Combes was an engineer, pastoralist, politician and painter, was born on 6 September 1830 at Fonthill-Gifford, Wiltshire, England, son of William Combes, farmer and surveyor, and his wife Anne, née Bracher. Combes was educated at the Ecole des Mines and the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, Paris; later he studied civil and mechanical engineering. He migrated to Victoria in 1851 and prospected and worked as an engineer at Ballarat and Bendigo. In 1854 he returned to Paris for two years training in scientific engineering and studied free-hand and water-colour drawing. In 1855 he was appointed commissioner to the Paris International Exhibition and engineering aide to Louis Napoleon; later he assisted Count de Gasparin and Evelyn Denison (Lord Ossington) in the agricultural section of the exhibition. In 1856 at Harpford, Devon, he married Harriette, daughter of William Hare of Exeter. In 1857 Combes returned to Victoria as an engineer. In 1858 he joined the New South Wales public service; he was mining engineer and surveyor at Forbes in 1862 and later at Lucknow and Glanmire where he bought land and built Glanmire Hall. In 1865 he was chairman of the Court of Appeal established by the Gold Fields Act, and in 1870 a royal commissioner inquiring into the operation of the Act.
By 1870 Combes was well known in the central western district of New South Wales and had been attracted to James Martin’s form of protection to native industries. In 1869 he failed to win the Bathurst seat but succeeded in 1872. As a ‘Martinian’ he was opposed to Henry Parkes who became premier in 1872. Combes soon emerged as a ‘strong but serene’ debater with a touch of invective and a sense of humour. Disturbed by bushranging activities on the central goldfields he moved an amendment in June 1874 disapproving the premature release of several prisoners, including Frank Gardiner; the government was saved by the Speaker’s casting vote. In November Combes revived the question after Parkes had produced an Executive Council minute in which Governor Sir Hercules Robinson was alleged to have criticized improperly some members of parliament. The ensuing debate raised constitutional issues on the exercise of the prerogative of mercy, the relationship of the Legislative Assembly to the governor and the right of petition, and resulted in the resignation of the government.
Combes did not contest the elections, but in 1877-79 he was member for Orange and generally a supporter of John Robertson though he retained his protectionist views. Robertson made him secretary for public works from August to December 1877 and he helped to ‘set the disorderly Department in order’. In 1878 he was appointed executive commissioner at the Paris International Exhibition, and was required to report on educational developments in Europe and England including kindergarten and technical training; his absence led to his seat being declared vacant in February 1879 and some troublesome questions about his expenses, but his work earned him the C.M.G. and membership of the Legion of Honour. By this time he was also a member of the Society of Civil Engineers of France, and an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers of England. In August he won the seat of East Macquarie and held it until 1885. In 1880 he was a commissioner for New South Wales at the Melbourne International Exhibition. In 1891-95 he was a member of the Legislative Council. Combes was not an active legislator, but he was an effective local member and contributed significantly to the development of colonial public works and education policy.
Meanwhile Combes had developed his artistic skill. In 1879 he directed the art section of the Garden Palace Exhibition. The Bulletin, 23 April 1881, described him as the ‘best amateur painter in Sydney and the wonder [is] … that the prosy mechanical engineer can find time to indulge in the “seraph ecstasy” of a pictorial ideal’. He showed his work in London galleries and at the Paris salon. In 1883 he was on the committee of the New South Wales Academy of Art, formed in 1871, and president of the Art Society of New South Wales. Apparently through his efforts, the government in 1874 granted £500 towards the formation of an art gallery useful to students, a step said to mark the foundation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Combes was appointed one of the five trustees to administer the fund. When the trust was reconstituted in 1876 he was abroad, but in England he persuaded the trustees to spend their entire annual grant of £500 on Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Chaucer at the Court of Edward III’, the first oil painting bought by the gallery and still one of its most prized works.
Combes’s painting was highly regarded in London and Paris and he was a member of the Royal Institute of Water-colour Painters, but he did not seek a colonial reputation. To the gallery he helped to found and to direct for twenty years he gave only one work, an etching of one of his paintings. In 1895 his family gave the gallery ‘La Perouse, Botany Bay’, a water-colour of which a large version in oils had won honourable mention at the Paris salon. It was hung in an ‘English’, not an ‘Australian’ gallery for many years and later lent to Vaucluse House.
In 1883-89 as president of the Board of Technical Education Combes helped to raise the standard of trades and professional training; he visited Europe in 1885 and his report on overseas technical education was a stimulus to its development in all Australian colonies. In 1889-90 in London he successfully negotiated the publication of Parkes’s Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (London, 1892). Combes died at Glanmire Hall on 18 October 1895, and was buried in the Church of England section of the Waverley cemetery. His wife had died in 1883. Of their three sons and three daughters, Alice Herminie was a gifted water-colourist, and Frances Selina James, who married Alfred Ivatt, published over the name ‘Lee Ivatt’ between 1910 and 1931 four volumes of verse and a story for children.
A portrait bust by Simonetti is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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