Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Lister Lister (1859–1943)

by J. Fenton-Smith

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William Lister Lister (1859-1943), artist, was born on 27 December 1859 at Manly, Sydney, son of John Armitage Buttrey and his wife Eliza Kirkby, née Bateson. In 1868 his father returned to his native Yorkshire with his family and William attended Bedford School, studying art under a Mr Rudge and later in Paris at Pont Ste Maxence for a year. His early outdoor work on the Yorkshire moors laid the foundations for his later recognition as a landscape artist of the plein air school. His father changed the family name by deed poll in 1874.  In 1876-80 he studied mechanical engineering at the College of Science and Arts in Glasgow and at the Fairfield Engineering Works, then became a ship's engineer in a Cardiff collier. During his four years at sea he voyaged to America, the West Indies and throughout the Mediterranean.

While studying engineering Lister had joined the St Mungo Art Club in Glasgow and by 1876 at 17 he had already exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1884 he went to London to begin a new career as a professional artist and teacher. He exhibited continually with the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art, Wales, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Royal Empire Society of Artists.

Returning to Sydney in 1888, Lister joined the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales, and was vice-president in 1894-97 and president in 1897-1943. He stayed with the society when professional artists such as Tom Roberts and A. H. Fullwood formed the breakaway Society of Artists, Sydney, in 1895. He oversaw the two societies' amalgamation and adoption of a royal charter in 1903 but could not prevent the subsequent split in 1907. In 1900 he was appointed a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (the only professional artist on the board) and was vice-president in 1919-43. In 1937 with Sydney Long he refused to join the Australian Academy of Art.

In 1898 Lister was represented in the Exhibition of Australian Art in London at the Grafton Galleries, sponsored by (Dame) Eadith Walker. Several of his paintings, sold to Seigelmeyer, a famous European collector, fetched the highest price of any exhibiting artist. In 1898 Lister won his first Wynne prize for landscape painting with 'The Ever Restless Sea' (Art Gallery of New South Wales). At Woollahra on 17 May 1899 he married a divorcee Bessie Enid Jenkins, née Waldron; they lived at Mosman for many years. He won the Wynne prize again in 1906, 1910, 1912, 1913 ('Federal Capital Site' which also won the Commonwealth government's £250 prize), 1917 and 1925. He exhibited regularly from 1889 with the Royal Art Society and at Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd's gallery in Sydney in 1919-40.

Recognized as a consummate craftsman, Lister Lister (as he signed his paintings) worked in both oils and watercolours, often on very large canvases, effectively mirroring the minutiae of Nature. His contemporaries nevertheless commented on the lack of emotion in his work and modern critics tend to agree. A large proportion of his massive canvases dealt with seascapes and landfalls. Even in his landscapes water was rarely far away.

Lister died at North Sydney on 6 November 1943 when knocked down by a taxi, and was cremated. His daughter survived him. Portraits by Albert Coates and Lawson Balfour are in the Art Gallery of New South Wales—he was dark, with a strong profile and a bristling moustache.

Select Bibliography

  • Catalogue 1946 Memorial Exhibition (Syd, 1946)
  • Australasian Critic, 1 (1890), no 1
  • Australasian Art Review, 1 (1899), nos 1-4, 6-8, 12 (1900), no 1
  • Red Funnel, 1 Aug 1906
  • Lone Hand, Sept 1915
  • Art in Australia, no 3, 1917
  • Art and Architecture, 2, Jan-Feb 1905, no 1
  • Commonwealth Home, 4 Dec 1925
  • Bulletin, 7 Apr 1900
  • Sydney Mail, 6 Aug 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Apr 1929
  • Croll papers (State Library of Victoria).

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Citation details

J. Fenton-Smith, 'Lister, William Lister (1859–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 December, 1859
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 November, 1943 (aged 83)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

motor vehicle accident

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