Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shirlow, John Alexander Thomas (1869–1936)

by Roger Butler

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Alexander Thomas Shirlow (1869-1936), self-portrait, 1930

John Alexander Thomas Shirlow (1869-1936), self-portrait, 1930

National Gallery of Australia, 10130

John Alexander Thomas Shirlow (1869-1936), etcher and art teacher, was born on 13 December 1869 at Sunbury, Victoria, son of Robert Shirlow and his wife Rebecca, née Flanigan, who had recently migrated from Ireland. His father was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and became an excise officer. John attended various state schools and Scotch College, Melbourne (1883-84). He joined the printers Haase Duffus & Co., and then in 1889-1913 Sands & McDougall. From 1913 he worked with the electric supply department of the Melbourne City Council; at some stage he had graduated from the Working Men's College with a diploma of electrical technology.

Shirlow had become interested in art, studied briefly with Artur Loureiro, and from 1890 to 1895 attended classes at the school of design, National Gallery of Victoria, where etchings by Seymour Haden and James McNeill Whistler had a decisive influence on him. Shirlow constructed his own press and tools and taught himself the basic techniques of etching from P. G. Hamerton's Etching and Etchers (London, 1868). Although other Australian artists had produced occasional etchings (John Mather in Melbourne, Livingston Hopkins in Sydney), Shirlow was the first to make artists' prints the basis of an artistic career.

In 1904 he published Five Etchings, the first portfolio by a painter-etcher in Australia; it was followed by three other books, the last in 1921. He worked from Nature, drawing directly onto his plates in reverse. Shirlow found his subject-matter mainly in the old buildings of Melbourne and his work was as much acquired for its historical as its artistic merit. Books on his prints—Etchings (Sydney, 1917), and Etched Work of John Shirlow (Melbourne, 1920) which included biographical commentary by his friend R. H. Croll—popularized his work. Examples of his prints were purchased by the British Museum and the Mitchell Library, Sydney, before 1920, but not by the National Gallery of Victoria, much to Shirlow's distress. Perhaps their decision was vindicated by the Bulletin's comment in 1917 that he was 'a painstaking but not inspired craftsman: his work is thorough but heavy, and there is little originality in his compositions or his technique'. Nevertheless he was a relentless promoter of etching, lecturing and writing on its technique, and was responsible for founding etching classes at the Working Men's College in 1929. He had been appointed in 1913 assistant examiner for drawing, University of Melbourne. From 1926 he was art master at Scotch College.

Shirlow had been at Charterisville in the 1890s and took a leading role in the artistic life of Melbourne. He was a council-member (1906-14) of the Victorian Artists' Society, and a member of the Australian Art Association, Sydney Art Club and foundation vice-president of the Australian Painter-Etchers Society. A trustee (1922-36) of the National Gallery of Victoria, he was a conservative member (1933-36) of its Felton Bequest committee. He wrote reviews for the English magazine Studio, and published Perspective, a Text Book for the Use of Schools (1932), made artistic furniture, executed bookbindings, and for long periods sang with the Scots Church and St Paul's Cathedral choirs and conducted the North Carlton Presbyterian Church choir. He was a bushwalking companion of Croll, C. J. Dennis and Web Gilbert.

Shirlow died on 22 June 1936 at home at Caulfield and was cremated. His wife, Grace, née Nixon, whom he had married on 25 December 1895 at Carlton, and two sons and two daughters survived him. A bronze head of Shirlow by Web Gilbert is held by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Croll, I Recall (Melb, 1939)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861-1968 (Melb, nd)
  • Lone Hand, 1 Sept 1916
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1930, 23 June 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 June 1936.

Citation details

Roger Butler, 'Shirlow, John Alexander Thomas (1869–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shirlow-john-alexander-thomas-8421/text14795, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Alexander Thomas Shirlow (1869-1936), self-portrait, 1930

John Alexander Thomas Shirlow (1869-1936), self-portrait, 1930

National Gallery of Australia, 10130