An exclusive extract from The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

Rescued from the orphanage by sibling benefactors, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn, mathematics prodigy Jane Piper’s life has changed for the better. In this sample chapter we find Jane excited to be travelling from Maitland on a steam train to visit an exhibition at the State Gallery in Sydney (now called Art Gallery of New South Wales) with her benefactor. We also learn something of how this young woman’s mind works.

Maitland, 1912.

Jane couldn’t believe how quickly her life had changed. She’d moved into the attic bedroom just a week after she’d had tea with Michael and Elizabeth, found a brand-new school uniform hanging in the wardrobe, straw boater and all. Not only that, new shoes, two new skirts and three blouses.

Once she’d finished at St Joseph’s there were classes at the School of Arts and the Technical College and for the last six years her life had followed a similar pattern. When she’d finished classes she walked home for lunch, and spent the afternoon working with Elizabeth on the business accounts. Not just those of the auction house and the other Quinn businesses but many other local partnerships and charities Elizabeth supported.

She discovered there was a whole lot more to arithmetic than she thought. But most fascinating of all was Elizabeth’s abacus. Why didn’t everyone use one? It made everything so much faster.

Today however was not an accounts day. Oh no! She had a day off because she was going to Sydney. On the train with Michael and Elizabeth!

It didn’t bear thinking about.

She clattered down the stairs and slipped into the kitchen. Bessie had a bowl of porridge waiting for her. She’d hated porridge at the orphanage, now it was one of her favourites. Cream made all the difference, and the knob of butter Bessie always sat in the middle, but best of all was the brown sugar, a lovely crust on the top.

‘Got a big day ahead of you, I hear.’ Bessie plonked a glass of milk down on the table, all creamy and frothy on the top. ‘Take your hat off while you’re eating.’

‘I’ve never been on a train before and I’ve never been to Sydney. We are going to The National Art Gallery of New South Wales.’ She swallowed the last mouthful of delicious porridge. ‘It is a temple to art. I’m very interested in the proportions of the building.’ The last spoonful of cream disappeared. ‘And then tomorrow I have a philosophy class with Professor Watling at the School of Arts. I’m giving a talk. The last one before the Christmas holidays.’

‘Oh, are you now. You’d be good at that. What would you be talking about?’


‘Fibon – who?’

‘Fibonacci. He was an Italian mathematician, although that wasn’t his real name. He lived in the twelfth century. He introduced the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Mean.’ And it made sense of everything. Patterns never lied.

‘And I suppose now you’ll be heading off to Victoria to them there goldfields.’

‘Not that kind of gold. It’s represented everywhere in nature. In the coil of a seashell, the seeds of a sunflower. Leaves, branches and petals can all grow in spirals.’

‘And, you’ll be telling me next, in those stinkin’ rabbit paws, rotten shells, dried plants, and all them numbers.’

‘One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen.’

I thought you were good at numbers, they ain’t right, all muddled up, even I know that.’

‘It’s a sequence. You simply add the previous two numbers to create the next.’ She sketched a spiral with her index finger. ‘The Golden Mean. It explains the perfect shape of nature.’

‘Nature is it? That would account for the fact that room of yours is full to the gunnels with all that desiccated rubbish making it stink worse than the compost heap. I’m planning on sending Lucy in there to clean up today.’

Jane shot to her feet and grabbed Bessie’s floury hand. ‘Oh no. Please don’t. I promise I’ll clean it up as soon as I get home.’ She couldn’t have Lucy in there messing with her belongings, she’d never find anything again.

‘And all those screwed up pieces of paper all over the floor. Why can’t you use a bin like any normal person?

‘Because they’re not rubbish. I might need them.’

‘Just as well you’re tucked away in the attic, not in one of the guest rooms. Don’t see why you can’t use a notebook like any sane person.’

Jane slipped her hand into her pocket and ran her fingers over the beautiful leather bound note book Elizabeth had given her last Christmas. The trouble was she always tore the pages out, either to keep pinned to the wall or in her pocket where she could check them easily, whenever she had a spare moment.

‘Pull your stockings up and tie that hair back, you look like a tramp.’

‘I’ll clear my room up when I get back. Tomorrow.’

‘That will be a little difficult, won’t it? You’re off to the School of Arts with Mr Fibon Archie.’

‘I’ll do it after supper, when I get back.’

‘And I suppose you’ll be banging and crashing in there all night and Lucy’ll be complaining in the morning that she couldn’t get any sleep.’

If Lucy hadn’t kicked up such a fuss and managed to wheedle her way into the other attic room she’d have nothing to complain about, besides she did nothing but sleep. Said she needed eight hours a night. What a lot of poppycock. Jane hardly ever slept more than two hours at a time. Her eyes would flash open and her mind would whir and she’d be out of bed and at her desk.

‘I’ll be quiet, I promise. Please, please don’t let Lucy into my room.’ She clasped her hands together and schooled her face into most beseeching expression she could manage.

‘Get away with you. Let me look at you.’

Jane gave a small pirouette and hoped she’d got it right. Her navy skirt, just the right length, the toes of her shoes, which she’d polished until her arm wanted to drop off, peeping out, gloves and her straw boater trimmed with one of her navy hair ribbons.

‘Perfect. Just right for a day in the city. Mr Michael’s waiting for you in the sitting room and don’t forget to say goodbye to Miss Elizabeth.’

‘Isn’t she coming?’ The brightness of the morning dimmed a little. She’d imagined the three of them would be going. ‘Why not?’

‘Better ask her.’ Bessie shrugged her shoulders and turned back to her scones. ‘Off you go.’

Jane found Elizabeth at her desk in the sitting room, writing letters, Michael standing gazing out of the window tapping his cane against the skirting board.

‘Good morning, Aunt Elizabeth, Uncle Michael.’ Despite everything they had done for her she still wasn’t quite sure where she fitted. Neither servant nor family. She fluctuated between the two, sometimes on the outside looking in and sometimes more intimate than she ever hoped to be, in the strangely compelling home on Church Street. They insisted she should call them aunt and uncle, and who was she to complain? Besides, it made her feel more family than servant.

Elizabeth lifted her head and smiled. ‘All ready?’

‘Please tell me you’re coming too.’

Elizabeth offered a wry smile. ‘I have a mound of correspondence to attend to and a meeting this afternoon. I’m not overfond of train travel and Sydney’s not my favourite place. Too many memories …’

Michael rested his hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder. ‘That was over forty years ago, although I’ll admit you couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.’

Jane’s head came up with a snap.

‘What rubbish! You were running from the law and couldn’t wait to whisk me away.’

Aunt Elizabeth as a headstrong young girl? Michael in trouble with the law? It just didn’t fit the pattern. He was such an affable man. And Elizabeth … she always saw the best in people, always keen to help those less fortunate.

‘All ready, are we?’ Michael crooked his elbow and invited Jane to walk with him. ‘We need to leave now so we’ll make the eight o’clock train.’


Steam swirled and churned along the platform. A shrill whistle sounded and the giant wheels gave a mighty heave and picked up speed. The compartment rattled and banged and strained from left to right then settled into a steady movement, the wheels clacketty-clacking on the tracks.

For the first half of the journey Jane stared out of the window content trying to calculate the differentials in the speeds compared to the varying gradients and then she almost fell from the window as they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge trying to estimate the deformation under load at the centre of each span but now her patience had come to an end.

She yanked down the window and stuck her head out, her reward an eye full of sooty smoke. ‘Are we almost there?’

‘Not much longer, we’re approaching Redfern.’

‘Is that where we get off?’

‘No, we’ll continue to Central Railway Station and then take a cab down College Street. It’ll save us a walk.’

Jane pulled the scrunched piece of paper from her pocket and smoothed it out. It had taken an age for the authorities to decide on the exact nature of the building for the new gallery, and the description in the Maitland Mercury sounded quite fascinating. She ran her finger down the smudged ink. Classical Greek lines, interior divided into four halls, each one hundred by thirty feet with pillared archways.

‘We’re there.’

The train ground to a halt and Michael opened the door and descended to a platform stretching forever. She pulled on her gloves stepped down and lost her balance. She landed with a wrenched ankle and Michael’s hand steadying her.

‘I wasn’t looking where I was going. How long do you think the platform is?’

‘Oh Jane, I have absolutely no idea.’ Michael gave a chuckle. ‘There are other things in life than calculations, you know.’

None that particularly interested her. Although it was the description of the new gallery that had caught her attention, that and the chance to visit Sydney. The possibility of the proportions of the building conforming to the Golden Mean had plagued her ever since she’d read of the new design. ‘Do you think they’ll have any of Leonardo’s paintings? I’d love to see his Vitruvian Man. It’s based on the works of the architect Vitruvius. Who designed the art gallery?’

‘Not Vitruvius, I can assure you. A man by the name of Walter Liberty Vernon. He also designed Maitland Technical College and our railway station to name but a few of his achievements.’

‘I wonder if he took into account the measurements of man?’

‘The cabs are over here.’ Quite why Michael rolled his eyes she had no idea.

Jane spread out her hand and placed her palm flat. Four palms equalled a foot and six a cubit. She took a long step, catching her foot in the hem of her skirt. If a pace equalled four cubits an average man would measure twenty-four palms. ‘How long will it take us to get there?’

She’d like to pace out the internal measurements of the building, according to the newspaper article there was an oval lobby. She’d never stood in anything but a rectangular room, but then in all honesty she’d hadn’t stood in very many places at all.

‘There you are—The National Art Gallery of New South Wales.’

Jane’s breath caught when she gazed up at the imposing Ionic columns. Truly a classic Greek temple, perfectly proportioned, hovering between the trees. The newspaper journalist hadn’t lied when he’d called it a temple to art.

A temple that was totally over run by people.

‘Don’t get lost Jane, stay right by me.’

They took the broad stone stairs as though walking into a church. The autumn light slanted across the sandstone throwing a golden glow

‘Why is it so crowded?’

‘It’s the first viewing of the new exhibition for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in watercolour or oils. Anyone associated with the Labor campaign received an invitation.’

She might have guessed. Ever since Labor’s victory in the 1910 State election Michael spent more and more time in Sydney. Both he and and Elizabeth were great advocates for all things Australian, all people as well no matter where they came from. They went out of their way to help. It had taken her time to realise that it wasn’t just an arithmetic test that had made Elizabeth pick her out of the orphanage, it was what she did. She was a philanthropist.

A great crowd mingled under the skylights beyond the foyer. Everyone dressed to the nines, the men in formal suits and the women in huge hats with enough floating feathers to render an emu naked. ‘Have we really got to stand and wait? Couldn’t I go and have a look around?’

‘I think it would be a good idea if we did. Perhaps the queue will diminish. Come along.’

That was one of the best things about Michael, he hated wasting time. Probably because he was always so frantically busy. In fact, she’d been surprised when he’d suggested she join him. When he was at home he spent most of his time at the auction house, not in his office as she expected but on the shop floor, talking to customers, out the back chatting with John, the nightwatchman, or making sure everything ran smoothly. Despite his campaign to become a member of the Legislative Assembly at the next election he still managed to find time to make sure everyone was happy.

Instead of turning to the right Michael led the way to one of the smaller galleries off the main vestibule. Away from the crush of people the light inside was particularly bright reflecting from the glassed ceiling off the pale mint green walls.

They stopped at the entrance and Michael read aloud from a plaque outside.

‘“An exhibition of the first paintings purchased by Mr Nicholas Chevalier and Colin McKay Smith in 1875 for the National Art Gallery of New South Wales.” Right well let’s have a look. I was under the impression that they purchased Australian paintings. The first, if my memory serves me correctly, was Conrad Martens, a water colour of Apsley Falls.’

Michael’s cane tapped on the parquet floor as he began a slow tour around the perimeter. ‘Hmm. It would seem I was wrong. Why in heaven’s name would they purchase paintings from England? I realise it was before Federation but for goodness sake. We are our own country now.’

Jane let Michael’s political ranting wash over her as she made a quick circuit of the room. Seven paintings in all. All landscapes and nothing that looked remotely Australian, except perhaps the picture of a ship on a stormy grey sea. She stepped closer. Sir Oswald Brierly, A fresh breeze off Revel, France 1875. Not Australian. By the time they got out Michael would be in full flight.

God help them!

She moved on to the next painting. A group of cattle grazing by a river. It could have been the Hunter River except for the fact the light was softer, sort of older looking. Henry Britten Williams, Cattle piece, a scene on the Wye 1873. What was the Wye? She needed a map of England. It frustrated her enormously when she didn’t have all the facts at her finger tips.

The next painting was very much like the one of the cows by the river, a country scene, the sort of picturesque village they put on Christmas cards except there was no snow and no robins in sight. She’d never understood why people sent greetings cards of England in the winter when in Australia the sun was blinding and the sky an intense blue.

She’d rather be out of this gallery taking a look around the building, maybe a little more of the city. There had to be more than these country scenes. The next one showed a thatched cottage with a girl leaning over the gate. She leant forward to read the title: Waiting at the Village Gate Marigold Penter 1889.

Michael stepped up beside her. ‘No chance of mistaking that one for Australian.’ He let out a humph and turned to a page in the catalogue they had been given at the entrance. ‘It’s definitely England. It says the painter comes from the West Country. That she was one of the first female impressionists to be exhibited in Paris. Not my kind of thing. All this English rubbish.’

‘She is regarded as one of the most talented women in her field’

Jane spun around. A thin-faced man wearing a loose fitting checked jacket, the sort that would send Elizabeth into the pits of despair, regarded her with a patronising air. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Marigold Penter. My wife, the artist.’

Her face flushed as she tried to remember if she’d said anything inappropriate, or simply thought it. She’d be the colour of strawberry jam. Well and truly. What had Aunt Elizabeth said she must do when she put her foot in it? ‘I do beg your pardon.’ And change the subject. To what? ‘Have you had the opportunity to see the Australian landscape exhibition yet? Mr …’ she snatched another look at the card next to the painting ‘…Penter?’

‘Langdon Penter. No I haven’t. The crowds are a bit much.’ He sounded almost bored, his voice drawling.  ‘The Gallery purchased another of my wife’s village series and we have taken the opportunity to visit Australia.’

‘Seen enough, Jane? I think it’s time we went to look at the Australian paintings. This romantic English rubbish does nothing for me.’

‘This is Mr Langdon Penter.’ She glared at him. ‘His wife painted this picture.’

The tips of Michael’s ears turned an interesting shade of pink and he held out his hand. ‘Michael Quinn.’

‘Ah, Mr Quinn! It is my pleasure.’ Penter stepped in front of her with a self-confident smile and as good as elbowed her aside.

‘I was just commenting on your wife’s painting. Is it for sale?’

Michael wasn’t interested in buying the painting, not at all. She shot a look at him, caught his twinkling eyes.

‘The Gallery doesn’t sell the works it acquires.’ Mr Penter drew back his shoulders. ‘ They intend to show my wife’s paintings alongside some of your Australian impressionists.’

‘Indeed. How very exciting.’ Jane flashed Michael a look of triumph. ‘Is your wife here?’ She searched the crowd for someone who looked as though she might be an artist.

‘No, she is not. I handle her business arrangements.’

Michael threw her a warning look, knowing very well which way her mind had travelled. She’d spent long enough in Elizabeth’s company to be well versed in her belief that women should manage their own affairs.

‘Come along, Jane, let’s go and see if we can see the Australian landscapes. Nice to meet you.’ Michael bobbed his head and offered his arm. Jane slipped her hand through the crook of his elbow. And off they went leaving Mr Langdon Penter framing his next sentence.

The next two hours passed in a blur of pictures, strange smells and too many people. Nothing that sparked Jane’s interest. She got a mouthful from one of the suited gentlemen standing guard when she’d asked if they had any of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings.

What she’d like was a nice long glass of Bessie’s lemonade and maybe an egg and lettuce sandwich. Her stomach gave an assenting rumble.

When they finally stepped out onto the portico she dragged in a rewarding lungful of the fresh air blowing in from the Botanical Gardens. Michael drew to a halt. ‘What would you like to do now? A walk through the gardens. It’s quite shaded and there is a café in George Street where we can get a cup of tea, a late lunch, a strawberry ice perhaps. And then Elizabeth had a suggestion. She thought you might like to take a ride through the grounds of the University and see where you will sit the entrance exam then we’ll catch the Maitland train.’

Before Jane could respond Mr Penter appeared right in front of them, blocking the path. ‘What a coincidence. Maitland, you say? Small country town in the Hunter Valley, I believe.’

Michael puffed out his chest as he always did when the subject of Maitland came up. ‘Hardly small. A population of over eight thousand. Maitland is a very progressive city and we have a very active Benevolent Society who are keen to sponsor exhibitions, particularly now we have such a wonderful display space in the new Technical College.’

Penter held up his index finger with an air of self-importance. ‘I might be one step ahead of you. One of my wife’s painting will be on display at the Technical College. A Major Witherspoon has arranged it.’

Jane didn’t miss the look on Michael’s face. He and the Major couldn’t agree on anything that smacked of politics.

‘A display of significant paintings purchased by the Gallery. I’m sure you and your daughter would enjoy them.’

‘I shall mention the matter to my sister, she will be most interested. Does Mrs Penter sell to private collectors? I would enjoy viewing other her work.’ Had Michael gone mad? He’d already said he didn’t like the woman’s painting.

‘Unfortunately we’re leaving for Melbourne tomorrow my wife has an appointment with the Gallery there. Perhaps we could arrange a viewing on our return?’ Mr Penter rubbed his hands together, the skin on his palms making a lizard-like noise.

‘Perhaps.’ Michael slipped her arm through his and without another word started down the path.

‘We are hoping to bring the extended exhibition to Maitland after we finish in Melbourne.’ Penter called.

Michael let out a long-suffering sigh and turned back. ‘Are you, by Jove! Good chap. Now if you’ll excuse me, Jane and I have business to attend to.’

Cover image - The Girl In The Painting

For readers of The True Story of Maddie BrightThe Woman in the Green Dress and The Birdman’s Wife comes this atmospheric and richly detailed Australian historical mystery from a bestselling Australian author.

Maitland 1913 Miss Elizabeth Quinn is something of an institution in Maitland Town. For longer than anyone could remember she and her brother, businessman Michael, have lived in the impressive two-storey stone house next to the church. When she is discovered cowering in the corner of the exhibition gallery at the Technical College the entire town knows something strange has come to pass.

Was it the prehistoric remains or perhaps the taxidermy exhibition that had reduced the whale-boned encased pillar of society to a quivering mess? Or is there something odd about a striking painting on loan from the National Gallery?

Mathematical savant Jane Piper is determined to find out. Deposited on the doorstep of the local orphanage as a baby, she owes her life and education to the Quinns’ philanthropic ventures and Elizabeth has no one else to turn to.

As the past and the present converge, Elizabeth’s grip on reality loosens. Can Jane, with her logical brain and penchant for puzzles, unravel Elizabeth’s story before it is too late?

Ranging from the gritty reality of the Australian goldfields to the grand institutions of Sydney, the bucolic English countryside to the charm of Maitland Town, this compelling historical mystery in the company of an eccentric and original heroine is rich with atmosphere and detail.

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Posted on October 29, 2019 by

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"An exclusive extract from The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper"

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