Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Michael Skipper (1815–1883)

by Jean Campbell

This article was published:

John Michael Skipper (1815-1883), by unknown photographer

John Michael Skipper (1815-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7028

John Michael Skipper (1815-1883), artist and solicitor, was born on 12 July 1815 at Norwich, Norfolk, England, eldest son of John Skipper, solicitor, and his wife Jane, sister of James Stark, a member of the Norwich school of landscape painting. Educated at Norwich Grammar School where he did well at classics and modern languages, he was intended for the law but was more interested in art in which he was encouraged by his uncle. In 1833 he abandoned his studies to become a midshipman in the East India Co.'s Sherbourne bound for Calcutta. On his return, deciding to migrate, he arranged to be articled to Charles Mann, the new South Australian advocate-general, and sailed in the Africaine, arriving at Holdfast Bay on 6 November 1836. He sketched scenes on the voyage, and met Frances Amelia, eldest daughter of Robert Thomas; he married her on 28 December 1839.

Skipper was associated with Mann and E. C. Gwynne in 1836-43. In March 1840 he was admitted as an attorney and proctor of the South Australian Supreme Court and practised in 1843-51; he joined the rush to the Victorian goldfields and returned in 1852 with many sketches but little gold. In 1852-72 he was clerk of the court at Port Adelaide. After the death of his wife he married her younger sister Mary on 28 April 1856.

Chiefly remembered as an artist, Skipper combined a lively mind with acute observation and a natural and cultivated skill with some aesthetic sensibility. His sketches and paintings of the landscape, the flora, fauna and Aboriginals of South Australia, and of the streets, buildings, people, way of life and notable events of Adelaide are of some artistic and great historical interest. Most of his drawings and paintings are small, though his oil on canvas, 'Corroboree', painted in 1840 measures 106 by 152 cm. He illustrated records of some of Charles Sturt's expeditions from descriptive notes lent him by the explorer. He also illustrated copies of journals of his voyages and of South Australian almanacs, embroidering margins with drawings of minute delicacy. Most remarkable is his illustration of his personal copy of G. B. Wilkinson's South Australia with about 360 tiny marginal sketches, including personal comments, reminiscences and puns.

Skipper retired in 1872 and lived on a small pension on his farm at Kent Town where he died intestate on 7 December 1883. He was survived by three sons and four daughters; his eldest son, Spencer John (1848-1903), was a journalist and satirist in Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • S. H. Skipper, John Michael Skipper (Adel, 1957)
  • P. Hope (ed), The Voyage of the Africaine (Melb, 1968)
  • Register (Adelaide), 8 Dec 1883
  • Mary Thomas diary (State Records of South Australia)
  • Skipper family papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jean Campbell, 'Skipper, John Michael (1815–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Michael Skipper (1815-1883), by unknown photographer

John Michael Skipper (1815-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7028

Life Summary [details]


12 July, 1815
Norwich, Norfolk, England


7 December, 1883 (aged 68)
Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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