Sydney based railway fettler and amateur oil painter with an art career lasting over sixty years. Dean was a regular exhibitor with the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales from 1893, and after his retirement from the NSW Government Railway devoted most of his spare time to painting and photography. He is best known for his oil portraits of women, pastoral landscapes and still life subjects.
|Thomas Dean with one of his Archibald Prize entries|
Railway fettler and prolific landscape and portrait painter. The son of William Dean and Harriet née Harrison, Thomas Dean was born in the English Midland’s county of Staffordshire on 28 July 1857. After leaving school he worked as a coal miner like his father had before him. Dean and his wife Jane Smith sailed to Australia on the Commonwealth, arriving in Sydney in June or July 1877.
Upon arrival, Dean travelled to Greta, near Maitland, where he joined the New South Wales Government Railway (NSWGR) working as a fettler (railway labourer). After a year in Muswellbrook, he and his wife lived for eight years at Breeza, New South Wales. During his early years in Australia, Dean took up photography and processed his images himself. While working as a fettler in northern New South Wales he became friends with an itinerant painter and, according to family sources, the two shared their skills in painting and photography.
By the early 1880s Dean was painting oils, such as his 1881 Portrait in White Hat. By the late 1880s Thomas and Jane were living in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah. Jane sometimes modelled for him, but after she had a brief love affair with another man in the early 1890s the relationship was abruptly ended and the childless couple later divorced.
|The light beyond , oil by Thomas Dean|
While his railway work commitments would have taken up much of his time, Dean persevered with his painting and by the 1890s he began exhibiting his oils with the Art Society of NSW. Although based in Kogarah, Dean often travelled around New South Wales working on railway construction projects. While on these trips he painted landscapes in his spare time but, inexplicably, did not paint railway subjects.
Dean’s exhibiting debut was at the annual spring exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales in 1893, where he showed two works, Tempe and A Study. Over the next thirty years he became a regular exhibitor at most of their spring exhibitions. Much of his art reflected the low-keyed sentimental taste of the late nineteenth century, and his landscapes show the clear influence of the Art Society president, William Lister Lister.
During the early years of the twentieth century Dean painted several large panoramic landscapes of northern New South Wales. One of these works was exhibited at the 1903 Royal Art Society of NSW (RAS) annual exhibition. This oil was favourably mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald review of the exhibition: 'Mr. T. Dean is to be congratulated upon his large oil painting, On the Cattle Camp, Liverpool Plains, (No. 124), spacious and spirited, though stockmen are not generally so well mounted, nor their horns so well groomed.’ (12 September 1903).
For the 1906 RAS annual exhibition Dean had three works accepted for hanging. The Sydney Morning Herald critic commented on one of his oils depicting northern New South Wales in his review of the exhibition:
Mr. T. Dean contributes a large and important work in The Valley of the Tweed (No. 39), the pale, rather weak, tone throughout which is no doubt employed to achieve the effect of dreamy solitude in the immeasurable vastness of the pastoral scene. The foreground is occupied by an almost circular sweep of the placid stream, and mountains rear their heads in the pale distance. This artist, who is an artist of talent, employed on the railway, is also responsible for The Rose (No. 88), a charming portrait of a girl smelling that fragrant flower. (25 August 1906).
According to Nancy Bishop, the artist’s great-grand-niece, Dean was a well built man with few vices, who loved music and enjoyed reading and writing poetry. One 1858 Longfellow poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, inspired Dean to create The Wedding Day – John Alden & Priscilla (1907). This large gallery-sized work is Dean’s only known pastel, but the quality of the image suggests that Dean must have produced several other works in this medium.
After his retirement from the NSWGR in the early 1920s, Dean moved to a house at 63 Ocean Street, Kogarah, where he lived with relatives and had his own studio. From that time onward he devoted most of his time to his painting. In retirement he rarely exhibited with the RAS and seems to have concentrated mainly on private portrait commissions as well as submitting work to the competitions organised by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Dean’s first Archibald Prize entry was a portrait of his niece, Emily Lowbridge, which he exhibited in early 1925. In 1930 he exhibited a portrait of Miss Haidee Saunders, who was described by Dean on his statutory declaration as a 'ladies beauty artist of Kogarah’. For the 1931 exhibition he submitted another portrait of Emily Lowbridge. Dean’s final Archibald exhibit in 1939 was a self portrait.
During the 1920s, Dean decided to visit his relatives overseas. In 1925 he travelled to his homeland and while there he sketched and painted. Two years later he travelled to North America, and painted several works including a view of the Grand Canyon and a picture of a sailing boat. This later work was presented to the Scouts movement in Pasadena, California. The gift warranted a front page illustrated article about Dean in the Pasadena Star-News (2 June 1927).
As well as his overseas travels, Dean visited other parts of Australia including Adelaide and Melbourne. During these tours he visited the principal art galleries and took detailed technical notes on works that appealed to him. Dean seems to have been a self-taught artist who relied on sketches and photographs to complete his studio works. Many of his surviving drawings in family ownership show that despite his lack of formal training he was a competent draughtsman.
|An Adelaide park study from the artist's sketchbook|
Images of women were the principal subject in most of Dean’s known portraits. While his wife was used as an early model, Dean later used other women as his main subjects. The four Traves sisters, who lived in Kogarah, were popular artist’s models for Dean during the later years of his career. One of the Traves posed for his large religious work, The Light Beyond (1910).
As well as portraits and landscapes, Dean also enjoyed painting flowers and gardens. Floral portraits included roses, dahlias, frangipanis and rhododendrons. Native plants with nationalistic associations such as wattle, waratah and flannel flowers were also used in his work. Parks and gardens also feature in many of his paintings, as in his 1920 view of the wisteria display at Vaucluse House, Sydney.
Although his Archibald Prize days were over, Dean was a regular exhibitor in the Wynne and Sulman competitions during World War II. His last exhibited work was his 1945 View from Art Gallery, which was exhibited at the Wynne exhibition in early 1946.
After an art career lasting approximately sixty years, the eighty-eight year old Dean held his first solo exhibition at Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Gallery, Sydney, from 11 to 27 April 1946. The Easter exhibition received little attention in the press apart from two brief reviews. The Sydney Morning Herald's stridently pro-modernist art critic, Paul Haefliger, was dismissive of Dean’s old fashioned display in his review published on 10 April 1946:
These works belong entirely to the Victorian era, and like their spiritual progenitors, their idea of beauty lies mainly in the “beautiful subject” of characteristic pattern – ladies recumbent, ladies tender, and ladies with garlands. There are also many landscapes exuding a similar aroma.
A more sympathetic review came from 'WEP’ (William Edwin Pidgeon) writing in the Daily Telegraph of 10 April 1946:
This is real old-time drawing-room art. Dean has been painting for more than 50 years, and has never lost the characteristic touch. These pictures will not excite the doter on the modern medium but will be apple-pie for the lover of the sentimental. Some early landscapes will surprise, particularly ‘Coromandel Valley’.
Ninety-year-old Thomas Dean died of pneumonia at his Kogarah home on Sunday 23 November 1947. He was buried in Woronora General Cemetery in Sutherland two days later. Dean had invested the proceeds of his painting wisely and when he died he owned several properties in the Kogarah area. Following his death his remaining work was divided among his near relatives.
In 1998 forty of his paintings, owned by brothers Geoffrey and Alan Hercules, were put up for sale with James R. Lawson in Sydney.
Images courtesy of the Dean family.
This Peer Reviewed article was first published on the Design and Art Australia Online website.
© Silas Clifford-Smith 2013