Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sidney Dickinson (1851–1919)

by Bernard Smith

This article was published:

Sidney Dickinson (1851-1919), art critic and journalist, was born on 27 March 1851 at West Springfield, Massachusetts, United States of America, son of Henry Kirk White Dickinson, paper manufacturer, and his wife Angeline, née Dunham. Well-educated, he held a Master of Arts degree. On 5 September 1876 at Northampton, Massachusetts, Sidney married Minnie Stockwell (d.1877); on 1 October 1879 he married Marion Miller. In the 1880s Dickinson became known in America as a lecturer and writer on art. On 28 June 1888 in the Almeda he arrived in Sydney with his wife. He described himself as Australian correspondent for the New York Herald, and claimed to have lived in Hawaii for five years. During the following months he delivered a series of lectures in Sydney, including a course at the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. After a month in Melbourne, the Dickinsons returned to Sydney then toured New Zealand before visiting London and the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889. By January next year they were back in Melbourne where, with their wide knowledge of the world, they soon became ornaments in the cultural life. In 1890 Mrs Dickinson was first executive vice-president of the Austral Salon, to which in October she read a paper on Hindu philosophy.

From 1890 Dickinson was honorary secretary to the Victorian Artists' Society; in 'What should Australians paint?', in the Australasian Critic in October, he encouraged the Heidelberg school of Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin, urging that 'It should be the ambition of our artists to present on canvas the earnestness, rigour, pathos and heroism of the life that is about them'. In April 1891 he requested permission from Sir Henry Parkes to 'travel in a visiting man-of-war to Solomon Islands to get material for articles for Scribners Magazine'. He explained that he was acting as special correspondent in Australia for the New York Times and the Boston Morning Journal.

Among many important articles Dickinson published in the Australasian Critic in 1889-91 was 'Wanted: a standard in art criticism' in June 1891. In this he observed that, in Australia, painting was regarded as 'a light and graceful recreation which, when cultivated in a spirit of dilettantism, may evoke a languid interest and give to ladies an opportunity to enjoy afternoon tea amongst attractive surroundings. “Art for art's sake” is an idea that finds little occasion for lodgment in the chinks of our busy day of money-getting'. He also contributed accounts of Australian subjects to Scribner's Magazine and the Scientific American.

The Dickinsons left Melbourne in March 1893, returning to Philadelphia where he continued to work as a journalist and lecturer. On 7 February 1919 Sidney died at Oberlin, Ohio, after being accidentally struck by a street-car. Predeceased by his wife, he was survived by at least one daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Syd, 1945), and Documents on Art and Taste in Australia (Melb, 1975)
  • Critic (Adelaide), 1 Oct 1890, 1 June 1891.

Citation details

Bernard Smith, 'Dickinson, Sidney (1851–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1851
West Springfield, Massachusetts, United States of America


7 February, 1919 (aged 67)
Oberlin, Ohio, United States of America

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