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John Hennings (1835–1898)

by Mimi Colligan

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John Hennings (1835-1898), by Frederick Alex Dunn, 1868-69

John Hennings (1835-1898), by Frederick Alex Dunn, 1868-69

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29533

John Hennings (1835?-1898), scenic artist, was born probably on 6 July 1835 at Bremen, in the German Kingdom of Hanover, and named Johann Friederich, son of Danish-born parents Johann Hennings, merchant, and his wife Caroline, née Schutze. At 15 young Johann was apprenticed to a house decorator and studied briefly at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art. He then travelled widely in Europe.

Attracted by the Australian gold rush, Hennings followed a brother to Australia, reaching Melbourne in July 1855. He found work as a scenic artist at Geelong and, in Melbourne, at Cremorne Gardens and George Coppin's Olympic Theatre. Generally known in Australia as John, he also worked at the Theatre Royal, the Princess and, from 1862, the Haymarket theatres, under the managers G. V. Brooke, J. Simmons and Barry Sullivan. In 1866 he joined W. S. Lyster's opera company in Sydney. From 1867 to 1882 his success as scene designer made him welcome as a partner in various lesseeships of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, with Coppin and others. With Coppin and J. R. Greville, he also leased the Queen's Theatre, Sydney, in 1880. His most popular work was the annual Christmas pantomime with its topical moving panorama, a type of early newsreel.

After J. C. Williamson, George Musgrove and Arthur Garner took over Melbourne's Theatre Royal in 1882, Hennings remained scenic artist until 1887 when he suffered from temporary blindness and was unable to work for two years. He returned in 1889 with a triumphant contribution to sets for Antony and Cleopatra at the Melbourne Opera House. His last notable work was The Cyclorama of Early Melbourne, commissioned by the Exhibition Trustees in 1892, for which he was paid five hundred guineas.

A handsome man, with long hair and a bushy moustache, Hennings formed a long relationship with Ellen Targett, an English-born ballet dancer, who had arrived in Melbourne in October 1857. With strong links to the small but influential German community, he was associated with the Melbourne Deutsche Turnverein and the Liedertafel. From 1870 he was a foundation member of the Victoria Academy of Arts and it is likely that he sent paintings back to Germany for exhibition. He was also a member of the Yorick Club.

For nearly thirty years Hennings dominated stage design in Melbourne. The departure of his competitors W. J. Wilson and Alexander Habbe to Sydney in the early 1860s had left the field clear for him. His skill in architectural perspective and careful accuracy of historical detail, at a time when scenery and production were at least as important as acting, was often praised by reviewers James Smith and J. E. Neild as the highlight of the production. Harold Love referred to his 'brilliant sky effects . . . perfectly rendered romantic images of trailing foliage . . . and masterful use of shadow'. His fellow scenic artist George Gordon compared him favourably with London contemporaries, expressing surprise at finding 'such a fine artist in the colonies'.

Hennings died of chronic pneumonia on 13 October 1898 at Albert Park, Melbourne, and was buried in Melbourne cemetery. His wife Ellen and two daughters survived him as did his one son John Henry (1867-1959), also a scenic artist, by his mistress Elizabeth Collins (d.1888). In November a benefit performance for his family was held at the Princess Theatre, 'with all theatres participating'. There was also a 'free distribution of . . . magnificent Oil Paintings and Water Colors by the late artist'. Although none of his stage scenery has survived, in 1956 the State Library of Victoria acquired his 1892 cyclorama and a descendant holds his paintings.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Love, The Golden Age of Australian Opera (Syd, 1981)
  • H. M. Humphreys (compiler), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian Series (Melb, 1882)
  • J. Kerr (ed), The Dictionary of Australian Artists (Melb, 1992)
  • M. Colligan, ‘Full Circle’, La Trobe Library Journal, vol 13, no 50, Spring 1992, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Dec 1880, p 2
  • Lorgnette, 23 Feb 1889, p 6
  • Table Talk, 22 Mar 1889, p 6, 15 Nov 1889, p 5
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Oct 1898, p 5
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Nov 1898, p 5, 14 Oct 1898, p 6
  • private information.

Citation details

Mimi Colligan, 'Hennings, John (1835–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Hennings (1835-1898), by Frederick Alex Dunn, 1868-69

John Hennings (1835-1898), by Frederick Alex Dunn, 1868-69

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29533

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hennings, Johann Friedrich

6 July, 1835
Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany


13 October, 1898 (aged 63)
Middle Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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