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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mather, John (1848–1916)

by Judy Blyth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Mather (1848?-1916), painter, etcher and teacher, was born at Hamilton, Scotland, son of John Mather, surveyor, and his wife Margaret, née Allan. Little is recorded of his early life but as a young man he studied art at the Royal Institute of Fine Arts, Glasgow, before migrating to Australia in 1878. He had hoped to practise professionally but when he settled in Melbourne realized he would be unable to make an immediate living from painting, and worked as a house decorator. He was engaged to paint the inside of the dome of the Exhibition Building for £2000 and this contract gave him slight financial independence, enabling him to give more time to art.

Mather was a skilful and prolific etcher although better known as a landscape painter who worked with equal facility in oils and watercolours. He built a studio at Lilydale and much of his painting was done in the surrounding countryside; his pastorales were painted in quiet colours with faithful representation of the natural scene. Although Mather practised the plein air method of painting introduced by Louis Buvelot, he kept aloof from the 'Australian Impressionism' of his contemporaries, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and others. As his pictures became popular he was known in the Australian art world as a 'best seller'. He conducted art classes and frequently lectured at the artists' camps at Eaglemont; although he was never considered a major influence in the period he had a large following.

A foundation member of the Victorian Artists' Society, Mather was president in 1893-1900, 1906-08 and 1911. In 1912 he joined Fred McCubbin, Max Meldrum, Walter Withers and others to form a breakaway group, the Australian Art Association. After constant campaigning for the inclusion of an artist on the board of trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Mather was appointed in 1892. He was a member of the Felton Bequest Committee in 1905-16 and in this capacity, and as trustee, he strongly supported Australian art. It is told that Mather offered Streeton £150 for 'Purple Noon's Transparent Might' while another trustee, unknowing, offered £126. Three of his own paintings, 'Autumn in the Fitzroy Gardens' (oil), and 'Morning, Lake Omeo' and 'Wintry Weather, Yarra Glen' (watercolours), were purchased by the gallery. In 1911 he visited an exhibition of British art at Wellington, New Zealand, and advised on purchases.

Sensible of the great benefaction from Alfred Felton, Mather persistently suggested that a suitable memorial to him be erected, one of his proposals being that the tympanum of the portico of the National Gallery be filled with a bronze relief, 'Felton protecting, encouraging and rewarding fine arts'.

Mather was dark and saturnine in appearance, genial in disposition but forthright and with a liking for lively argument, a man of integrity and possessed of immense energy. He had a well-informed mind and was particularly interested in science and the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. On 16 September 1882 he had married, at Williamstown, Jessie Pines Best; they had a daughter and three sons, one of whom died in 1919 after serving in France. Mather died of diabetes at his home, Cadzow, South Yarra, on 18 February 1916 and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. At the time of his death, still industrious, he was working on a watercolour from a sketch of Launching Place.

His widow arranged for a comprehensive exhibition of her husband's work, held at the Athenaeum Gallery in August 1916. Mather's work has been acquired by Australian State and provincial galleries and the National Art Gallery and Museum, Wellington, New Zealand. A charcoal portrait by E. Phillips Fox is in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • E. La T. Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria: 1856-1906 (Melb, 1906)
  • Smike to Bulldog—Letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, R. H. Croll ed (Syd, 1946)
  • B. Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • Studio, 7 (1896)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Feb 1916
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1932.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judy Blyth, 'Mather, John (1848–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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