This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Jessie Constance Alicia Traill (1881-1967), artist, was born on 29 July 1881 at Brighton, Victoria, youngest of four daughters of George Hamilton Traill, a banker from Scotland, and his Tasmanian wife Jessie Frances Montague, née Neilley. She was educated privately and in Switzerland, her two lifetime occupations—art and travel—being fostered at an early age. Tom Roberts encouraged her to paint and remained a friend and mentor for much of her career. Inheriting sufficient income to ensure her independence, in 1900 Jessie enrolled in John Mather's Austral Art School, Melbourne. She was one of the first women to practise etching in Australia; by 1905 her work was exhibited alongside that of Mather and John Shirlow.
Having attended the National Gallery schools (1902-06) under Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall, Traill went to London where she studied etching with Frank Brangwyn and visited Belgium and Holland (1907-08) with his summer classes. She enrolled in the Académie Colarossi in Paris for a term, and in 1909 her etchings were hung at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris, and the Royal Academy, London. That year she held her first one-woman show in Melbourne. Her style of painting was broad, fluid and neo-impressionist, in both oil and water-colour. In 1914 her entries at the Panama Pacific International Exposition won a gold and a bronze medal. After the outbreak of World War I she went to England, joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and nursed in military hospitals near Rouen, France.
In 1921 Traill joined the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society and regularly entered her etchings and aquatints in its annual exhibitions. Her preferred subjects—the trees and moods of the landscape—were influenced by Japanese woodcuts and Art Nouveau, and she experimented with unusual decorative formats including the frieze. Using Brangwyn's radical methods, she worked with the largest plates that the press would take and achieved dramatic chiaroscuro. As subjects, she also chose mines, factories and buildings under scaffolding, and, in 1927-32, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Her prints blended Whistler's sensitivity to design with sound knowledge of engineering and architectural detail.
In 1928 she pinned her water-colours of Central Australia to blankets at the police station for her exhibition at Alice Springs. Sometimes encountered lying in the bush gazing upward to get a 'worm's eye' view, Traill also obtained the opposite outlook from the windows of a flying boat and made several flights in the 1940s. She was generous with knowledge, resources and patronage. Shy and softly spoken, with clear, penetrating blue eyes and graceful hands, she became an eccentric figure, wearing the same old tweed suit and black 'Monty' beret, smoking heavily and carrying her paints in a cereal box tied with string. She spent her later years at her cottage near Berwick, Victoria, on country properties, and in England and France. Traill died on 15 May 1967 at Emerald, Victoria, and was cremated.
In certain stylistic traits, such as the manipulation of space and distance, her work anticipated modernism and has been compared with that of Fred Williams. Reappraised during the 1970s, it is now prized. Traill exhibited with the Society of Graphic Arts, London, the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, the Victorian Artists' Society, the A.P.E.S., the Yarra Sculptors' Society and a number of private galleries. Occasionally she hung her work in country barns. She is represented in all State and many regional galleries, and the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Her pastel portrait by Janet Cumbrae Stewart is in the National Gallery of Victoria.
Mary Alice Lee, 'Traill, Jessie Constance Alicia (1881–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/traill-jessie-constance-alicia-8840/text15511, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 16 September 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990