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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Minns, Benjamin Edwin (1863–1937)

by Jean Campbell

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

Benjamin Edwin Minns (1863-1937), self-portrait

Benjamin Edwin Minns (1863-1937), self-portrait

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an5356866

Benjamin Edwin Minns (1863-1937), watercolourist and black-and-white artist, was born on 17 November 1863 near Dungog, New South Wales, son of Irish-born Bridget Murray, aged 17, who in 1869 married George Minns, farmer. He spent his early years at Inverell, where he had lessons in painting and drawing. At 17, intended for a career in law, Minns went to Sydney and entered the offices of (Sir J. P.) Abbott & Allen. However, he met Charles Conder with whom for a time he shared a studio. He studied at Sydney Technical College under Lucien Henry, joined A. J. Daplyn's life class of the Art Society of New South Wales, and had lessons from Julian Ashton, an accomplished plein air painter. He joined the society's Sketch Club with Ashton, Phil May and Nerli .

Conder, employed by the Illustrated Sydney News, got Minns his first job there. Minns also drew for the Sydney Mail and in 1887-1937 regularly contributed to the Bulletin, becoming particularly well known for his humorous drawings of Aborigines. On 9 June 1888 at St John's Church, Darlinghurst, he married Harriet Ford. The National Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased his 'Season of Mists' from the annual Art Society exhibition in 1891 and in 1894 acquired some of his first paintings of Aborigines, including portrait heads that combine a somewhat sentimental charm with a genuine respect.

In 1895 Minns and his wife went to England. He sent back drawings to the Bulletin and contributed to St Paul's Magazine, Punch, the Strand Magazine, the Bystander and other journals. He steadily developed his watercolour painting, sketching in England and France, and exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in London, and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (New Salon) in Paris. He was also commissioned by Colonel Frank Rhodes to paint a series of watercolours of the family seat at Dalham, Suffolk.

Minns returned to Australia in 1915; unfortunately the paintings he had with him were destroyed by a shipboard fire. It was not until the early 1920s that exhibitions of Minns's watercolours in Sydney and Melbourne won him recognition as one of Australia's foremost watercolourists. His usual signature was B. E. Minns. He was a founder in 1924 and first president (until 1937) of the Australian Water-Colour Institute. He was also a member of the Society of Artists, Sydney, and with Lambert and Longstaff was among the artists commissioned by the Art Gallery in 1928 to paint a self-portrait.

A tall, well-built man, Minns was popular with fellow artists and generous in appreciation of their work. He established his home and studio at Gordon, a bush setting on Sydney's north shore; he was an enthusiastic gardener and keenly interested in photography. A good horseman, he often included animals and birds in his landscapes. Survived by his wife and childless, Minns died suddenly at Taronga Zoological Park on 21 February 1937 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was posthumously awarded the Sydney sesquicentenary prize for a historical oil painting in 1938.

His watercolours, somewhat neglected after his death, are noted for a lucid and sympathetic handling of wash and show some influence of the fine decorative sense of Conder and of the blue and gold vision of the early Streeton. Most highly regarded are his lyrical views of Sydney, its harbour, streets and beaches, and his paintings of the Aborigines and their way of life, based on memories of his early years in the Hunter valley.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Campbell, Australian Watercolour Painters, 1780-1980 (Adel, 1983)
  • Lone Hand, 2 Mar 1914
  • B.P. Magazine, June-Aug 1930
  • Art in Australia, no 2, 1917, Dec 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Feb 1937
  • Bulletin, 24 Feb 1937
  • Worker (Sydney), 24 Feb 1937.

Citation details

Jean Campbell, 'Minns, Benjamin Edwin (1863–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 November 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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