day trace the steps of the intrepid Lady Dry and uncover a potential paper trail in the process.
But until then, the items Lady Dry donated to the state’s major museums, will remain shrouded in mystery.
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