Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Hume Nisbet (1849–1923)

by Peter Cowan

This article was published:

James Hume Nisbet (1849-1923), author and artist, was born on 8 August 1849 at Stirling, Scotland, son of James Nisbet, house-decorator, and his wife Jane, née Hume. He was educated in letters under Rev. Dr James Culross and in painting under the artist Sam Bough, R.S.A. Of a roving disposition, at 16 he went to Melbourne and found various jobs. About 1868 he spent a year playing small parts with Walter Montgomery and others at the Theatre Royal. He then wandered around eastern Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands.

Returning to Britain in 1872, Nisbet studied art in London at the National Gallery and South Kensington Museum. Late in 1873 he returned to Scotland and was working as a scene-painter in Edinburgh when he married Helen (d.1901), daughter of the sculptor Andrew Currie, on 1 November 1875 at St Patrick's Roman Catholic Chapel. In 1878-85 Nisbet taught freehand drawing at the Watt Institution and School of Arts. He painted in oil and water-colour and exhibited with the Royal Scottish Academy. An associate of John Ruskin, he 'got to loggerheads' with the academy, particularly over its reluctance to admit the work of young artists.

Commissioned by Cassell & Co., Nisbet visited Australia and New Guinea in 1886. On his return he contributed articles and sketches to Cassell's Picturesque Australasia (1887-89). Living in London in chronic financial difficulty, in 1888 as Hume Nisbet he published the first of some forty-six novels, about half set in Australia and the Pacific: The Land of the Hibiscus Blossom (1888) and Eight Bells (1889) are among the early novels set in New Guinea and give an unusually sympathetic view of Papuans and their culture. He described his adventures in A Colonial Tramp (1891) and the part-autobiographical novel Ashes (1890). In 1895 he again visited Australia.

Nisbet worked within the convention of the popular novel, using at times sensational plots, abounding with Aborigines, 'Kanakas', bushrangers, gold diggers, convicts and squatters. He was often outspoken on social issues, savagely criticizing racial prejudice, social hypocrisy and inequality, although not always consistently. He deplored the treatment of Aborigines notably in The Savage Queen (1891), featuring Truganini, and A Bush Girl's Romance (1894), set in Western Australia. Extremely conventional himself, he attacked 'the ridiculous prejudices which degrade the colonial': a central character in three novels was the Australian-born Chinese Wung Ti; although depicted as a criminal, he was seen as superior to most of his detractors. A Dream of Freedom (1902) was based on William Lane's New Australia colony. The Swampers (1897), in which he poured contempt on the Bulletin, was withdrawn in Australia when J. F. Archibald threatened legal action.

Hume Nisbet also published four volumes of poetry, five books on art including Where Art Begins (1892), collections of short stories, and travel books. He illustrated his own and other writers' works. He also continued to paint. A member of the Yorick Club, London, he was a friend of Philip Mennell. On 28 January 1902 at Bristol Nisbet married 73-year-old and twice widowed Katharine Septima Armitage (d.1909), née Hopper. They lived at Beckington Abbey, Somerset. On 9 June 1914 in London he married another widow Blanch Dolby, née Austin; they lived in her house at Eastbourne, Sussex, where he died on 4 June 1923. Predeceased by two daughters in childhood and two sons in early manhood, he was survived by two daughters of his first marriage, and by his wife.

Nisbet's independent views, his awareness of social issues and his willingness to write on unpopular themes give his novels a striking individuality in Australian writing of the 1890s. His ideas made him unpopular in Australia and his humorous and at times effective satire was often missed by reviewers.

Select Bibliography

  • Westerly, 27, no 4, 1982, p 81, 28, no 1, 1983, p 45
  • British Australasian, 28 Nov 1895, 27 Apr 1899, 8 May 1902
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 8 May, 24 July 1886
  • H. Nisbet, letters to Edmund Downey (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Peter Cowan, 'Nisbet, James Hume (1849–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 August, 1849
Stirling, Stirlingshire, Scotland


4 June, 1923 (aged 73)
Eastbourne, Sussex, England

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