LEVEY, George Collins (1835-1919); [JOHNSTONE, Henry James (1835-1907)]
H. J. Johnstone, Melbourne photographer and artist : an autograph letter of introduction written for him by G. C. Levey, for Johnstone to take to California in 1879.
Manuscript in violet ink on faint-ruled notepaper, 1 page, 170 x 115 mm; no date (but probably late 1878 or early 1879); ‘My dear Edward, Allow me to introduce my friend Mr. H. J. Johnstone, a Melbourne artist of great promise, who has come to California for the purpose of making a short stay here. Any courtesies or attention which you pay him will be regarded as a personal favour by Yours truly, George Collins Levey‘; fine condition.
This letter of introduction for Melbourne artist and professional photographer H. J. Johnstone (1835-1907) was written by his friend George Collins Levey (1835-1919), journalist and politician, and proprietor of the Melbourne Herald. The letter has never been published.
Johnstone, who founded the famous Melbourne photographic studio of Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. with Emily O’Shaughnessy, was also an accomplished painter; in fact, he abandoned photography altogether in the mid 1870s in order to forge a career as an artist. In 1879 he left Australia permanently, travelling first to California before returning to England, where he would reside until his death in 1907. In his lifetime, Johnstone never achieved the recognition that he believed he deserved as a painter of the Australian landscape.
From the DAAO:
‘Henry James Johnstone, painter and professional photographer, was born in Birmingham, England. He studied art under a number of private teachers and at the Birmingham School of Design then joined his father’s photographic firm. In 1853 he came to the Victorian goldfields, where he prospected until 1856. In 1862 H.J. Johnstone, in partnership with Miss E.F.K. O’Shaughnessy, had a photographic studio at 3 Bourke Street, Melbourne, called Johnstone & Co. The name was most confusing because Charles Johnson’s longer established Melbourne firm was Johnson & Co. (often misspelt as Johnston) and it was probably because of this, rather than in any unconventional interest in acknowledging a woman partner, that the firm became Johnstone, O’Shannessy (sic) & Co. in 1864. Until 1886 their studio was located next door to the Melbourne Post Office in rooms previously occupied by Duryea & McDonald. In 1903 the firm claimed to date from 1862. Although Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. was one of Melbourne’s most fashionable (and expensive) photographic firms until the early twentieth century, H.J. Johnstone had long been in England by then. In 1866, however, he and O’Shannessy were awarded a medal for the ‘special excellence’ of the coloured and plain portraits they showed in the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.
Johnstone, however, wanted to be a painter. Having attended life classes conducted by the sculptor Charles Summers (according to Bonyhady), he sent an oil painting, The Death of Burke, to the same exhibition. It won no award. The following year he began private landscape painting classes with Louis Buvelot, Cato states. During the Duke of Edinburgh’s 1867-68 tour of the Australian colonies ‘Messrs’ (sic) Johnstone and O’Shannessy took several photographs finished in watercolour for Prince Alfred, with whom Johnstone toured Victoria. By then Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. was Melbourne’s leading firm for carte de visite portraits of celebrities, such as the Eureka Stockade hero Peter Lalor, the mayor of Melbourne John Thomas Smith, the writer Marcus Clarke, Freeman Cobb of Cobb & Co. and the various governors of Victoria and their wives. All, with the possible exception of the wives, were undoubtedly taken by Johnstone or one of the firm’s male managers and/or operators, including G.H. Hasler and Charles H. Manning.
A flamboyant personality, Johnstone (unlike O’Shannessy) was highly visible in Melbourne society. At the mayor of Melbourne’s Fancy Dress Ball in 1870 he went as Faust, and at the return ball given to the mayor two weeks later was dressed as Tybalt (from Romeo and Juliet ). That year Johnstone became a student at the newly formed National Gallery School of Painting under Thomas Clark. He began to exhibit his paintings with the Victorian Academy of Arts in 1872, including Near Lilydale, A Farm at Dandenong and Cottage near Dromana, subjects owing more to Buvelot than to Clark. Indeed, he was called ‘a rising artist… [who] follows in the footsteps of Mr. Buvelot’ when he showed a painting of a sunset at the Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition Preparatory to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition.
A Bush Cottage near Mulgrave, the Property of Mr. T. Walsh and a view of a creek near Seymour were shown with the Victorian Academy of Arts in 1873. Along with other paintings, Sundown, Stringy Bark Creek followed in 1874, Summer Sunset in 1875, After Sunset in 1876 and Sunset on the Goulburn in 1877. Critical enthusiasm had not dimmed in 1877 even though it was acknowledged that this last sunset repeated ‘the characteristics of one of his best pictures last year’.
At the same time Johnstone and O’Shannessy continued to exhibit examples of their ‘highly-wrought Artistic Photography’ extensively. In 1872 the firm opened an art gallery in their studio where paintings from both Europe and Australia were exhibited before being raffled through the Academy’s Art Union of Victoria. James Smith of the Argus applauded the move as an alternative to the incongruity of showing paintings side by side with sheet music, as was necessary in Wilkie & Webster’s shop. Soon the collection was sent on to South Australia in search of further subscribers, and Johnstone established useful connections with the photographer George Freeman and E.J. Wivell, the latter apparently his old photography partner. The firm also sold photographs of paintings for the Victorian Academy of Arts. In 1872 they produced a set of six photographs of drawings by members of the Academy to be distributed to subscribers in that year’s Art Union: a sketch of a cottage in Richmond Paddock by Buvelot, The Stock Rider by Chester Earles, A Scene at Yarra by van den Houten, J.W. Curtis ‘s Evening, W. Ford ‘s Loading Up and Johnstone’s own Twilight Reflections. Sets of photographs of drawings by members of the academy continued to be offered to subscribers in subsequent art unions. Johnstone’s sketch, Old Mates (a prosperous former digger visiting a miserably unsuccessful old mate), was included in the 1875 collection.
In 1874 Johnstone was listed solely as a professional artist (i.e. painter) in the Melbourne Directory. His oil paintings, By-Road at Seymour and Sketch of the Yarraman, on the Dandenong Creek, were praised for their naturalism when shown with the academy in 1875. By then, Johnstone was away ‘taking sketches of South Australian scenery’ and holding an exhibition of his landscape paintings and coloured photographic portraits in Freeman’s Adelaide studio. Sunset, Dromana, Victoria (‘the most beautiful’) and Old Mates were both included in this exhibition. Several South Australian subjects dated 1876-78 are known, including Valley of the Sturt, Craigeburn, South Australia 1878 and Cox’s Creek, Bridgewater, South Australia 1878. Later works are more likely to have been done from photographs (probably taken by Freeman) than from sketches made on the spot in the 1870s.
Adelaide proved particularly appreciative of Johnstone’s talents. 13 of his landscape paintings borrowed from seven private collectors were sent to the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition from South Australia. A Backwater of the River Murray, South Australia 1881 (offered at Christie’s Melbourne auction 1-2 May 2000) has a plaque affixed to the reverse: ‘Presented by British exhibitors to Colonel Sir Herbert Sandford R.A. official representative Royal British Commission in recognition of his valuable services’. Christie’s suggested it may have been purchased from the 1880-81 Melbourne International Exhibition, but the discrepancy in dates suggests a later exhibition. H.Y.S. Sparks, manager of the Mortgate Company of Australia, presented another version of this picture, the renowned Evening Shadows (1880, oil), to the National Gallery of South Australia. It too is commonly said to have been acquired from the Melbourne Exhibition, although the family believe it was specially commissioned for the opening of the South Australian National Art Gallery. Many other versions of the picture survive; in 1999 they were the subject of a special exhibition at the AGSA. At the 1880-81 Melbourne International Exhibition G. A Farr of Adelaide showed two paintings by H.J. Johnston [sic] in the SA section of class 1, oil paintings (p.526) – Old Mates and Fireside Reflections – while Hon. W. Morgan of Netherby Park lent H.J. Johnston’s Waterfall Gully. More dominant at the exhibition, however, were photographs, proofs and apparatus for portraits from the Melbourne firm of Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. Ltd. At the 1888-89 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition the AGNSW exhibited Johnstone’s Off the Track and On the Wallaby Track and Boiling the Billy were included in the SA Court, while On the Murray, lent by W.K. Thomson, was in the Victorian Loan Collection. At the same time a group of proofs and apparatus from Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. was awarded a first order of merit.
By then Johnstone had nothing to do with the firm, having quitted the antipodes in the late 1870s. He was reported ‘now in California’ when four of his paintings were shown with the Victorian Academy of Arts in 1879. In 1881 he sent By the River (probably an Australian subject) to the Royal Academy from a London address, then apparently retired to the country. When elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1886 he was living in Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire. He exhibited at the RBA’s Suffolk Street gallery from 1886 (Weary, a watercolour priced at £35) until 1888-89 (A Fisher Lassie, 12 guineas) but was not hung at the Royal Academy again until 1887. Then he continued to exhibit there almost annually until 1900. Apart from By the River, none of the 32 paintings he showed in the major London exhibitions in this period appears to have been an Australian subject. Titles such as A Wood Nymph (1890), Woodland Flowers (1892), Far-Away Thoughts (RA 1892), Homeward (RA 1892 and 1899), A Maiden’s Thoughts (1893), Love’s Rosy Morn (1893) and other stock subjects don’t suggest Australian subjects.
The many Australian landscapes Johnstone continued to paint were primarily directed at the Australian market. His only known display of his colonial past in London was as a member of a group of mainly expatriate artists with distant Australian, New Zealand and North American connections who held a ‘Colonial Fine Art Exhibition’ at the Burlington Gallery in 1886 with the aim of exploiting the market created by the gigantic Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London that year (to which W.K. Thomson of Kamesburgh, Brighton, Victoria, lent Johnstone’s On the Murray and View at Tallarook). Johnstone had 10 paintings in the Burlington Gallery show, including On the Goulburn River, Victoria; On the Watts River; In the Macedon Ranges; A Bush Track; Western Port, Victoria; At Woodlands, South Australia; and A Swamp near Dromana, Victoria. Some, like the last, may have been old paintings or replicas, but many were new. All were directed at visiting colonials, the exhibition being either ignored by British art critics or dismissed as ‘trade’ painting, although Johnstone’s Australian views appear to have sold well to the Americans too.
By 1891 Johnstone was living at Bath Road, Chiswick. Six years later he was at Wadhurst, Sussex but still maintaining a London studio. He died in the latter in 1907 reputedly while working on a painting. Despite – or rather because of – his expatriate status, his work remained popular in Australia until early in the twentieth century. Then his reputation faded. Even in 1913 Mather was cryptically labelling Evening Shadows ‘A picture that contains no art problems to give the spectator pause’, although he could not deny it was (and has remained) one of the most popular paintings in the South Australian gallery. The National Art Gallery of New South Wales’s purchase of Johnstone’s Off the Track had been a similar success with critics and public alike in 1883, but its popularity fluctuated even more wildly. The subject, a dead horse and a lost rider dying of thirst beside a dry river bed in the Australian bush, appealed to the late Victorian taste for a pathetic narrative and its reproduction as a chromolithograph in a supplement to the Illustrated Sydney News ensured it a place on the wall of many an Australian home. This star of the New South Wales Court at the 1888-89 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition (exhibited by the AGNSW) was deaccessioned in 1962 then repurchased in 1988.
Less nationalistic but even more sentimental Johnstone paintings, Tired Out, Please Buy and Who Comes, were issued as supplements to the Illustrated Australian News in 1887-88. A Billabong on the Goulburn, acquired by the AGNSW in 1884, was considered by critic Sidney Dickinson in 1889 to describe ‘with much beauty a scene that in topography, atmospheric effect, and sentiment is purely Australian’. Indeed, until the ‘national pictures’ of Roberts, Streeton and others erupted onto public gallery walls and Hans Heysen inherited the gumtree, Johnstone above all others was thought to have captured the ‘true’ Australia. As Mather sniffed, he ‘played a conspicuous part as a delineator of the typical tree of which Australians are pardonably proud’. The Sydney Bulletin of 24 December 1887 expressed the same notion far more fulsomely, while simultaneously managing to encapsulate the crass provincialism of local art criticism: ‘Of all Australian artists, Johnstone alone ranks as a genuine interpreter of Australian incident and scenery, and his pictures command in America hundreds of guineas’. (Joan Kerr)