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Isaac James Northfield (1887–1973)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published:

Isaac James Northfield (1887-1973), poster artist and painter, was born on Christmas Day 1887 at Ellengerrin station, near Inverleigh, Victoria, third child of Isaac Northfield, overseer, and his wife Louisa, née Everett, both Victorian born. After completing his primary schooling, James trained under George King at the Gordon Technical College, Geelong. He joined a local lithographic firm before moving to Melbourne where he served an apprenticeship with F. W. Niven & Co., one of the city's leading lithographic printers. On 23 December 1913 he married Una Grace Daniel at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak; their only child, a daughter, predeceased them.

About 1932 Northfield set up his own studio in Flinders Street and specialized in hand lithographic work. His understanding of the new process of colour printing in commercial art established his expertise and artistic reputation, and he was commissioned by the Victorian Railways and the Australian National Travel Association to design travel posters. His posters of the Mount Buffalo chalet, the Blue Mountains (New South Wales) and Canberra were displayed in travel offices, used for promotions abroad and presented in reduced format on tourist brochures. Northfield was as much at ease with flora and fauna as with landscapes. He received wider recognition when his poster of Collins Street, Melbourne, published by A.N.T.A. in 1935, was reproduced in a British poster annual.

During World War II, like a number of other artists, Northfield turned his talents to recording and celebrating the war effort. Sir Harold Clapp, head of the aircraft construction branch of the Commonwealth Department of Supply and Development—who had previously employed Northfield on behalf of the Victorian Railways—sought him out again. From the 1930s Northfield had been a part-time instructor at the Art Training Institute, Melbourne; by the early 1950s, slightly balding and with aquiline features, he was its chief director of studies.

In one of the longest careers in Australian commercial art, Northfield tackled a host of subjects and countless images. His graphic and colour skills were superb. He accepted commissions from travel organizations, industrial firms, government bodies, breweries and clothing manufacturers. A committed commercial artist, he produced artwork for Pelaco shirts, Hypol Cod Liver Oil and Abbotsford Invalid Stout; his large-format brewery posters dominated advertising hoardings for years. His clients also included the Triumph Motor Co. of Britain and the Indian Motocycle Co. of the United States of America. In 1956 he designed covers of publications for the Olympic Games. About this time he began to paint in oils and contributed his landscapes to local exhibitions.

With Percy Trompf and Gert Sellheim, Northfield was one of the three best-known poster artists of his generation. His most enduring work, his travel posters of the 1920s and 1930s, have figured in numerous major exhibitions. The National Gallery of Australia and the State Library of Victoria hold many examples of his work. Survived by his wife, Northfield died on 18 March 1973 at East Malvern and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Art Training Institute, Prospectus (Melb, 1950)
  • G. Caban, A Fine Line (Syd, 1983)
  • P. Spearritt (ed), Trading Places (Melb, 1991)
  • R. Butler, Poster Art in Australia (Canb, 1993)
  • Art Student (Melbourne), vol 1, no 1, 1932.

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Northfield, Isaac James (1887–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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