There are few artists around the world that can claim to have kicked-started their own nation's art market following their death. But one such artist is the talented Australian watercolourist J J Hilder. While his career was far too brief his life story and lasting legacy certainly deserves to be better known.
Waiting for the boat, Dora Creek (1915), watercolour by J J Hilder
Jesse Jewhurst Hilder was the ninth child (of ten) born to engineer Henry Hilder and his wife Elizabeth Hall. After winning an educational scholarship, Hilder studied at Brisbane Boys’ Grammar School from 1895-97 and while there he began to sketch and paint. After completing his schooling, he joined the Bank of New South Wales in Brisbane. Early in 1901 he was transferred to Goulburn, and in June 1902 he was transferred to Bega on the south coast of New South Wales – while there he is believed to have contracted tuberculosis (TB). In 1904 the bank moved him to Sydney and it is around this time that he sold his first watercolour for one pound. During his time in Sydney Hilder was sometimes painting under the nom de plume of 'Anthony Hood’, apparently so his employer would not be aware of his interest in art. While in Sydney, Hilder met artist Fred Leist, who saw value in his painting, and persuaded Hilder to show his work to Julian Ashton. In 1906 Hilder enrolled in art classes with Julian Ashton at the Sydney Art School; fellow students included Sydney Ure Smith and Harry Julius.
Julian Ashton wrote of his talented pupil in his late life memoir, Now Came Still Evening On:
Hilder was very shy and reserved. He used to come to my classes after four o’clock when the bank in which he worked closed. He had a natural instinct for drawing and a sense of beautiful colour values. In nearly all of his work he conveys the impression of having attempted to express some individual form of beauty both in design and colour.
Late in 1906, Hilder became increasingly sick, and his chronic illness was finally confirmed as TB. In early 1907 the bank gave him three months leave to seek a cure and he travelled to Stanthorpe in Queensland where he was visited by Julian Ashton. After his medical leave Hilder was transferred to Wyalong, where the climate was considered more suitable for his condition. Despite his illness Hilder kept in contact with his artistic friends and was encouraged to submit work to the first show of the newly revived Society of Artists (SOA) in Sydney. At this exhibition, Hilder was listed as a member of the SOA on the catalogue and he exhibited twenty-one watercolours. The October 1907 issue of Lone Hand reported that Hilder was the 'discovery’ of the August 1907 show. In 1908 Hilder was admitted to the Queen Victoria Home for Consumptives at Wentworth Falls, and in July the bank sent him to the inland town of Young. Later the same year, Hilder exhibited nineteen watercolours at the SOA annual exhibition in Sydney, and sold fourteen works.
While in Young, Hilder met probationer nurse Phyllis Meadmore (1886-1951), and they married in early 1909. Upon the urging of his wife, Hilder resigned from the bank in April 1909 and became a full-time artist. For their honeymoon the couple rented a cottage in Lawson in the Blue Mountains for three months and he painted while there. The couple then moved to Parramatta, and in September the first feature on the artist, written by artist D.H. Souter, was published in Art & Architecture magazine. Sadly this article was the only lengthy profile written during the artist’s lifetime. Sales at the November 1909 SOA exhibition were disappointing and the artist ended his first year as a professional artist under financial stress.
The island schooner, Moreton Bay, watercolour by J J Hilder
Early in 1910 Sydney Long persuaded art dealer Adolf Albers to become Hilder’s agent and during the following six years Albers sold two hundred and seventy-three of his paintings. Hilder’s health improved and he bought a pony and trap which he used to travel to painting spots. After a brief stay in Ryde the family moved to a cottage at Hornsby which they named Burrator. Family fortunes improved, especially after the National Art Gallery of New South Wales bought Dry Lagoon for fifty guineas, the highest price achieved during the artist’s lifetime.
A sensitive man, Hilder was apt to take offence at seemingly minor slights. This, with the added pressures of making a living and the pain and discomfort of his illness, saw the artist end several friendships, although he remained close to Elioth Gruner and Julian Ashton. After the November 1911 SOA exhibition, Hilder seems to have fallen out with several SOA members including Sydney Ure Smith and Harry Julius. In August 1912, Hilder’s displeasure with the SOA was made clear when he exhibited his watercolours with the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, and he exhibited with the SOA’s rival again in 1913 and 1914.
The three barrows in the clay pit (1914), watercolour by J J Hilder
In late October 1913, Hilder and his wife rented a comfortable cottage in Hornsby called Inglewood. Early in 1914 Hilder discovered a nearby working brick pit and from an elevated position above the pit he painted a series of images showing day to day operations below. Some of these images were exhibited at Hilder’s first, and only, one-man show at W.H. Gill’s gallery in Melbourne. The artist exhibited fifty-three works with prices from three to forty guineas at the April 1914 show. Hilder travelled by ship to Melbourne for the opening, but became ill so was unable to sketch while in the Victorian capital. Despite this, he managed to visit the National Gallery of Victoria where he saw The Bent Tree by Corot.
During 1915 Hilder twice visited Dora Creek, a tributary of Lake Macquarie on the Central Coast of New South Wales, to draw and paint, and the work of Corot influenced many of these late life images. His illness worsened and on 23rd March 1916 Hilder painted Dora Creek, his final work. Hilder died at his Hornsby home, aged thirty-five, on 10 April 1916 and was buried at Rookwood necropolis the following day. He was survived by his wife and two children. Known artistic attendees at his funeral included (among others): Julian Ashton, Elioth Gruner, Harry Julius, Adolf Albers, John Lane Mullins (secretary of the SOA) and the director of the (then National) Art Gallery of New South Wales, G.V.F. Mann.
While Hilder is best known for his heavy wash watercolours, he did work in other media. He produced a series of monotype prints as well as several oils. Hilder didn’t persevere with oil painting as the smell was detrimental to his health. He also illustrated for the Lone Hand in 1910 and illustrated poetic works for several other writers. Arguably his most important illustrative commission was for Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem, My Country (1915), for which he provided watercolour images as well as hand lettering.
The Sydney art community was in shock after Hilder’s death, and in July 1916 a memorial exhibition of two hundred and five loaned works was held at the SOA rooms in Sydney. Listed prominent owners included, among others: Howard Hinton, Sir Baldwin Spencer, S.H. Ervin and Nellie Melba. Publication of the first Hilder book, J.J. Hilder, Watercolourist, edited by Sydney Ure Smith and Bertram Stevens, served as a catalogue to this exhibition, and the profits from the limited edition book were given to the artist’s widow. The success of this experimental colour publication encouraged Bertram Stevens, Harry Julius and Sydney Ure Smith to launch Art in Australia later that year, with a review of the Hilder memorial exhibition in the first issue of the magazine. The publication of Hilder’s work in Art in Australia encouraged other artists to follow his example by taking up watercolour painting. This interest in watercolour saw the establishment of the Australian Watercolour Institute in 1923. Brett Hilder summarised the legacy of his father in the catalogue of the 1966 anniversary exhibition:
From the time of his death, if not before, there grew a Hilder 'legend’ which was established on three aspects: firstly on his work as a watercolourist, secondly on his tragic but gallant life, and thirdly on the inspiration he gave Sydney Ure Smith to begin the publication of fine art books in Australia.
With the work of Hilder being highly sought after following his death, Art in Australia published a well illustrated monograph titled The Art of J.J. Hilder in 1918. This book included eulogistic articles by Bertram Stevens, Harry Julius and Sydney Ure Smith as well as a list of Hilder’s post 1907 paintings. A smaller version of the memorial exhibition was shown in Melbourne in March 1917. In 1966, Hilder’s son Brett published The Heritage of J.J. Hilder, a work which addressed errors in the first book and included a list of known artworks, including three hundred and ninety-four watercolours, fourteen oils and six monotypes.