Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Ford Paterson (1851–1912)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published:

John Ford Paterson (1851-1912), by unknown photographer

John Ford Paterson (1851-1912), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/07/96/1

John Ford Paterson (1851-1912), artist, was born in Dundee, Scotland, son of John Ford Paterson and his wife Elizabeth, née Stewart. He studied at the Royal Scottish Academy Schools in Edinburgh where at 20 he exhibited his first painting. He migrated to Melbourne with others of his family in 1872 but in 1875 returned to Scotland to further his study of landscape painting. He was influenced by members of the 'Glasgow School' who were striving for new expression in art that was decorative and rejected the sentimental and photographic works that had long been popular. In the next nine years Paterson exhibited in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. He became well known in London where he frequented the Savage Club. In 1884 he returned to Australia where he remained except for a visit to Scotland in 1892.

Paterson renewed his friendship with Louis Buvelot whose plein-air methods suited the romantic Scot. He showed at the inaugural exhibition at Buxton's Gallery, but as a landscape painter he was not as successful as others in the Heidelberg group. His work was more romantic in mood and his sense of colour, draftsmanship and mystical feeling for the bush placed him among the important Australian artists of the nineteenth century. With such artists as Conder and Roberts he broke away from the Victorian Academy of Art to found the Australian Art Association. In 1888 these organizations amalgamated as the Victorian Artists' Society; Paterson was its president in 1902. At its winter exhibition in 1896 his 'Evening in the Bush' received excellent notices. It was exhibited in London in 1898 at the Australian Art Exhibition and with 'A Nocturne' was ecstatically praised. In 1900 his 'Bush Symphony' attracted attention when exhibited at the Old Court Studios in Melbourne and was bought by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Paterson often claimed that the Australian landscape had 'a new sensation to offer, a new beauty to explain … Whiles I think airt is a kind o' suggestiveness, a hint, a kind o' promise, something evanescent. 'Tis a kind of spirituality o' things I'm after. A dream picture that's real, an yet ye canna put your han' to it'. Lionel Lindsay called him 'a quaint essentially artistic character, but he filled a big enough place in the art of his day. His ideas were greater than their fulfilment'. With little interest in money he turned in bad times to poultry farming near Ringwood. Though retiring and careless in dress, he commented on art spontaneously and his popularity suggests an outgoing personality. The smoke nights at the 'Vic. Artists' were famed for his jovial Scottish airs, and he always brought the house down with his rendition of 'We are nae fu'.' Aged 62 he died suddenly on 1 July 1912 at his home in Queensberry Street, Carlton.

Paterson never married despite his old-world courtesy to the ladies. Notable contributions to Australian art and letters were made by his brother Hugh, whose daughters Esther and Betty were artists; a nephew, Louis Esson, was a poet and dramatist.

The Victorian Artists' Society holds an oil portrait by Bess Norriss Tait and an ink sketch by Max Meldrum is privately owned. His work is represented in the galleries of Australian capitals as well as the galleries in Bendigo, Castlemaine, Newcastle and Ballarat. On 24 September 1932 a retrospective exhibition in Melbourne won attractive reviews.

An elder brother, Charles Stewart Paterson, born on 5 January 1843 in Edinburgh, was apprenticed to the house-decorator, John Nesbit. As chief decorator for Dobies of Edinburgh he decorated and restored Ayrton Castle and other mansions. He arrived at Melbourne in 1872 and formed the firm of Paterson Bros, which later monopolized the decoration of wealthy homes and such public buildings as Government House, Melbourne Town Hall, the Parliamentary Library and the Prahran Public Library. In 1888 he built the Grosvenor Chambers in Collins Street East as an art centre at a cost of £9000. His wide interests included work in several institutions. He was a founder of the Working Men's College, serving as treasurer and in 1902 as president. He was active in the Juvenile Exhibition and Caledonian Society, and chairman of the Operatives' Building Society and the Queen's Coffee Palace Co. He also helped to make the Fern Tree Gully area a popular resort. After a long illness he died on 14 April 1917, survived by his wife Annie, née McFarlane, and by two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • D. H. Skinner and J. Kroeger (eds), Renniks Australian Artists, no 1 (Adel, 1968)
  • G. H. Gill, ‘“The Vics”: an historical record’, The Gallery on Eastern Hill, C. B. Christesen ed (Melb, 1970)
  • Table Talk, 27 Apr 1888, 25 July 1901
  • Illustrated Australian News, 1 July 1896
  • Review of Reviews for Australasia, 20 Aug 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 July 1912, 16 Apr 1917, 24 Sept 1932
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Apr 1917
  • L. Lindsay, ‘J. Ford Paterson’, Art in Australia, no 7 (1917)
  • B. Burdett, ‘John Ford Paterson’, Art in Australia, 15 Aug 1933
  • private information.

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Paterson, John Ford (1851–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Ford Paterson (1851-1912), by unknown photographer

John Ford Paterson (1851-1912), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/07/96/1

Life Summary [details]


Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland


1 July, 1912 (aged ~ 61)
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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