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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Turner, James Alfred (1850–1908)

by Shirley C. Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

James Alfred Turner (1850-1908), artist, was born on 11 February 1850 at Bradford, Yorkshire, England, son of John Turner, bank accountant, and his wife Rhoda, née Oddy. He arrived in Victoria some time before 1874, the year of his earliest-known Australian painting, 'View down Collins Street from Spring Street'. In 1884 James Oddie commissioned him to execute fourteen paintings of bush life which Oddie donated to the newly founded Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Turner had several Melbourne addresses: at William Street in the 1870s and at least two in Collins Street in the 1880s. In 1888 he bought a twenty-acre (8 ha) bushland property with a small dwelling ('The Gables') at Kilsyth, near Croydon, at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges.

That year his paintings 'Saved' and 'Fighting for Home' received 3rd awards of merit in the Melbourne Centennial (International) Exhibition which also included the work of Tom Roberts, John Mather, Girolamo Nerli and Frederick McCubbin. On 29 October 1890 at St Peter's Church, East Melbourne, Turner married Annie Margaret Williams; they lived at Hawthorn; she died in the following year after the birth of a stillborn child. Turner returned to Kilsyth in 1893 and remained there until 1907. Local rural and bush life supplied subjects for his paintings which Table Talk described as being of 'peculiar exactness'. He was recognized in 1894 as 'our best known painter of incident'. On 1 May 1900 he married Mary Ann Thomas (d.1950), daughter of the founder of Thomastown, at the Government Statist's Office, Melbourne.

A prolific painter, Turner was a master of oil and water-colour. He also worked in gouache. He painted chiefly to please himself, 'without any suspicion of pot boiling', never allowing work to leave his hands until he was thoroughly satisfied. Generally content with 'homely incidents and quiet aspects of nature', he sometimes painted large works such as 'The Homestead Saved' (90 cm by 151 cm) which sold for $82,000 in 1980. Bushfires were a subject he handled well, probably because he had seen them at first hand: the Argus asserted in 1908 that 'No man has ever painted the realism of a forest fire and its fighting better'. Turner was an exhibiting member of the Victorian Artists' Society, the Australian Art Association, the Victorian Academy of Arts, the Yarra Sculptors' Society and the Melbourne and New Melbourne art clubs. The first of his paintings to be reproduced on postcards was published in Melbourne about 1904. It proved popular and forty-six of his rural and bush-life works were issued in colour. No other colonial painter's work was published in such volume and Turner postcards are still sought by collectors.

Turner died suddenly of heart disease on 13 April 1908 at Canterbury and was buried with Anglican rites in Box Hill cemetery. He had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • Table Talk, 21 Nov 1901
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 May 1890, 16 Apr 1908
  • Australian Financial Review, 15 Nov 1973.

Citation details

Shirley C. Jones, 'Turner, James Alfred (1850–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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