Over the Christmas holidays, Australian researcher Stephen Marshall visited Te Papa to view a little-known watercolour in our collection: John William Tristram’s ‘A Tremulous Dusk‘, painted in 1904. Stephen is currently writing a book on the artist, and wrote this blog to tell us more about the beautiful painting he found.
A rare early twentieth century painting has been re-discovered at Te Papa. The delicate watercolour depicting a shepherd and his flock is titled Tremulous dusk and was painted by J. W. Tristram in 1904 (1936-0012-6).
John William Tristram was born on 7 October 1870 in Kent, England the oldest child of Samuel Herbert Tristram and his wife Hannah (nee Thompson). The family immigrated to Australia in December 1883 so that Samuel could take up a military posting in Sydney. Tristram commenced drawing and painting soon after arrival in Australia. He was completely self-taught and it was his artistic talent that helped to secure his first job. On 30 December 1884 he was employed in the Civil Service of New South Wales as a Junior Draftsman in the Architect’s Branch of the Department of Public Instruction on a meagre annual salary of £50. He remained a public servant for forty five years and reached the rank of Senior Designing Architect. For a period of fourteen months during 1928-29 he fulfilled the role of Chief Architect for Schools (in an acting capacity) which was the most senior position in the branch.
From arrival in Australia until his death Tristram maintained a passion for art. His work may be broadly classified into two distinct periods with the commencement of World War I in 1914 acting as a convenient historical separation point. His earlier works, of which Tremulous dusk is one, displayed a bright and colourful character. As a regular exhibitor with the Art Society of New South Wales from 1894 and the Royal Art Society of New South Wales from 1903, his work was praised and he achieved critical acclaim and public popularity.
This extended beyond Australia as his work was regularly included in samples of Sydney art sent to New Zealand for inclusion in the exhibitions of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and the Otago Art Society in Wellington and Dunedin respectively. At this time he mostly painted beach and harbour scenes around Sydney and rural landscapes. Typically these were sunny subjects executed in a realistic manner.
Exceptions to this started to emerge in the first decade of the twentieth century. An example was his painting A sea fantasy which was exhibited at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1905 and subsequently purchased by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. The recognition associated with his first major public gallery sale was instrumental in encouraging the style for which Tristram later became best known. He had fully embraced his new style by the outbreak of World War I initially employing sombre tones reflective of the prevailing wartime austerity. This new approach also developed out of his need to balance the time available to him between his desire to paint and his commitments to work and family. From this period until his retirement in 1930 he engaged in painting mostly from dusk until dawn and the low light settings produced an obvious shift of artistic focus.
His painting evolved into a delicate, soft and subtle style characterised by muted colour and limited detail and the resultant art was more suggestive than realistic. His coastal scenes and rural landscapes were soft-edged and appeared as if viewed through coloured veils of mist. His approach remained primarily aesthetic but now there was a greater emphasis on balancing elegance and harmony in the colours used producing a sometimes romantic, mysterious or melancholic mood.
Tristram was influenced by the work of Britain’s Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and the American Tonalist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). In Tremulous dusk Tristram also acknowledges the Heidelberg School art movement of the late nineteenth century which was to influence much of the Australian art, and to some extent the New Zealand art, that followed. The artists associated with the movement painted en plein air in the impressionist tradition and were inspired by the beauty and light of the bush landscapes in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs and the Yarra River which flowed through them.
Tremulous dusk is a fine example of this artist’s work and worthy of its place in New Zealand’s national collection particularly as Tristram was a regularly exhibitor in this country. It is a quality painting and the equal of those held in many major public collections across Australia including: the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the State Library of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Queensland Art Gallery.
J. W. Tristram died in Sydney on 19 August 1938. He was later described by a nephew as a personality known for his gentlemanliness, his affectionate manner and refinement; also for his love of C²H⁵OH (particularly Scotch).
(Thank you Stephen!)