Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Howitt, William (1846–1928)

by B. K. De Garis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Howitt (1846?-1928), woodcarver, was born at Manchester, England, elder son of William Howitt, engineer, and his Spanish wife Betsy, née Brahma. He was educated in Nottingham, Liverpool and London and from 1866 worked at decorating ships' interiors and repairing ecclesiastical fittings and ornaments. In 1869 he married Isabella Patrick at Glasgow, Scotland.

In 1888 they migrated to Melbourne. Howitt was commissioned in 1896 to carve the furnishings for St Paul's Cathedral, notably the pulpit and the bishop's throne. About 1899 he moved to Perth where he taught wood-carving at Perth Technical School until 1906; James Linton was a colleague. Howitt became well known in the West for his carved wooden plaques, some of which were displayed by the Western Australian government at international exhibitions. He discovered jarrah as an art medium and among the most celebrated of his jarrah reliefs were 'Marguerite Leaving the Church' for the Paris exhibition (1900), and 'Dante and Beatrice' for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition at San Francisco (1915). His sectional model of the Great Boulder Pty Mine had been presented to the princess of Wales in 1904. Howitt also sculpted in marble and clay.

Furniture hand made from native woods was another of his specialities. A carved jarrah dining suite, comprising sideboard, table, six chairs, and a side-table, which was shown at the Western Australian Exhibition in 1906, is said to have represented six years of work. An inlaid octagonal table made of she-oak, jarrah and native pine, incorporating a Maltese cross with a black swan in the middle, remained on display in 1982 at the museum of the Western Australian Forests Department. Occasionally Howitt also exercised his original craft of ecclesiastical furniture-making, a good example of his later work being the pulpit of Christ Church, Claremont.

Although his effects were sometimes florid through excess of design, Howitt's work had a practical as well as an artistic dimension in that he was expert in the qualities and use of a wide range of native timbers and an effective propagandist for their value. He worked in karri, red gum, wandoo, she-oak, York gum, blackbutt, jam, banksia, salmon gum, tuart, sandalwood, morrell and pine. The 1908 display of his furniture in London at the Franco-British Exhibition of Science, Arts and Industries led to immediate orders for jarrah furniture.

Howitt died at Subiaco on 19 June 1928, survived by two sons and two daughters, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta cemetery. For a time his reputation faded, but recent enthusiasm for hand made furniture and native wood has led to a well-merited revival of interest.

Select Bibliography

  • Railways Select Committee report, no 2, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1896, 2, p 118
  • Art in Australia, 26 Dec 1928
  • West Australian, 9 May 1917, 23 June, 5 July 1928
  • private information.

Citation details

B. K. De Garis, 'Howitt, William (1846–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howitt-william-6752/text11669, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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