James R. Jackson's Life - A Biography

James R Jackson 1933James Ranalph Jackson was born on 3 July 1882 near Palmerston, New Zealand. His parents were George Albert Jackson, an English surveyor descendant from a renowned family of silversmiths and watchmakers, and Mary Ann Julia Leach born in India, who had emigrated together to New Zealand in 1874.

Jackson was one of eleven siblings, living in modest but happy circumstances. Mary Ann died in 1890 after giving birth to another child. With the depression of the early 1890s making life very difficult for the single father, George took the large family to live in Darlinghurst in Sydney.

Living conditions were hard in Australia, too. The Jackson family however was assisted by a local Baptist minister, and from 1896 Reverend W.R. Hiddleston was looking after James in particular, and supporting him. Jackson displayed his artistic talent from an young age, drawing whenever and wherever he could. Sydney Harbour left a great impression on the boy, and it would remain a favourite subject for his entire life. 

James R. Jackson, 1933, photograph by H. Cazneaux
for "The Australian Home Beautiful", 1/5/1933

Jackson left school at a young age and was apprenticed to a decorator company, where his love and talent for drawing was ever more evident than at school. His boss encouraged him to approach Frank Mahoney, a teacher at the Royal Art Society. Soon after, Jackson started attending night classes at the RAS, and from 1902 attended also the J. S. Watkins Art School. During this time, Jackson got to know  Sydney Harbour intimately not only through trips in his own small sailing boat, but also racing on 18-footer yachts, and these experiences left him with a lifelong love for the outdoors, sailing and fishing.

1905 saw him winning the RAS scholarship and first prize in drawing and painting from life. His dream to visit Europe to further his artistic practice was now much closer to realisation. Jackson tried to study with Bernard Hall at the National Gallery School in Melbourne first, yet this plan didn’t work, and having found a cheap sea fare via New Zealand to Europe, Jackson headed for London in 1906. He managed to immediately enroll with Frank Brangwyn. His teachings would provide Jackson with a sound understanding of paint, preparation and colour, tone and composition.

Funds were again an issue, and made Jackson move to less expensive Paris to study at the Academy Colarossi. This move also allowed him to travel through France, Italy and Spain, completing his first European paintings.

On his return to Sydney in 1908 Jackson moved to North Sydney and joined the Royal Art Society which gave him the first opportunity to exhibit works. Jackson went on to exhibit with the RAS for many years, and from 1917 to 1926 also taught drawing and painting at the RAS school.

Jackson’s paintings were received very favourably: the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought their first work by him in 1910, titled ‘Maidenhood’, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 26 August 1910. The positive reviews in the press and the commercial success continued throughout the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.

The love of the outdoors led Jackson to enjoy the many artists' camps around Sydney in the 1910s, in particular the camp at Balls Head Bay, but also Dee Why which was frequented by James Muir Auld and other RAS artists. From 1913 the artists' camp at Narrabeen was the introduction to Jackson's lifelong attraction to Sydney's Northern Beaches and the start of his regular and frequent painting trips to country New South Wales and Victoria which he would undertake well into his seventies.  

Jackson also established firm links with Melbourne: he joined the Australian Art Association in 1916, exhibiting there and gaining a loyal following. In 1920, Gayfield Shaw Art Salon put together the first solo exhibition for Jackson in Sydney. 

In 1924, Jackson’s “Middle Harbour from Manly Heights” was the painting that would launch one of Australia’s most eminent regional galleries, the Manly Art Gallery & Museum. Read more about it in James R. Jackson's exhibition history.

Dora Toovey and James R Jackson in Europe 1927While teaching at the Royal Art Society, he met Dora Toovey, one of the young students, who was to become his wife, marrying her on 10 December 1924. Two years later, the couple set off for a two-year trip to Europe, visiting France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the UK. The trip inspired both artists, as their landscapes of the South of France, the Spanish mainland and islands and Venice still demonstrate.

After returning to Australia in 1928, the couple had their first child 1929, a daughter, Jacqueline. They also built their own home including artist’s studios at Battle Boulevarde in Seaforth, Sydney, a project that was very much that of his wife Dora. However, the depression of the 1930s was particularly hard on this artistic couple, and they had to lease and eventually sell their home. Jackson, Toovey and their young daughter went to live around Gloucester where life was cheaper, and where the landscape still proved to be an inspiration. Finally, in 1936, they were able to return to Sydney, and had their second child, Murray. The couple grew apart and divorced in 1947.

James R. Jackson and Dora Toovey in Europe in 1927

A foundation member of the Australian Academy of Art in 1937, this association was an additional opportunity to exhibit for Jackson which he did for nine years.

Jackson had not joined World War I, perhaps too shocked by the death of a brother at Gallipoli in 1915. In 1942, he did however enroll with the Camouflage Section for the Defence Department and was stationed at Richmond Air Base, where his knowledge of colour was used for the camouflage of planes and guns. He was discharged when it was discovered that his true age was over sixty.

Jackson continued painting and exhibiting works until the early 1970s, showing regularly in solo and group exhibitions in Sydney and in Melbourne with Sedon Galleries. Moreton Galleries held his first solo exhibition in Brisbane in 1954 with 26 paintings, showing works of Sydney Harbour and the rugged landscapes of country Australia. In 1966, he was made an Honorary Life Vice-President by the Royal Art Society. In the same year, Block Galleries presented a one man show with 36 recent paintings in Melbourne, and they also held the artist's last solo exhibition in 1972.

Jackson lived modestly in Neutral Bay until his death on 9 September 1975.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales alone today holds 16 paintings by Jackson, acquired between 1910 ('Maidenhood') and 1955 ('Pathway, Athol Gardens'), and his works are represented in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, as well as many state galleries and numerous regional galleries in Australia.

Transcript of the interview with James R. Jackson by Hazel de Berg in 1965

You can also listen to the interview here; the sound recording is held in the National Library of Australia.

School years

This is James Jackson speaking. I was born in New Zealand, Palmerston North. I was very fond of scribbling on board. Because I like painting, I like drawing. And the only things I knew were boats in the harbour and other little different things.

But one time at the school they offered a little prize for the best drawing of a lamppost. That was one of the old octagon shape lamppost. It was no weather and the teacher said: “all make it homework.” The following morning, a fellow of mine, Lee William, he won the prize.

The next afternoon the teacher was very doubtful about this, the drawing. And it had been a wet afternoon, so I said to my father: “Hey Dad, I have got to draw a lamppost for this competition”. “Then go down to the street, sit down and draw one.” It was plenty on the street, the one hexagonal shape lamppost, old style octagonal shape with the cross bar around. He went around and pulled down the light with the hook and turned on the light at about 5.20.

And then they were rather graceful in shape and the next afternoon the teacher said: “All draw the lamppost. Poor Lee knew nothing about it. I’ve being making a mental judgment on a first study I made. And I found it to draw, the perspective of octagonal lampshade from underneath it. However, I must have succeeded on how it looked like a lamppost. Well after that I don’t remember much about the drawing, but I was always scribbling around.  

Apprentice years. Beginning of studies. First art school

Later on I was apprenticed to decorators that was the time before they used wallpaper very much in the best building. They employed these semi-artists to end work decorations in the room. It was a fine example in Macquarie Street, in the old building. I am scribbling on one of the walls. And the fellow came in and said: “Look Jimmy, you have some fun drawing and scribbling around, so and so, why don’t you take lessons? I said: ”Where?” He said “I’ll introduce you to Frank Mahony”. I said: “Who is this?” “He is a fine animal painter, fine draughtsman, he draws from the bullet”. I said: that’s good. So I went down there and spoke and they said “Well, Yes.”

So went down and I started with Mahony and I was in antique propository try for about 9 months and then they put me in the life class. And at the end of about 12 months, Mahony was going to England and was saying goodbye to the school, to the students, so he shook hands with me and he said: “Jackson, you stick to it, old man. You stick to it”. And they said: “What did he say to you?” And I said: “You’ve heard.” Now that was a great compliment. Mahony must have felt that some little grain of mustard seed about that side of the  artistic mind in me. Otherwise he was a very sincere man and if he would not have said so.  

Travel to Europe. Colarossi Art Academy in Paris. Nellie Melba first patron

From then on I went to the Royal Art Society classes and from then eventually went to Paris, but I had a sister living in New Zealand, and I missed the boats and seas, and so I thought I’ll go to see her for a week. I got a boat around the Cape Horn and what trip it was! Good for a tourist month of excitement or for a good picture man: around the Cape Horn the mid winter!


Well I landed in Paris and I joined up with Brangwyn, Frank Brangwyn School and as you know he was a very, very fine painter. And I’ve been o the school and he took notice of my work. And one morning when he was working on, the whole school knocked off with the master of the brushes and they said: "By the way, where are you from?" I said: “I am from Australia’. He said: “What are you from the bloody rim of the earth? I said: “Yes” He said: “not so hot and so on, so on... Anyway, he put me right on how to get colour and tone and he was very proud of it.


My money was running short and I thought that I would like and it was very much cheaper to live in Paris. So I went over to Paris. And I joined up with Academy Colarossi and my luck was on my side and when my money was nearly run out, the professor asked me to paint for academy Colarossi, paint for the Louvre for the coming exhibition.


However, I missed out on that and I came back to Australia. And then, I stayed studying by myself when I had a studio in North Sydney and it was about two years after that I made my first debut as an exhibitionist. So I exhibited with the Royal Art my first exhibition.


Nellie Melba note to JacksonMy first patron of the arts was Madam Melba. And the papers published at that time that Jimmy Jackson’s smile lit up whole corner of the Art Society. So you can imagine when my picture was in the dark corner. Well, after that, the Sydney gallery bought, then Melbourne, then Sydney, New Zealand, and National Gallery of America.

And I have many pictures in America and England, London, Scotland from pibo deals. However, since then the last picture I had that was a large picture to the St Andrews Club of New York. I thought a lot of it. When late Carl was over there.  

Note from Nellie Melba to James R. Jackson on 8/8/1921

Carl noticed the picture over there: ‘You are interested in it?” “Yea, it’s a bit of Australia”.
He said: “Much more, I know the artist.” He gave this out at the opening on the evening. And I was very proud of it. Since then I painted figures and portraits too for quite a number of years. After a good considerable time I took up landscape and I am now fascinated with landscape. Although I still paint small figures in them. I am very fond of landscape. I was paying a great attention to it for these last few years.

Going back to Paris, I was doing OK. I went down to Martigues I painted down there. I’ve met Augustus John. As a matter of fact, we frequently went to his studio. He had the idea that he could work better down there. You see the light in the winter in London is very poor. In the winter is it very beautiful at Martigues, it is the South of France and very beautiful.


At the first introduction I met John, I did not know that was Augustus John. I was working on the banks at Martigues, and it was forty painters with easels and all were really cold. We all came along rugged up and he propped at my work and said: “That’s going well... Keep going.”

So, at lunchtime at the hotel, the waiter brought a card to me and said that gentlemen would like to have a little liqueur with him after lunch. I walked down and I said: “By the way, I remember no introduction to you.” He was Fullwood (?).

The rumours are I am very well, healthy... and he invited me to his studio, then I met him in London and we had several outings, played even sport. However, if I had stayed in London, we would have got on very well. But now I am going to Australia and after that to enter the exhibitions.

Return to Australia. Encounter with Tom Roberts. Comments on contemporaries

After I returned to Australia, and was in the Melbourne gallery and saw “The “Purple Noon’s Transparent Might” painted by Sir Arthur Streeton. It was then the finest landscape I’ve looked at and you how it goes, we had painting, and still have a picture by Sid Long that was painted when he was about 20. I’m doubtful whether any picture or any artist painted more favourable pictures, it was equal to the best French painting at that period.


Tom Roberts, I always had a great admiration for his work. He was an extremely simple, kindly and resourceful type of a fellow, and very proud and very lenient towards any other painters. I’ll always remember a little function on. They were putting on some act or countring something and that was a great pride of the artists. They moved on to a little bar at the back to have some drinks. They all wanted to take a look, and Sir Roberts said to me: “Jimmy you don’t want to see this show. Do you?” I said: “No, not particularly.” He said: “Let’s sit down and have a beer, a drink and a chat.” I thought it was a great and he would have been a very human type of fellow. He is one of our very outstanding or the greatest Australian artist that is he would be compared favourably with the English or at that time with the Royal Academy had a great opinion of Australian Art.

Today we get diverse criticism. And I don’t know why but at the time, the president at the dinner of the Royal Academy, which is an extremely particular function, the President, said that the Australians had something that we haven’t. That was right.

Jackson 1935It was the most spontaneous method of putting colour down, which was very happy and pleasant to look at. But today we get a hell of a doing in the press, when we send an exhibition to London. I can’t make out why, but I am afraid the student is no longer a real student  when all he wants to be is real clever. Well, that’s alright for a little while, but when grow you want more sincerity, more thought and more feeling, not so much of this “is it exciting?”

It’s all good when you are very young, but after a while, you don’t want to brush painting all the time. From that, well, but I think however we will come back to really more stable and more thorough outlook on it today. The things are getting most praised today, the things that are not quite original, they are picked up other men's work with a bit of alteration and they proclaim as

Jackson with Dora Toovey back right, 1935

as right work, as far as I see it. Well, on the other side, I think I would say that  there are one or two student that are coming on possibly will be fine painters.

How to mix colours; specific approach to painting process

When painting figures outdoor or indoor, which I painted quite a number, and find that I like to, it depends on outdoor, how far, how large a picture, but normally indoor would be 15 feet away, so you can have a two point perspective without getting it too near, too close. By the way, I mostly in a pouch in a palette I mix all the colours, the background and the colours of the figure, I first think I put the highest tone onto the canvas. And that would be not white, it will be a subdued white, because you never go to the full extent of your colour scheme, you almost have something in retirement so you can higher or lower the tone.


Then when I’ve got these mixed, I place them all in the right place and try to keep it very simple and toning and the modelling comes with the darker tones, it saves a great deal of time because the models really keep still and outdoor, the light is changing very quickly in the shadows, so you’ve got to work fairly rapidly. I found that to give the best result rather than to having white, the blue and so and so and so, then mix a little bit – it takes too long, but you have a pile of the majority of colour mix, you can easily make greys, make it cooler by adding a blue, or a green, or grey, or brown. It takes quite a considerable amount of time and your work will always look fresher and better. But the problem is to put the colours down the right place.

About portrait painting

In portraits, I painted several portraits, which were successful. Mostly the sitter would pose for me, from four to six mornings, for about two hours and a quarter or two hours. But they would not be sitting still all the time; they would have a rest while you correct things. That would be abut a fair time for an ordinarily bishop size portrait, that is 40 x 30.


The outdoor figures that I am very fond that I paint quite a number of, there you would have to work very, very quickly. The main thing is to keep your drawing and the figure, because the light is changing and that scintillation of sunlight in the picture. Sydney Gallery has three or four examples of that in my work and the Melbourne gallery has one, one or two. I find that you want to have your palette all ready and be able to analyse the values and weights, so every colour will get a recession of the figure in the colour and the colours are correct, otherwise the who things would ever look if it was outdoor.


And now the outdoor figure painting is a very, very difficult proposition, much more so then painting the figure indoor. I think it’s owned to the fact of the sunlight and the alteration of shadows gives an extreme height of colouring in the lighting of the figure. However, these things to my point of view turned out fairly successful and I think they must have been very good because quite a number have gone to different galleries.

The story of evening dress related to the painting ‘Morning in the Studio’. Specific description of painting technique 

I have a picture purchased by the National Gallery in Sydney; it’s a woman in evening dress but a lovely old taffeta skirt, and she is looking through an open window, large open window on to the harbour, with just dawn, and the light flickering on the water.

I think that that was one of my finest paintings. I got the idea after a little party. It was a party standing at the window and I thought that’ll paint well. I got a good friend of mine who had a rather extremely fine dress and got her to pose for me. I drew the thing in and I made a preliminary sketch of it and then I got her to pose for me. I painted the head, the hands and I put the different colours temporary on the dress and so not to embarrass the canvas, I put the colours down and take them all off with turps so it wouldn’t be greasy and that. Then I painted the skirt and  the blouse, all in one morning.

You have to be good. The folds in the skirt alter completely you have to make sure of it. In these days …. that wonderful thing in the Prado gallery the drapery that is considered quite a masterpiece. When I was a student, they used to have an enlargement of this and they don’t remember, but I should tell you, that was painting directly, straight out, just in the one go. I followed that out and found it most successful.

Jackson Morning in the Studio 1915I have before me a picture called “Morning in the Studio”, a young girl with an old fashioned dress, the dress is about 75 years old now, it’s her mother’s dress really, and that was painted under the same conditions, the drapery, which is sort from the artist point of view has been very successful.

It was painted straight through without stopping. Now you have to be in very good form to make it very satisfactory. That is without touching and messing around with the thing. The head, the neck and the arms were painted separately, after having the colour placed around them and then wiped away so it would not embarrass the canvas again. However it turned out very successful and one picture I have not parted with.

James R. Jackson, Morning in the Studio, 1915, National Gallery of Australia

On painting in general

I am finding subjects suitable to paint, it’s rather difficult to choose one. One knows instinctively that something of great attraction you must paint it. And therefore when you think what the picture is to be you make possibly little preliminary ideas of it and then you will get a fair person to pose for you.

If it’s a landscape, you get quite a thrill out of it. The peculiar thing about landscape t is plenty of it, but you might have a lot of mountains around you but you don’t want to paint, and some simple little things that strike you. And you feel that you must paint it but you know very well when you start if you like the thing the paint seems to fall of the brush into the blank space and you get so excited about it. But when the subjects you do, you say I may paint it or may not, then nothing goes right, it drags and is scraped out. But you feel instinctively that the thing’s going to go right because you have such enthusiasm about the subject.  

Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo in Art Society

I remember one time going out with Dattilo-Rubbo Ramsgate landscape painting and we walked up the steep hill then we got to the top and I said to Rubbo and he did not speak. Then he said: ”Ah, Jackson, this is grand opera” and he looked at the landscape and he was so taken and so excited about the thing. Although he was not a great landscaper, but you must admire his old figures, old tramps and ….  that he painted remarkably well.


But Rubbo was a rare character. He had quite a lot, and of humorous stories are told about Rubbo. He was one of our very fine instructors of drawing. Peculiar thing, he wasn’t for me a great painter, but some of his things were remarkably fine. But as an instructor, quite a number of the students or artists owe their encouragement from Rubbo as they were taught to be capable of drawing.


By the way, Signor Rubbo was a member of the council at the Royal Art Society and he went the distinguished people are coming around, the Governor used to go there, it was quite popular then, with lot of celebrities, and one time Lady Walder and some other lady came along and the President said to Signor Rubbo: ”Rubbo, just show these ladies around the exhibition.” And he said: “Certainly.” The other lady came to a picture and she said: “Oh, isn’t that a beautiful picture? Oh, what a pity it’s sold, it’s got a red spot on it.” So came to another and she said: ”Oh, I like that very, very much indeed. Here my luck is out. It’s got a red spot in it.


The third picture, Rubbo’s a bit annoyed about it, “Oh, she said, ”Is it not a wonderful picture and it’s sold?” He said: ”Madam, that is where you coma da gutsa”. He said “That is a red spot of paint.” The secretary was Oxenard Smith, Rubbo, she said:” Rubbo, that’s not a proper way to speak in front of a lady”. He said: ”What, coma da gutsa? He said “That’s not good English”. He said: “Good English, my boy, he goes to Grammar school, he says ‘coma da gutsa’ so it is good English.”

Country painting; decision to get back to figure painting; opinion on Lambert

James R Jackson studioAt the present I have devoted myself solely to landscape. I am painting landscape early morning, middle harbour, with the sun reflected on the water, which I find is the most difficult thing, but I am quite enthralled with the idea of it and I think from my point of view it will be looking very well.

As a matter of fact, a party came all the way from Melbourne, and was very interested in the painting, and they seem to like the thing tremendously. I paint, I have been painting several harbour landscapes, although I practically have given up the idea because I think I painted sufficiently the harbour, that is in sunlight.


James R. Jackson' studio, 1933

photograph by H. Cazneaux  for "The Australian Home Beautiful", 1/5/1933

And I devoted myself very lightly as I want to go away to the country, I am very fond of outback country painting. I went up to Mount Isaac for the country to paint two landscapes. While I was there, I painted two or three lovely red cliffs and hills. They were very beautiful in colour. However, I’ve got back now and to a quite a scheme of colour, that is New South Wales. I am very happy about it. Now I am getting a feeling that I want to go back to figure painting for a change.


So I hope next time I exhibit, they will post me some of my figure work, as I have not exhibited a figure for a quite a number of years, except small outdoor figures. But on the same indoor subject, which have died out completely. You see Lambert was a very, very great painter, but even now he gets very little notice and the style of things have altered slightly. But however, I don’t suppose the mind of the artist, his own feeling, have altered because I think the longer these fellows are painting, the moderns would like to be painting something like Lambert. I am not so sure, but I think that.

On commissions

However, one can only paint the things they love to paint and want to paint, otherwise it’s useless. At the moment you take on commissions for the sake of money, the commission is invariably a failure. But a good artist, if he likes the subject, I have never taken the commission unless I like the subject, I’ll say I’ll come out and have a look at the station property. If I like it, I’ll paint it. If not – don’t worry. That is the only condition when I take the commission on the landscape, but I had several and one party, Mr Willoughby Down, of Gunman station, he said have a look around and I told him how I work. They built a little shed with a roof on it, so I could work and everything. And quite a liberal appear, they had a word with. Before I finished, he bought three pictures and I thought the better one was with some sheep underneath small pine trees on a hot day was sunlight on hill and beyond. But however, I painted also some large gum trees and went to England and quite enjoyed the trip. But otherwise I try to stay away from commissions; I find they are very difficult and tedious unless you are really fond and enthusiastic about the subject.

On being an Australian painter

James R Jackson outdoor paintingComing back to Australia, I visited Spain for some time, that was a delightful trip, but London, I felt that the artists had a very difficult time owing to the fog, and the lighting is not very good. But in Australia it’s fascinating, the light and the colour and the beautiful sunlight which is the essence of an artist’s live actually. And the main thing is the colour and light that one tries to paint here.


And it’s very brilliant and very difficult, and I feel that of all the countries, and I have been to quite a number, I would like to live in, is Australia. And I feel that Australia has a great opportunity to being a very, very fine artist country.

James R Jackson seated, c1933

In the past, we eventually turned out some extraordinary fine artists, although we have done well up to the present time, seen that we are only 200 years old. And I think as we advance, we will improve.


The average person would think, the artist’s life is a very happy one, it is actually, but the struggle to keep in advance and one always feels they might be slipping, and you’ve got to analyse your work and there is no other critic can tell you what’s wrong. So you’ve got to be your own critic and creator at the same time, which is very difficult.


You’ve got to keep them both very well primed up, otherwise you will feel that your work might be sliding and going back. As an artist, I think, the great thing is to always remember that to doubt your own work and buyers, and put away and being in doubt a week afterwards, and have a look at it and see what think about it, because if you will continually look at it, you fail to see the mistakes of it. However, I feel that the painter’s life is really happy, and the only thing is the struggle to keep freshness of a painting and keep painting freshly is a very difficult proposition indeed.

Sound recording copyright with National Library of Australia


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