J o h n E l d e r s h a w
AWI President 1945-1948
A watercolour has great individualism, and its aesthetic importance is equal to that of any medium. A good watercolour is as fine an achievement as any other art form, and its quick and spontaneous expression is well adapted to the tempo of today. – John Eldershaw, Catalogue, Foreword, 1944
A tall, sinewy man with a neatly manicured moustache, a thick, unruly shock of hair and lucid blue-gray eyes that peered intently from behind rimless spectacles, John Eldershaw was fifty-three years of age when he succeeded J.W. Maund as President of the Australian Watercolour Institute in April 1945. A decade earlier, Maund, in opening Eldershaw’s 1935 exhibition of watercolours at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, had extolled the artist as ‘a master of his medium’, whose works were in the best tradition of English watercolour painting while remaining stylistically singular in their execution.1
As the youngest foundation member of the incipient Institute in 1923, Eldershaw, then residing in Tasmania, had already consolidated his reputation as one of the most successful watercolourists in the Commonwealth. The Evening News of 21 June 1923 carried an accolade to the artist which, in view of the vicissitudes of cultural history, sadly has Ozymandian echoes:
One of the most interesting artistic careers in recent years has been that of John Eldershaw, the Tasmanian watercolourist, who is destined to leave unmistakable footprints in the sands of time.
The second of four children, John Roy Eldershaw born on 6 December 1891 in Randwick, New South Wales, to Philip Eld Eldershaw, Clerk of Petty Sessions and Chamber Magistrate, and Mary Ann, née Brown.2 His paternal grandfather, Finney Eldershaw (1819-1867), had emigrated to Australia from England at the age of twenty-one and, as an early pioneer, authored Australia as it really is, in life, scenery and adventure, published in London in 1854. A similar, seemingly genetic, predisposition to wanderlust would drive John Eldershaw on an inexorable, lifelong exploration of the remote Australian landscape to pictorially capture nature in all its aspects, moods and caprices. In fact, such was his love of landscape that Eldershaw professed that, if he hadn’t been a painter, he would have been a naturalist.3 His first cousin, Flora Eldershaw, was a noted novelist, critic and historian.
Eldershaw’s early years were spent in Wagga Wagga, where he attended Wagga Wagga State School, one of his contemporaries there being Rah Fizelle, who would gain renown as a painter and pioneer of Modernism in Australia. However, in 1905, his comfortable, bucolic family life was thrust into turmoil when Philip Eld Eldershaw brought an action for divorce against his wife, Mary Ann, familiarly known as May, on the grounds of adultery.4 The co-respondent was her brother-in-law, chess master and health inspector, Lawrence Spencer Crakanthorp (husband of Philip Eldershaw’s sister, Florence). The scandal surrounding the Eldershaw divorce case aroused widespread prurient interest with lengthy reports of the trial, including intimate disclosures given in testimony, being published in the press nationally. The judge’s decision in the case, delivered in June 1906, was that adultery had been proven and a decree nisi for dissolution of the marriage was granted.5 Philip Eldershaw soon remarried, in 1907, in Wagga Wagga.6 Thirteen years later, in 1920, Mary Ann Eldershaw would wed Lawrence Spencer Crakanthorp, following the death of Crakanthorp’s wife, Florence.7
Subsequent to his parents’ divorce, Eldershaw moved to Sydney, at the age of fourteen, to live with his mother and three brothers, while completing his education at Fort Street High School. Upon leaving school, he was employed by the Sydney Harbour Trust, training as an architectural draughtsman. Dissatisfied in this profession, which he found uninspiring, Eldershaw went to evening classes in life drawing and painting at J.S. Watkins’ art school and subsequently studied under the tutelage of Julian Ashton. Demonstrating considerable talent in the landscape genre, he worked predominantly in the medium of watercolour, influenced by Romantic English landscape artists, J.M.W. Turner and Peter de Wint, as well as the luminaries of the early Norwich School of painters, John Chrome and John Sell Cotman. A purist in watercolour technique, Eldershaw preferred to paint in situ directly from nature, alla prima, maintaining the transparency of the medium and luminosity of the white paper.
He was also an ardent admirer of the work of Australian artists, Sydney Long, J.J. Hilder and Elioth Gruner, having formed a firm friendship with latter, with whom he shared a fascination for the rhythmic ‘anatomy of the earth,’ as well as a preoccupation with the myriad effects of light, both chromatic and textural. This prompted the art critic of the Sydney Sun to write about Eldershaw, ‘At his strongest and best, he is a fine painter of light, realising admirably that vibrant quality of Australian landscape in clear, crisp washes.’8 Yet, Eldershaw’s early works showed such a marked influence of J. J. Hilder that, as Joan Campbell pointed out, they were unkindly referred to as ‘Hildershaws’ before he evolved his own assured, subjective style.9
Like Gruner, Eldershaw was peripatetic in his pursuit of subjects. For six months of the year, throughout most of his life, Eldershaw would travel by caravan, a mobile studio, painting Australia’s hinterland – a lone figure in the landscape characteristically wearing a massive, wide-brimmed hat, similar to a sombrero, to protect his eyes while painting into the sun to maximise the saturation of light on his subject.
Although painting had become his raison d’être, to support himself, Eldershaw retained his position at the Sydney Harbour Trust. By 1915, his watercolours had attracted the favourable notice of art aficionados, including collector, John Henry Young, (later founder, with Basil Burdett, of Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in 1925, and acting-director, in 1944, of the then National Gallery of New South Wales). It was Young who proposed forming a consortium, with three other men, to provide patronage of £200 so that the twenty-three year old artist could quit the Sydney Harbour Trust and consecrate all his time to painting. This benefaction, and the autonomy it bestowed on him in his artistic pursuit, was providential — changing the course of Eldershaw’s life and launching his career as a professional landscape painter. After abandoning his job as a draughtsman, Eldershaw journeyed around Australia sourcing subjects for his paintings and mounted an exhibition that sold extremely well. His benefactors offered him another year of finance but Eldershaw declined, repaying them with paintings to the value of their patronage. Henceforth, Eldershaw would live exclusively from the proceeds of sales of his work, being among very few artists fortunate enough to do so. Decades later, he would recall his acceptance of Young’s proposition as an epiphany, ‘an exhilarating moment – the best of my life.’10
John Young then established a framing business in Bond Street, Sydney, in 1916, where Eldershaw, Roland Wakelin, Lloyd Rees, Roy de Maistre and Percy Leason gathered to discuss art and in which premises de Maistre and Wakelin undertook their initial ‘colour-music’ experiments. The visionary Young encouraged them all and was, to a certain extent, responsible for shaping their careers, most notably in his capacity as founding director of Macquarie Galleries, the inaugural exhibition there being works by Roland Wakelin.11
Ambitious and confident of his skills, Eldershaw exhibited regularly, from 1912, with the Royal Art Society and the Society of Artists, of which he was a member, and held exhibitions of his work annually in commercial galleries in every state, from 1920, with numerous plaudits and feature articles in the press throughout his career. Moreover, from 1930 until 1972, he was fifteen times a finalist in the Wynne Prize for landscape at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Although an exponent of naturalism, he was conversant with modernism, having averred that all of his paintings contained some abstract elements, ‘as all good paintings must.’12 Even into his latter years as a mature artist, Eldershaw investigated various modernist approaches to the pictorial image, while eschewing pure abstraction in favour of abstracted figuration.
Eldershaw married Dorothea (Thea) Willis Barclay, daughter of David Barclay, Managing Director of the Commercial Bank of Tasmania, and Grace Agnes Salier, on 24 April 1920 at St. David’s Cathedral, Hobart.13 A sculptress eight years Eldershaw’s senior, Barclay had studied with British-born Charles Douglas Richardson in Melbourne prior to spending three years in Paris under the tuition of Swedish-American sculptor, Peter David Edstrom, a member of Gertrude Stein’s inner circle, and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, former pupil of Rodin. Achieving early success, Barclay’s sculptures were exhibited in the 1910 Paris Salon and, in 1914, she had a joint exhibition in Sydney with Ethel Anna Stephens, Julian Ashton’s first student and a seminal figure in the Australian arts and crafts movement. Based in Sydney from her native Hobart during World War I, Barclay famously operated the Red Cross toy industry, designing toys to be crafted by disabled returned soldiers, and participated in the 1915 Royal Art Society Artists’ War Fund Exhibition. Barclay’s professional reputation as an artist waned following her marriage.
Having decided to reside in Tasmania, the couple bought a disused convict-built steam mill on the Coal River in historic, picturesque Richmond township, 25 kilometres northeast of Hobart, which they converted into a heritage house and studio. During the twenty years they lived there, Eldershaw found inexhaustible inspiration in the immense variety of the Tasmanian landscape, its quaint rural cottages and historical structures, producing numerous renderings of the beautiful stonework and carvings of Ross Bridge, built by convicts in 1836, as well as the graceful arches of Richmond Bridge, the oldest bridge in Australia, constructed in 1825. Eldershaw’s Bridge, Richmond, Tasmania, was purchased by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from the 1919 annual Society of Artists exhibition and another of his paintings of Richmond Bridge is in the British Royal Art Collection, having been presented as Tasmania’s official wedding gift to HRH Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten on the occasion of their marriage in 1947. During the 1930s, he was commissioned by the Tasmanian Government Tourist Bureau to produce paintings and posters for their campaigns and, in 1937, the official Christmas card sent by then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons featured Eldershaw’s watercolour, Church of St. John, Richmond, Australia’s earliest Roman Catholic church. His most important commission was from the National Capital Development Commission, Canberra, to paint a series of landscapes in 1964. While in Tasmania, Eldershaw also developed an interest in trout fishing, which would become a passion parallel to his painting practice.
On 25 January 1926, an article appeared in The Mercury, reporting that: By reason of the art exhibits he has held in Hobart, and his Tasmanian associations generally, Mr John Eldershaw, the watercolour artist, has made his name familiar to a large number of people in the State. He has now decided that, in furtherance of his career as a painter, he ought not to lose the opportunity which presents itself for a visit to England and the Continent for, as he observed in the course of an interview, ‘All painters make Europe, and particularly France and Italy, their mecca so that they may see the works of the masters…’
Eldershaw left Australia with his wife, Thea, and their two children, Lisbeth, 5, and David, 3, arriving in Southampton aboard the vessel SS Diogenes on 11 June 1926.14 A third child, Peter Ross Eldershaw, was born on 5 January 1927 at West Looe, Cornwall, England. During an itinerant two years abroad, Eldershaw studied lithography at the Central School for Arts and Crafts in London and painted in England, Italy, Spain, France and Holland, some of his works being hung in the Royal Academy, London, and the Paris Salon. He returned with his family to Australia from Marseilles, France, on 1 November 1928, on the French ship Commissaire Ramel.15
Their family life in Tasmania was a happy one until the late 1930s, when they were beset by a series of tragic events. Eldershaw’s youngest son, Peter, fell victim to the poliomyelitis epidemic of 1937-38, which left his legs paralysed and consigned him to a wheelchair (although, in later years, he would transcend the constraints of his disability to become an eminent archivist and founder of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association). Then, their eldest son, David John Eldershaw, serving with the 12th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, died of illness on 15 January 1942. Only 19 years of age, he had been studying architecture before enlisting in the AIF. The sense of oppression by malevolent fate poisoned Tasmania for Eldershaw and ultimately led to the rupture of his marriage. After a separation of several years, they would divorce in 1949.
The Second World War provided a means of escape to the mainland and, from 1943, he served as a camouflage officer with the Victorian Division of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Department of Home Security. Having developed an almost pathological aversion to Tasmania, at the end of the war, in 1945, Eldershaw settled in Sydney, where he built a house and studio in Deep Creek Road, Narrabeen. The following year, HRH the Duchess of Gloucester, herself a competent watercolourist, attended Eldershaw’s exhibition at the Moreton Gallery in Brisbane, all 31 paintings having been sold within a few hours of the opening, and was impressed with his work. At the invitation of the Duchess, Eldershaw visited Yarralumla, the vice-regal residence in Canberra, to produce a series of paintings of the local landscape commissioned by her husband, HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, then Governor-General of Australia. That same year, Eldershaw proved instrumental in persuading HRH the Duchess of Gloucester to grant her patronage to the Australian Academy of Art, formed on 19 June 1937, of which he was a foundation member. Modelled on the British Royal Academy of Art, the Australian Academy of Art was, from its inception, beset by controversy and only endured until its final exhibition by members in 1946.
As one of Australia’s most respected and widely known watercolourists, Eldershaw’s tenure as President of the Institute had an invigorating influence, attracting new and more stylistically adventurous members, including Hal Missingham, George Duncan, Jack Carrington Smith, Frank Hinder, Lorna Nimmo, Frank Medworth, Alfred Cook, James Cook, Frank McNamara, Max Ragless, Arthur Murch and Robert Campbell. Though quietly-spoken, but with a terse wit, Eldershaw was vigorous in his presidential role, inviting an unprecedented number of established artists to participate in the annual exhibitions. In fact, the sharpest increase in membership was during the post-war years, with representation from all states. The art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald commented in his review of the 1945 AWI annual exhibition that, ‘In its considerably enlarged exhibition this year, the Australian Watercolour Institute gives a decidedly better account of itself than it has in former years. A slightly more animated note has entered these watercolours and the medium generally is treated with less of that exaggerated respect which denies imagination in freedom.’ From that exhibition, four paintings were acquired by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Autumn Lagoon by Ronald Steuart, Tall City Window by Lorna Nimmo, Ponte Greve, Florence by Arthur Murch and Boat Building Yard by Max Ragless) and the Marshall Bequest bought Rough Weather on the Coast by Frank McNamara and Fig Tree Wharf by Alfred Cook. In 1947, the Sydney Morning Herald similarly reported that, ‘The 24th annual exhibition of the Australian Watercolour Institute at the Education Department Gallery reveals an unexpected improvement in its approach,’ and that, ‘the society has, almost for the first time, allowed a certain element of excitement, even daring on its walls.’ The trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales again acquired four paintings from that exhibition (by Robert Campbell, Lorna Nimmo, Frank Medworth and G.K. Townshend).
In 1951, Eldershaw married artist and renowned children’s book author, Elisabeth Innes MacIntyre, creator of Ambrose Kangaroo, with whom he had a daughter, Jane, currently an illustrator and author.16 As a result of a horse riding accident, MacIntyre had become profoundly deaf at an early age but, as Shakespeare opined, sweet are the uses of adversity. Drawing strength from this misfortune, her handicap became a stimulus to, rather than a deterrent from, her creative ambitions, later inspiring The Purple Mouse, a fable about a deaf girl. Through her publishing success in America, MacIntyre organised an exhibition of Eldershaw’s work in New York in 1953 under the direction of the Department of Information.17 While Eldershaw was President of the Institute, MacIntyre participated in the 1948 AWI annual exhibition and frequently accompanied Eldershaw on his forays to the outback, including a 6000-kilometre odyssey to Central and Northern Australia, her vivid, illustrated account of which was published in the Australian Women’s Weekly.18 On that occasion, while driving along a creek bed 250 miles from Alice Springs, their truck became bogged and it was a fortnight until some passing local aborigines assisted in pushing it back on the road.
Ultimately, Eldershaw’s second marriage would, likewise, eventually end in divorce and, given his avowed abhorrence of urban existence, he spent his final years living alone in Narrabeen when not traversing Australia in his caravan. Reflecting on the fact that artists are loners, and he more than most, Eldershaw declared in an interview, ‘I’m very selfish. I need only my work.’19
While on a painting expedition to Nimmitabel, near the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, Eldershaw collapsed and died of a heart attack on 20 May 1973, survived by his daughter Jane. The two remaining children from his first marriage had pre-deceased him (Lisbeth Anne on 18 March 1953, age 32, and Peter Ross on 23 July 1967, age 40).
At the time of his death, he was the last surviving foundation member of the Australian Watercolour Institute, being an Honorary Life member since 1960, and held the record as the longest exhibiting member, having participated in fifty AWI annual exhibitions. In tribute, Sir Erik Langker, president of the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, commented that Eldershaw would be remembered as one of Australia’s most outstanding painters.20
The year after his demise, the ACT Division of the Arts Council of Australia mounted a memorial exhibition of the paintings comprised in Eldershaw’s estate, one of which was presented to the Australian War Memorial at the opening. The artist’s younger brother, Athol Gale Eldershaw, Sergeant, AIF 57th Infantry Battalion, had been killed in action, aged 21, in Fleurbaix, France, on 20 July 1916.21
Awarded numerous prizes, including the Commonwealth Jubilee open art competition in 1951, Eldershaw is represented in the collections of all State galleries, most regional galleries, the British Museum, the British Royal Art Collection and private collections in Australia and overseas.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 1935.
- Australia Birth Index, 1788-1922, Registration Number 29895.
- John Eldershaw interviewed by Hazel de Berg, 18 November 1965, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 145, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
- NSW State Records, Divorce Number 5419, 1905.
- Evening News, Sydney, ‘End of the Eldershaw Case,’ 26 June 1906.
- Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, Registration Number 11914.
- Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, Registration Number 11874.
- The Mercury, 9 July 1923.
- Campbell, Joan, Australian Watercolour Painters 1780-1980, Rigby, 1983.
- Hickman, Lorraine, ‘Landscapes Are My Thing,’ interview with John Eldershaw, Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 August 1972, p. 44.
- John Eldershaw interviewed by Hazel de Berg, 18 November 1965, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 145, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
- Tasmania Australia, Index to Marriage Notices in The Mercury, 1854-1962, The Mercury, 1 May 1920.
- UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960.
- Fremantle Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963.
- NSW Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages, Registration Number 17599/51.
- The Advertiser, Adelaide, 1 October 1953.
- MacIntyre, Elisabeth, ‘Artist Goes Walkabout’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 August 1951.
- Hickman, Lorraine, ‘Landscapes Are My Thing,’ interview with John Eldershaw, Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 August 1972, p. 45.
- The Australian, 23 May 1973.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 1916.
Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen
Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)