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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Balfour, James Lawson (1870–1966)

by Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones and Bernard Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

James Lawson Balfour (1870-1966), artist, was born on 17 August 1870 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, son of James Balfour, artist, and his wife Elizabeth, née Hart. His father came from Scotland where the family returned in 1872. Lawson grew up in an artistic and musical environment: his father and uncle had their own studios and his ancestors had made 'damask designs for the linen trade'. He spent two years at Herkomer School at Bushey, Hertfordshire, England, and exhibited with the Royal Society of British Artists and the New Watercolour Society in 1892-93. He continued his training in Paris, spending one year with F. Cormon, and three at the Académie Julian under W. Bouguereau, Benjamin Constant and Jules LeFebvre.

Balfour began his professional career in Ireland as a painter of horses, dogs and babies. He was living in Bangor, County Down, when he exhibited 'Sunday Morning' at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1899. In 1900 he went to New Zealand and at Christchurch on 29 April 1904 married Eva Hulston. He moved to Sydney in 1912 and became a noted portrait painter. He was commissioned to paint prominent citizens such as Governor Sir Dudley de Chair, Sir Normand Maclaurin and Sir Charles Mackellar, A. B. Weigall, and fellow artists Charles Bryant and W. Lister Lister, his lifelong friend. He gave private lessons for many years and in 1922-24 directed the Balfour Art School, assisted by Reginald Payten.

Contemporaries found Balfour quiet and retiring. He was one of the first to discover the possibilities of the Dee Why area as a sketching ground, and settled there. His competent formal portraits tended towards a conventional tonal rendering but were distinguished by their sophisticated technique and knowledge of oil as a medium. His artist friends were more informally posed, with staccato dashes of colour to enliven the surface. His imaginative figure drawings revealed the high proficiency of his French academic training. In 1919-31 Balfour was an exhibiting councillor of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales; he had become a fellow in 1922 when the society was reconstituted. In 1932 he was elected to the committee of the Manly Art Gallery and Historical Collection and was a vice-patron in 1955-66.

Predeceased by his wife, Balfour died on 9 February 1966 at Woy Woy, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for probate at £1401. Balfour's work is represented in the art galleries of New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Manly Art Gallery. His portrait of Sir Joseph Banks is in the Commonwealth collection.

Select Bibliography

  • Art in Australia, May 1923, Dec 1926
  • H. De Berg, interview with Lawson Balfour (transcript, 1961, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Jocelyn Hackforth-Jones and Bernard Smith, 'Balfour, James Lawson (1870–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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