Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Marshall Claxton (1813–1881)

by David S. Macmillan

This article was published:

Marshall Claxton (1813-1881), artist, was born on 12 May 1813 at Bolton, Lancashire, son of Rev. Marshall Claxton, Wesleyan Methodist minister, and his wife Diana. As a child he showed much aptitude for drawing and at 17 became a pupil of John Jackson, R.A. On 26 April 1831 he enrolled as a student of the Royal Academy, and next year exhibited there his first picture, a portrait of his father. In 1834 he was awarded the first medal in the academy's school of painting, and in 1835 his portrait of Sir Astley Cooper won him the gold medal of the Society of British Artists. In 1837-42 he lived in Italy and developed his speciality, large narrative and historical oils, which enjoyed a brief and limited popularity. In 1843 at Westminster Hall cartoon exhibition he won a prize of £100.

In September 1850 Claxton arrived in Sydney with a collection of over two hundred paintings, many of them his own work, which he intended to exhibit and sell. He also wanted to start a school of art but could find no suitable house so he was allowed to use a large room at Sydney College as a studio. Before leaving England he had been commissioned by Angela Georgina Burdett Coutts for a large study of Christ blessing little children. The painting excited much interest in the colony, and was described in Household Words as 'the first important picture' painted in Australia. More than seven thousand people viewed it. Later Claxton received further commissions from his patroness and from Queen Victoria.

The exhibition of 1850 was the colony's first, and many attended. Although Claxton was disappointed because few of the pictures found buyers, he was encouraged by the small circle of cultured colonists centred on the connoisseur (Sir) Charles Nicholson. In 1851 he submitted the winning entry in the open competition for an emblem for the new University of Sydney, and his design, Learning, a female figure seated under a southern cross, was used by the university until a Royal Grant of Arms was made in 1857. His exhibitions in Sydney in 1854 and 1857 included portraits of such prominent colonists as Bishop William Grant Broughton and Dr James Mitchell.

Claxton sailed for Calcutta on 22 September 1854, and spent three years in India, exhibiting his work and painting portraits and historical pieces commissioned there. He returned to England in 1858 by way of Egypt, his portfolios full of Australian, Indian and Egyptian sketches. He continued his work until his fatal illness began in the early 1870s. Exhibitions of his paintings were held in London in the 1860s, but his contemporaries seem to have thought him no more than a very competent artist of the second rank. He died at Maida Vale, London, on 28 July 1881. Claxton married Sophia Hargrave of Blackheath in 1837; their two daughters, Adelaide and Florence, both exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Claxton's best-known work is the fine 'General View of the Harbour and City of Sydney' which is in the royal collection in England.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Williamson (ed), Bryan's Biographical Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (Lond, 1930)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Association), vol 9, part 3, 1923, pp 161-68
  • Senate minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Claxton, Marshall (1813–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 May, 1813
Bolton, Lancashire, England


28 July, 1881 (aged 68)
London, Middlesex, England

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