Prout, John Skinner (1805–1876)

by V. W. Hodgman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Skinner Prout (1805-1876), artist, was born on 19 December 1805 at Plymouth, England. He was a nephew of the artist, Samuel Prout (1783-1852), whose renderings of medieval architecture were much admired by John Ruskin. On 19 June 1828 Prout married Maria Heathilla Marsh at Colaton Raleigh, Devon. Prout acquired some knowledge of lithography and was largely self-trained as an artist. He spent much time in the west of England making topographical views of ancient monuments and in 1838 his The Castles and Abbeys of Monmouthshire was published in London. He visited the Wye valley and sketched the antiquities of Chester. He was also elected a member of the new Society of Painters in Water Colour. After two years of 'continued difficulties and harassment of mind' he sailed in the Royal Sovereign with his wife and seven children for Sydney, where his brother Cornelius had been under-sheriff since 1829. The family arrived on 14 December 1840, but the ship may have called at Melbourne, for Prout's Journal of a Voyage from Plymouth to Sydney … published in 1844, included a brief description of Port Phillip.

In 1841-42 Maria Prout, an able harpist, gave several concerts 'with peculiarly happy effect' at the Royal Victoria Theatre, but thereafter withdrew to domestic duties. Their eldest son, Victor Albert, attended the Normal Institution and won prizes for his intelligence. Prout had brought a lithographic plant and had it established by March 1841 when he reproduced drawings of the fire at the Albion Mills and its ruin. However, profitable work was scarce because of economic depression. In June he lectured at the School of Arts, but although the Australian, 25 November, declared that Prout 'not only understands painting but can clearly and popularly explain its principles', he was disappointed in December by the reception of his offer to give a series of six lectures at a guinea a ticket in the Grammar School, Phillip Street. In January 1842 he painted some 'elegant vignettes on the front of the boxes in the Olympic Theatre', and then had ample time to sketch many views of Sydney; for their reproduction he sought subscriptions in June, but publication was delayed while he attempted in vain to secure proper lithographic paper. With descriptive letterpress by John Rae, the first part of Prout's drawings appeared on 13 August as Sydney Illustrated. The second part followed in November and the fourth and last part was published in March 1844; a limited edition was reproduced in Sydney in 1948.

Prout visited Van Diemen's Land in January 1844. Much impressed he went back to Sydney for his family and arrived at Hobart Town in April. On 14 May the Colonial Times reported that his lectures were 'respectably attended … He sketches rapidly with the brush, and explains as he proceeds, showing the effects of light and shadow, and the great advantage it is to the artist his having a mind capable of chaste and correct composition'. On 14 June Prout announced a course of lectures 'on the cultivation of the fine arts, with practical illustrations'. They were well received and later in the year he published the first volume of Tasmania Illustrated, 'five grouped vignettes of Tasmanian scenes'. By the time the second volume appeared in 1846 Prout had toured the North of the island, where he was 'engaged by several gentlemen for the purpose of sketching their country seats, farms, and the country surrounding them'. In December Prout appears to have visited Norfolk Island and Sydney. In 1847 he spent three months at Port Phillip and six of his sketches there were published as Views of Melbourne and Geelong.

In March 1845 Prout's 10-year-old son, Frederick, had been killed by a falling stone. In March 1847 his daughter, Matilda, married J. S. Dandridge at Hobart. In April 1848 Prout and his family sailed in the Derwent for London. In 1850 at the Western Literary and Scientific Institution, Leicester Square, he lectured and exhibited his dioramic views illustrating convict and emigrant life, and the habits of bushrangers and Aboriginals in Australia. In 1852 he published An Illustrated Handbook of the Voyage to Australia and in 1853 A Magical Trip to the Gold Regions; both works led to further exhibitions and ran to several editions. They also suggest that he may have revisited Australia, for he claimed that his sketches were made on the spot.

Prout died at Kentish Town, London, on 29 August 1876, leaving an estate of about £1500 to be invested for his two unmarried daughters. After Prout's death some of his drawings were used to illustrate E. C. Booth's Australia in 1876 and Picturesque Antiquities of Bristol, edited by E. Smith in 1893.

Prout was not very successful in Sydney, but his arrival in Tasmania greatly stimulated amateur painters. According to Mrs Louisa Ann Meredith, 'landscape sketching and watercolour fever raged with extraordinary vehemence … The art that Mr. Prout taught and practised so well at once became the fashion'. Although the diarist George Boyes complained that a drawing made for him by Prout was a 'poor washy thing not worth a frame', Prout had a fine taste for the picturesque, particularly in rural subjects, and delighted in the effects of mist and mountain, and free renderings of sea and shore. He was a strong champion of the right of the artist to interpret freely rather than merely to imitate the scene before him. He helped to organize the first Australian exhibition of paintings in 1845. His work is represented in the South Kensington Museum, the public galleries in Sydney and Hobart, and in the Mitchell and Dixson Galleries in Sydney. The National Library, Canberra, has forty-five of his Australian sketches and the Royal Society of Tasmania, Hobart, a portfolio of his Tasmanian and Victorian watercolours and pencil drawings. His best oil painting is considered to be 'A Waterfall, near Lake St Clair', executed while he was in Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • L. A. Meredith, My Home in Tasmania (Lond, 1852)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 7, part 6, 1921, pp 379-80
  • newspaper indexes under John Prout (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence file under John Prout (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

V. W. Hodgman, 'Prout, John Skinner (1805–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prout-john-skinner-2565/text3501, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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