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Sam Byrne

Monday, 15th August, 2011

Sam Byrne was born in the Barossa Valley in 1883 and moved to Broken Hill with his family when he was two years old making him, as he declared, “as old as the town itself”.  

Byrne lived through the development of the city. He took part in the early strikes in 1892, 1909 and 1919 and witnessed many other events over his lifetime. 

He worked on the mines until he retired in 1949 and only began to paint when he was 72 years old. He began by depicting his memories, preferring to paint with oil and enamel paints. 

As an artist he was mostly self taught, although he received some direction from the artist and teacher, May Harding. 

Typical of his paintings, in “Cecelia Resists Arrest Unusual Transport of Broken Hill” Byrne was illustrating a real event that he saw.

“The funniest sight I have ever seen here happened when I was selling papers. A brawl broke out at one of the brothels in Cobalt Street area. It was owned by Cecelia Prendergast, and police got word that a brawl was on down there, and the police went to arrest Cecelia, but she put up such a struggle, fought like a wild cat - scratched and bit and kicked, so that by the time the police had made the arrest her clothes had got all torn off, and she was in a nude state. This caused quite a problem. One of the policemen said, “How are we going to get her to the lock up?” 

“Anyhow, then they saw an old wheelbarrow there that they commandeered, and she was still struggling and shouting when the strapped her into it and wheeled her to the police station through the main street, and there was a delighted crowd of several hundred following, a terrible crowd of all nations trying to get an eyeful - see Cecelia in the nude - because as fast as they could chuck anything on her, a rug or a blanket or something, she’d hurl it back at the police. 

“Eventually, they got her back to the police station. It was a sight I’ve never forgotten.”

Byrne’s work is important not only for its artistic value, but also for its recording of social history, especially those elements that were ignored by photographers of the period.

Byrne died in 1978 in Broken Hill. His work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, most State collections and in private collections in Australia, Europe and North America.

“Cecelia Resists Arrest” was purchased by the Art Gallery Advisory Committee in 1988 from a private collection.

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