Since the revival of interest in printmaking and the simultaneous rediscovery of Australian women artists in the 1970s, the name Jessie Traill has been treated with growing respect by curators, collectors and connoisseurs both in her home state of Victoria and beyond.1Traill was brought to notice in 1977 in two exhibitions at the Important Women Artists Gallery in Melbourne. Since then her etchings have been hung in exhibitions at state and commercial galleries. In 1989 her work was given pride of place at the exhibition of Australian prints at the Australian National Gallery. 

A woman who made a life’s occupation of travelling, Traill first left Australia when two years old, and by her sixties had crossed the equator more than two dozen times.2Traill was in Britain and Europe from 1906 to 1909 and from 1914 to 1920, in Canada in 1920, and the United States and Europe again from 1926 to 1927. In the last three decades of her life she went abroad every few years. In 1911 she journeyed alone by boat to Java, via New Guinea, in order better to understand the artistic vision of the East.3An account of this trip, entitled ‘Impressions of Java’, was published in the Journal of the Victorian Artists Society in November 1911. In 1915, as a member of the Queen Alexandra Military Imperial Nursing Service (fig. 1), Traill left for Rouen, France, where she remained for the duration of the First World War. Later, in the 1940s, Traill flew intrepidly up and down the eastern and southern coasts of Australia in a flying boat, making rapid watercolour sketches from the windows.4The sketch books are in the La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. 

Her place in Australian history was assured in March 1928 when she ventured, in the spirit of the pioneers, into Central Australia to paint the desert. Her exhibitions at Alice Springs and Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges were the first of their kind.5Her watercolours were pinned to blankets hung up in the school-room at Alice Springs. At least one work sold, the purchaser’s house being visible in the picture. Traill’s name has since become synonymous with a body of etchings and aquatints of the Australian bush in all its poetic moods, from the extreme of dark, primordial menace on the one hand, to the mirage-shimmering desert expanses on the other. Her work in printmaking has been seen both as paying homage to the master of the Golden Age of Australian landscape painting, Tom Roberts, and as prefiguring the radical simplicity of Fred Williams at the modern end of the spectrum. Whatever the subject and medium, Traill’s prints bear the hallmark of a subtle and skilled technician who welcomed challenges fearlessly. 

From a latterday vantage point it is evident that Traill’s use of large, odd-shaped plates, and exploitation of the rich possibilities of inking and biting, were misunderstood by contemporaries nurtured on a diet of the illustrative and picturesque work of Lionel Lindsay, John Shirlow, Sidney Long, Sydney Ure Smith and John Barclay Godson.6The prints of these artists, all foundation members of the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society, emulated academic British printmakers, for example Walter Greaves, Mortimer Menpes, Muirhead Bone, D. Y. Cameron. Equally unappreciated were her extraordinary aquatints, which developed from an interest in European woodcuts and lithographs, and were manifestly influenced by the art of Japan. 

Jessie Traill’s set of prints of the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, made between 1927 and 1932, were prominently featured in 1982 at the exhibition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the bridge.7The Sydney Harbour Bridge 1932–1982, A Golden Anniversary Celebration, Art Gallery of New South Wales. 1982. The etchings struck a note of high seriousness, recalling the venerated traditions of the nineteenth century when placed alongside works of art which reflected the formal revolutions of the European avant-garde. In terms of ‘modernism’, Traill’s vision did not extend beyond Whistler, an artist whose influence is apparent in the elegant draughtsmanship, the sensitive angles of her views of the bridge, and the play of expanses of sky against a tracery of steel girders and cables. Most un-Whistler-like, however, is the bold approach to complicated masses of machinery and construction, and the competent technical knowledge which lay behind it. These qualities, and an overpowering sense of the titanism of the enterprise, betray a debt to Frank Brangwyn, the man to whom Traill turned in 1907 for instruction in the art of etching. 

Traill had spent the years from 1903 to 1906 at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, the training Mecca for aspiring Australian artists, and before that had taken lessons in outdoor painting and etching from an immigrant Scot, John Mather (1903–04), at his small, private Austral Art School in Collins Street, Melbourne. From as early as 1904 her watercolours, drawings and etchings won prizes in exhibitions and competitions.8First prize at the Seychelles Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition, 1903 (watercolour sketch); first prize in the Pastorale Competition of the Book Lover Quarterly Competition, 1904 (drawing of a head from life); first prize Ladies Art Association, Ballarat, 1906 (etching The black hat). Traill also won minor prizes while at the Gallery School. See Argus, 19 December 1902. 

From the outset Traill had been attracted to plein air painting, having been introduced to it as a young girl by Tom Roberts during one of his sojourns on the coast of Port Phillip Bay in the 1880s. As a student of John Mather in 1901 and 1902 she went on group painting trips to the country or to the coastal areas, and at the National Gallery School she received informal encouragement from Frederick McCubbin, one of the original Heidelberg group. Traill’s love of landscape painting placed her outside the scope and jurisdiction of the Gallery School and was undoubtedly a primary motivation for her leaving in 1906, before the completion of the course. Meanwhile she had developed a serious interest in another branch of art, which lay beyond the curriculum of the Gallery School – etching. 

Initially Traill obtained from Mather a good grounding in the basic techniques of timing acid immersion, inking, and plate wiping, choosing only single motifs such as a flower or a boat, then gradually working up to a small scene such as sheep in a paddock or a post in water. The plates were invariably of carte-de-visite size.9The early attempts are in J. C. A. Traill, Copperplate Etchings and Notes Thereon, 1903, Manuscript Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. Cited as the finest etcher of the nineteenth century in Australia,10Ron Radford, Outlines of Australian Printmaking, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, 1976. Mather was a patient, meticulous and exacting teacher, though in relation to Traill’s work, one of limited artistic vision. Inspired by Whistler’s etchings of Venetian façades and boat yard interiors,11Traill was part of a generation of etchers who were to learn their craft from Hamerton’s indispensable textbook, on the one hand, and from a close examination of the Whistlers purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria by von Herkomer in 1893, on the other. See Leonard B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 46, 50. Traill produced, in 1904, one of her first independent etchings, a barn interior. But when she showed it to Mather he was completely disoriented by the lack of clear perspectival indices, and to his pupil’s amusement could not tell which way up to view it.12Etching, 10.8 x 11.9 cm. See Traill, Copperplate Etchings, folios 56–9. 

Graduation from the Australian schools to a Parisian atelier, and/or the Slade or the Royal College in London, was the natural sequence of events for an ambitious art student. Those places were regarded as the necessary springboards which launched one into exhibition space at the annual shows of the Royal Academy and the Salon. Instead, after arriving in London in 1907 and spending several months orienting herself, Traill chose to enrol in Frank Brangwyn’s school of art. The move was indeed unusual, given the general trend among Australian students,13George Coates, James Quinn and Louise Riggall (Academie Julien, Paris), George Lambert, Hugh Ramsay, Bessie Gibson and Hilda Rix Nicholas (Academie Colarossi), Bertha Merfield (Royal Academy and Colarossi), Dora Meeson (Slade, London, and Julien’s, Paris), Jane R. Price (Royal College of Art, London), Jean Sutherland (Royal Academy, London), Ethel Carrick Fox (Slade, London), Eirene Mort (South Kensington School of Art and Grosvenor Life School, London). but it made sense in the light of Traill’s atypical experiences and ambitions. 

One of Traill’s first actions upon arrival in London was to re-establish contact with the Roberts family, then living in Putney. Together, Tom Roberts and the young visitor explored the area of the Thames near Putney and Hammersmith made famous by Whistler. Calling in to the inner bar of the Putney Hotel they admired William Nicholson’s woodcuts of celebrities.14Letter of Traill to R. H. Croll, reproduced in Croll’s Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1935, p. 93. At the same time Frank Brangwyn was marking the height of his success with two exhibitions, one at the Rembrandt Gallery in Vigo Street and the other at the Rowley Gallery in Silver Street, Kensington.15See the chronology in The Art of Frank Brangwyn, catalogue of the exhibition organised by the Brighton Polytechnic and the Fine Art Society, 1980. And at last the British critics, unable any longer to ignore their most famous painter, were responding favourably to his work.16Rodney Brangwyn, Brangwyn, Kimber, London, 1978, pp. 118–23. 

From his artistic apprenticeship as an embroidery and tapestry designer, Brangwyn had developed a style characterised by a heavy, flowing contour line encasing forms in a silhouette, a dramatic and independent use of pure colour laid on in broad and often coarsely defined areas, and an overall impulse for design that occasionally rivalled wallpaper in its lack of restraint. These qualities had won him the approval of the French but not that of the British art establishment. What Samuel Bing regarded as an exceptional talent for decoration on a monumental scale,17In 1895 Brangwyn had contributed to the external decoration of Samuel Bing’s Salon de l’Art Nouveau in Paris. Two of his decorative panels were in the show itself. In 1898 Bing invited Brangwyn to make some designs for stained-glass windows. See Theodore Reff, Modern Art in Paris 1855–1900 (catalogue facsimiles), Dowland, New York, 1981, nos 32, 38–40, ‘Exhibition de I’art nouveau’; and The Art of Frank Brangwyn, chronology. the London press feared was vulgar exhibitionism.18Brangwyn, Brangwyn, pp. 90–1, 114, 119–20. See also Julian Freeman, ‘Brangwyn, a career’, in The Art of Frank Brangwyn, p. 9. However, not even the most antagonistic critic could deny a prodigious drawing ability, and this, together with important mural commissions,19At the Royal Exchange and Skinners Hall, 1899–1906 and 1902–09 respectively. had helped the British public to recover from their initial distaste for Brangwyn’s art. The voices of the press had been unanimous in his praise. C. Lewis Hind of the Evening News wrote that ‘Brangwyn will be reckoned one of the chief art forces of our time’, while the Morning Post commented: ‘if ever the Academy selected young genius who is marked out for greatness, Mr. Brangwyn is the man – as foreign countries have already recognised … ’.20Evening News, March 1904; Brangwyn, Brangwyn, p. 123; The Art of Frank Brangwyn, chronology. 

Wishing to exert a direct influence on the younger generation of painters, Brangwyn had opened his own art school in 1904. For his purposes he had taken over the Stratford Studios, a row of light and airy cottages in a mews off Stratford Road, Kensington. Jessie Traill found a small bed-sitting-room not far away at number 2a Pembroke Road, beneath an architect’s office, and soon made acquaintances among her fellow students at the school. Helen Wilson, Bernard Leach and an Australian, Edith Hope, all of whom had previously studied at the Slade, were some of her contemporaries.21Traill Papers, Manuscript Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. Hans Davis Richter, who became successful as a painter of exuberantly coloured still-lifes, befriended Traill.22The plates of etchings exhibited at the Royal Academy were left with Richter in 1909 on her departure from London; Traill, Record of Sales Book, Brighton Historical Society, Brighton, Vic. 

The curriculum offered by Brangwyn and his partner John Swan was hardly revolutionary. Swan took a life class in the mornings and Brangwyn a figure and still-life class in the afternoons. There were clothed and unclothed models, often poor, working-class people who made good ‘character studies’.23Brangwyn, Brangwyn, p. 104; Nina Hamnett, The Laughing Torso: Reminiscences, R. Long & R. Smith, New York, 1932, p. 19. Brangwyn was not an exemplary teacher, one of his more famous students, Nina Hamnett, claiming that he had too much personality to teach well.24Hamnett, The Laughing Torso, p. 20. Actually, Brangwyn’s ‘personality’ was at war with his ideas; nervous, socially awkward and shy, he had extremely strong opinions about art. He neither knew nor cared about the artistic inclinations of his students, and was anxious only that they adopt his dictates.25Brangwyn, Brangwyn, pp. 104–5. Jessie Traill was fortunate in having had former experience of art schools and difficult professors. She was able to detach herself from Brangwyn’s bombast and unprofessionalism and laugh at his unorthodox views, all the while paying respectful attention to the artistic qualities which had won him fame. It is to Traill’s credit that while she fell under the spell of Brangwyn’s design principle, she remained perfectly conscious of its inherent dangers. 

Brangwyn had taken up etching as a relaxing alternative to mural painting around the turn of the century, but by 1907 he had made a name for himself in that medium too. Again, the results of his labours were eccentric. As a contemporary put it, ‘In the orchestra in which others play the clarionet or pianoforte, he produces music from the contra-bombardon’.26‘Modern British etchers: Frank Brangwyn, by a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers’, Magazine of Art, vol. II, 1903–04, p. 120. But it was to be expected that his powerful, energetic use of the etching needle would polarise critics of a medium that was hidebound, more than any other, by rigid sets of aesthetic rules. Since the modern revival of etching instigated by Whistler and Seymour Haden in the 1880s, the craft had attracted some imposing devotees, many of them academicians. Their textbook was P. G. Hamerton’s Etching and Etchers, which propounded the norms of ‘selection’ and the ‘sketch’ favoured by Haden, to whom the book was dedicated.27See also P. G. Hamerton, The Etcher’s Handbook, London, 1881. Sir Seymour Haden set out the norms of his aesthetic in About Etching, published in London in 1879. The aesthetics of the blank space and ‘artistic shorthand’ which resulted were anathema to Brangwyn, for whom the surface of canvas or paper was like a tapestry made up of thousands of multi-coloured, interwoven threads. In consequence he ignored or flouted the strictures of the prevailing orthodoxy, and produced the biggest and blackest etchings seen in the art world since Piranesi or Rembrandt.28Regarding the dictum of small plates, he once told his biographer: ‘it was Whistler who started the rot about the large plate … and that a job done by a small tool must necessarily be small … that’s all b—! What about a cathedral built with bricks and the trowel of the workmen? … Anyway, the large plate has always been done’. The purists among his contemporaries strove only for the effects which could be achieved from the action of acid on the needled lines of the plate. This rule, if broken, was done so with great subtlety. But Brangwyn used inks as he used paint, liberally filling the deeply scored lines. He revelled in all the sins of ‘faking’ – retroussage, foul biting, plate wiping. 

Since 1905 Brangwyn had been taking summer classes of up to fifty students to Belgium.29Brangwyn, Brangwyn, pp. 104–7. Traill, always eager to travel, went with them in 1907, and the sketches she made formed the basis for the first etchings produced under Brangwyn’s supervision. Before sending his class out to sketch, Brangwyn gave them very definite instructions, admonishing the students to forget everything they had learned in the past and to look at the scene before them with an eye to its compositional and decorative possibilities. It was the arrangement of primary masses, the patterns of light and dark that should engage their attention. Finally, he would remind them of the classical dictum that nature was just a basis upon which they should invent and improve.30ibid., p. 105. One aspect that Brangwyn unsuccessfully tried to instil into Jessie Traill was his need to fill up any naked parts of the design – the legacy of the decorator in him.31A road in Picardy 1903, and The storm 1904, in William Gaunt, The Etchings of Frank Brangwyn, The Studio, London, 1926, catalogue nos 10 and 29 respectively, are typical examples. (Catalogue hereafter referred to as Gaunt.). A little drawing of a hillside by Traill became a target for criticism.32Private collection, Victoria. Above a vacant area nearly as large again as the land mass, he pencilled in: This might do if it had some cattle for interest in the foreground, and a wild storm cloud filling up the sky space. Otherwise as it is it would be a sort of axle of black and white … and much more so when etched’. 

Fortunately Traill regarded this advice with private scepticism, and she never altered the drawing. Her later prints show that in this respect she held very different views from her teacher, inclining more to the attitude of Whistler and Monet, and ultimately to the Japanese wood-cutters. For the most part Traill did not draw directly onto the plates in front of nature,33Unlike Brangwyn, who worked directly onto the plate to achieve results ‘full of life and spontaneity’ like those of Rembrandt. See William de Belleroche, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, Chapman & Hall, London, 1948, p. 74. but worked them up from sketches and made her trial proofs in London, under Brangwyn’s close supervision. His intervention in the production of her etchings was considerable, and varied from verbal suggestions to actually inking her plates. It seems that he never personally touched them with the needle, limiting himself to drawing in chalk on her proofs. 

Joseph Pennell once said that ‘the etcher who does not print his own etchings is not an artist, but a shopkeeper and manufacturer’.34Levon West, Making An Etching, The Studio, London, 1932, p. 38. Brangwyn agreed with the principle of printing one’s own etchings, but for a different reason: he did not trust most commercial printers to interpret his ideas properly. The one exception was Frederick Goulding, in Shepherd’s Bush, ‘a marvel … the best man we’ve ever had for printing’, to whom he sent his plates from around 1903.35de Belleroche, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, p. 75. Traill, no doubt having first obtained the advice and approval of Brangwyn, followed suit, and took to Goulding the plates she intended to exhibit at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.36Traill, Record of Sales Book. 

There are three trial impressions of Traill’s etchings by Brangwyn in Australian galleries.37Five prints of the period of Traill’s study with Brangwyn are discussed here. The first three, The roadside, Flanders 1907 (National Gallery of Victoria), Charing Cross Bridge, London 1907 (Australian National Gallery, Canberra), and An old house, Furnes 1908–09 (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales), were all printed by Brangwyn. Another etching, The Barberini Fountain, Rome 1908, has Brangwyn’s drawing on the first state, and for Worship in the cathedral, Ypres 1907, there is a separate sketch by Brangwyn. One of these, The roadside, Flanders (fig. 2), was an etching which resulted from the summer class of 1907. Brangwyn himself printed the first state, now in the National Gallery of Victoria. With her characteristic loose line, Traill had drawn an expanse of road lined with tall trees and a few rustic buildings. A group of figures, utterly extraneous to the scene, were barely suggested in the road and under the trees. Apparently the print was an exercise in rendering broad, contrasting masses. 

Brangwyn inked the plate with a gentle, even grey tone throughout, reserving nevertheless plenty of ink for the cross-hatching in the trees, roofs, and the crude foreground shadows. Then he wiped quite clean the wall of a building near the centre of the composition, together with a patch of contiguous roadway and a bundle carried by one of Traill’s rudimentary figures. By this means he created a strong focal point in the composition, a dramatic device often urged upon his students and employed in his own prints.38Brangwyn, Brangwyn, p. 105. Evidently pupil and teacher discussed the result, for two faults were rectified in the next state.39Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. It is titled, signed, and dated 1907 in pencil. The too-distantly spaced lines were closed up, and bareness of the plate in the region of the sky was eliminated by the addition of cloud. The result was a significant change in mood of the print, which had now become restless. Interestingly, Traill avoided both the retroussage in the deeper lines, and the spotlight effect in the centre of the composition in the second attempt, preferring that her forms retain a more transparent, ephemeral character and the atmosphere remain grey and nebulous. 

During the summer Brangwyn had taken some of his students into the church of St Martin in Ypres to sketch the congregation at prayer beneath the towering Gothic columns and arches.40St Martin was the cathedral of Ypres, destroyed in 1914. Afterwards he showed Traill how to make a composition in which the black shadows swathing the figures and deeper recesses formed a counterpoint to the bands of illumination on the pillars. Her etching Worship in the cathedral, Ypres 1907 (fig. 3) followed this advice closely, and retained the strong spotlight effect which had been less to her liking in The roadside, Flanders.41Private collection, Victoria. Brangwyn gave Traill his demonstration sketch as a token of his approval. Worship in the cathedral, Ypres is inspired not only by her teacher, but by the French realism which made a strong impact on Brangwyn’s own work. 

 

Brangwyn had been a great admirer of Millet, and of Alphonse Legros, exiled in Britain from the 1870s. Legros and Léon Lhérmitte, who had visited London in 1869 and 1870,42For second-wave French realists, The Peasant in French 19th Century Art, an exhibition organised for the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, by James Thompson in 1980. introduced the British artists to a watered-down, sentimentalised version of Millet’s art. At the turn of the century French realism acquired a new dimension: images of urban life and industrial scenes replaced country labour and peasants. Constantin Meunier, a leading French exponent of this type of realism, was a fellow-member of the Société Nouvelle de Peintres et de Sculpteurs, and exerted a strong influence on Frank Brangwyn.43de Belleroche, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, p. 76; Studio, vol. 19, March 1900, p. 93. 

Though Traill too was to be infected with this spirit, her print of the cathedral interior is tied to the earlier tradition, and seems particularly to look back to Léon Lhérmitte. It has marked affinities with his etching An episcopal visit, widely known after it appeared in Portfolio in 1881.44Portfolio, no. 141, September 1881, p. 138. For the popularity of Lhérmitte in England in the early years of the twentieth century see F. Henriet, ‘Léon Lhérmitte, painter of French peasant life’, Studio, vol. 47, June 1909, pp. 3–14. Worship in the cathedral, Ypres, measuring 29.8 x 26.4 centimetres, was a larger plate than Traill had used before. Although another of her etchings printed in 1907 by Brangwyn, Charing Cross Bridge, London (fig. 4),45Edition at least eight. The impression in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, is neither signed nor dated. was slightly smaller, from this point forward Traill found the confidence to work on a bolder format. 

 

The Charing Cross Bridge, London etching is Traill’s first attempt to fuse the lessons of Brangwyn with her undiminished regard for Whistler. The view of a section of the span seen from water-level calls to mind Whistler’s Nocturnes46See particularly ‘Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge’, c.1872–75, Tate Gallery, London. as well as his etchings Old Putney Bridge and Old Battersea Bridge, all of which utilise the Japanese convention of placing the horizontals in the upper part of the picture space. However there are great differences between Whistler and Traill. His bridges, surrounded by areas of blank sky and water, remain uncluttered, while Traill’s plate is heavily worked. Furthermore, the American’s delicate feather-touch is replaced by rough, deeply scored lines. 

Charing Cross Bridge, London was an exercise in the Brangwynesque blackness to be obtained by closed and open hatching and repeated acid immersions. The form of the bridge competes with a line of factories and warehouses in the middle distance, etched in lighter tones and, as in Brangwyn’s etchings, separated from the foreground by a shaft of sunlight striking the water.47Compare his prints London Bridge 1903, Hammersmith Reach 1903, Trees and factory, Hammersmith, Gaunt nos 7, 9 and 11. His trademark is again unmistakable in the long diagonal cloud of smoke emanating from a train crossing the bridge.48Compare with Brangwyn’s Cannon Street Station, exterior 1911 and Cannon Street Station, interior 1911, Gaunt nos 188, 219. 

In the latter half of 1907 the Australian decided to broaden her experience of teaching methods. First she sat in on classes at the Royal Academy, proudly receiving criticisms from both Clausen and Sargent, and attended Clausen’s lectures at Burlington House. In this environment Traill was exposed to an approach diametrically opposed to that of Brangwyn. Clausen roused the sensibilities of his students to the beauty of plain spaces, warning them to leave off the work at a certain point and to avoid ‘pattern-making’.49George Clausen, RA, 1852–1944, Bradford Art Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 1980. (An exhibition organised by Bradford Art Gallery and Museums of Tyne & Wear County Council Museums, Bradford.). A Monet-like spatial sensitivity appears in Traill’s art from this period, and is most probably due to her admiration for Clausen’s painting, which has been defined aptly as a marriage of Millet and Monet.50ibid., p. 74, catalogue no. 92 (Dusk). Elsewhere the author says of Clausen’s landscapes that they combined ‘Millet’s subjects with Monet’s truth to natural colour’. See his painting Winter morning 1906, p. 76. 

In early 1908 Traill headed for France, spent some time visiting art museums and other attractions, and in April enrolled for three months at the Academie Colarossi in the Rue de la Grande Chaumière.51Both Gauguin and Modigliani had studied at the Colarossi. It was known in English art circles for its low fees and conservative curriculum. There was a strong tradition of Australian attendance. Raphael Collin, a follower of Bougereau, was chief instructor in Traill’s time. As was to be expected, the atelier seances in drawing from the human figure had no palpable effect on her art, but the sojourn in Paris enabled Traill to see recent aspects of art nouveau, the art of the Nabis, and that of French painters who had absorbed the principles of Japanese art. These experiences were to affect both her painting and printmaking once she had left the sphere of Brangwyn’s influence and returned to Australia. 

Between the time of leaving the Colarossi and joining up with Brangwyn’s summer classes in the north again, Traill made a rapid trip to Italy, visiting and sketching in the major centres of Rome, Florence, Sienna and Venice. Brangwyn was working in the same places as the previous year: Nieuwpoort, Diksmuide, Veurne. Unfortunately the session was cut short by a sudden attack of colitis and an accident in which his wife suffered a broken leg. The couple returned to England where Brangwyn reluctantly gave up teaching altogether.52Brangwyn, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, pp. 106, 107. Traill followed, and spent the remainder of 1908 transferring her latest sketches into prints. Although unable to take classes at the school, Brangwyn willingly continued to help the enthusiastic young etcher, and one can again observe his hand in the etching The Barberini Fountain, Rome 1908 (fig. 5).53Impressions of all three states are in the National Gallery of Victoria. 

Traill’s first approach to this famous Roman monument was bold and simple. The picture plane was divided into two broad fields: in the foreground loomed the mass of the bronze fountain, its top extending beyond the furthest edge of the plate; at the lower edge the gaping mouths of the dolphins sink beneath the water in the basin of the fountain, which forms a heavy horizontal, continuing beyond the lateral edges and occupying a third of the plate surface. The diminutive form of a hatted figure leans on the top left edge of the basin. An impression was taken to Brangwyn, who ‘thought [it] had possibilities and suggested improvements’. His reaction was predictable: as it stood, the print was asymmetrical and too bare. Taking a piece of black chalk, he illustrated his criticisms by sketching directly onto the etching. She must strengthen the verticals of falling water, and place a counterweight to the bulk of the fountain in the form of two large female figures drawing water. And for greater contrast the biting at the rear of the fountain must be made ‘fine and tender’.54Remarks by Traill in pencil on the verso of the first state, National Gallery of Victoria. 

Traill obediently altered her print, progressing through a second and third state before finally leaving it alone altogether. The sharp contrast between the lightly etched street which forms the background, and the monstrous black image of the fountain pushed towards the viewer, has been greatly diminished in the post-Brangwyn impression. With the addition of a peasant woman and child standing on the street side of the fountain, and a shadow obscuring its edge on the right, the eye moves more gently from one plane to the next. Moreover, the presence of Brangwyn’s figures is intrusive in a way that the man in the hat (burnished out) was not. Such a great deal depends upon details like these; they incorporate the yawning gulf which can divide the artistic sensibilities of two individuals. Traill’s vision of the fountain as expressed in her first state was an attempt to come to terms with the formal essence of the object itself. The asymmetrical placement and the expanse of lighter background were fundamental to the realisation of that vision. By his inclusion of the figures, and subtle alterations of the relationship between the fore- and background planes, Brangwyn imprinted a radically different aesthetic. His main concerns were a filled and balanced composition, a harmony of contrasts and a movement, or impression, of life that was quite alien to his student. 

 

The third of the etchings printed by Brangwyn during Traill’s stay in London was titled An old house, Furnes c.1908–09 (fig. 6). Attracted to the picturesque quality of the quaint dwellings at dusk when shadows create satisfying patterns around doorways and windows, Traill saw potential for an etching which combined the frontality and simplicity of Whistler’s Venetian housefronts, or his etching The yellow house, with the heavy-handed chiaroscuro of Brangwyn. Again he has wiped a clear patch at the centre of the overall grey tone covering the plate. There is also, in Traill’s plate, more than a touch of the romantic mysteriousness achieved by the French etcher Charles Meryon in such etchings as Rue des Mauvais Garçons

 

At the end of 1908 Traill felt confident enough to enter two of her efforts at the Salon and the Royal Academy. One of these, a large etching on zinc, was sent to both the Salon and the Academy in 1909. Titled Scaffolding, London – Melbourne House 1908 (fig. 7),55Traill used an alternative title, Scaffolding London – Vic. govt. offices, Strand, in construction. See Victorian Artists’ Society Exhibition Catalogue, 1909, no. 160. Rue des Sisseaux [sic], Paris, the other etching, hung at the Salon in 1909, has been lost, and no prints from the tiny edition of five can be traced today. Information from Traill’s Record of Sales Book. the etching marks the beginning of Traill’s interest in Brangwyn’s great passion: the raw materials of modern industrial achievement. Throughout the rest of her career two themes would dominate her work – the Australian landscape, and the growth of the new nation as manifest in grand-scale construction projects. No contradiction of vision is implied here; the two subjects were united by a single animating spirit of nationalism. For Traill the great expanses of Australian countryside and the depths of the bush presented the same challenge as the construction of railway tunnels, steam-driven turbines and concrete pylons. As proud standards of her country, forests of steel girders raised to the sky were just as powerful as the interlaced branches of giant gum trees. This nascent sentiment was already apparent in the choice of subject for the 1908 print Melbourne House, which to Traill was a symbol, a piece of Australia set down in the middle of the teeming city of London, and for decades to come a touchstone for expatriate Australians.56It was built to house the offices of the Victorian government, but eventually became Australia House.

Inspiration came in the form of Brangwyn’s print The building of the Victoria & Albert Museum 1904 (fig. 8), in which a large single mass dominates the picture.57Gaunt no. 49. In Traill’s work a spectator looks upwards with an air of awe and expectancy at the fragile-looking cable supporting the tiny crane, and herein lies another essential difference between the vision of the master and that of his pupil. The figures in Brangwyn’s compositions are labourers, the men who take part in the dream of progress, who operate the machines, and who build with their bare hands and the proud straining of their muscles. Their appearance is as heroic as their task. By contrast, the people in Traill’s print are passers-by, incidental, and in scale much smaller than those of Brangwyn. The labourers she depicted in later prints were always dwarfed by the immensity of the enterprise in which they were engaged. 

In harmony with a very personal religious faith, Traill’s was a vision in which the human being’s position vis-à-vis nature was clearly inferior and, by extension, giant human constructs seem less the products of humankind than of some unseen power which dominates the individual. Those of Brangwyn, while massive, are yet measured on a human scale.58Walter Shaw Sparrow, The Spirit of the Age: The Work of Frank Brangwyn, ARA, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1905, p. 13. The difference in the fundamental approach of the two artists is again apparent in the portrayal of the human condition. Brangwyn could depict it on a grand scale,59See the two etchings entitled The puddlers 1919, Gaunt nos 256, 257, and Beggars 1907, Gaunt nos 99, 100. whereas Traill, having nursed the wounded and dying in France for five long years, buried her feelings deep, and could never bring herself to discuss, let alone portray, the horrors she witnessed first-hand. Indeed the human figure appeared less frequently in her art and rarely at all in landscapes. 

In the northern spring of 1909 Traill went home, and missed seeing her etchings hung at the Academy and the Salon. Back in Melbourne, however, she set to work to exhibit the results of her years of study abroad.60The exhibition was held at Bernard’s Gallery in Collins Street in May 1909. Traill sold about twenty works, mostly watercolours, which she had grouped by country. Few etchings were sold. Letter to Tom Roberts, 1 June 1909, Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. The critics were not slow to appreciate the imprint of Brangwyn’s personality on her art, and were alive to its dangers. Nevertheless, the consensus was that she had retained her originality, and had revealed a true talent for the medium of etching.61The critic of the Herald expressed the common attitude to Brangwyn when he said, ‘The etching of the Victorian Government Building on the Strand when in construction, while showing the influence of Brangwyn, is well done … ’; see Traill Papers, La Trobe Library. The Age, May 1909, commented that: ‘These two etchings [i.e. sent to the RA and the Salon] perhaps show the artist at her best, and though in them can be detected the influence of the strong personality of Brangwyn under whom she studied for some time, yet, “Rue des Sisseaux” and “Scaffolding” … possess originality sufficient to offer assurance of still further advancement in the etcher’s art, for in this medium of expression Miss Traill certainly finds her strength’. Traill had left Australia a promising student; she returned home an artist for whom a fine future was predicted. The paths of Traill and Brangwyn crossed again in 1914, when they both entered works in the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco.62Brangwyn had been asked to paint four panels for a ‘Court of Ages’, which were ultimately ill-received. Traill entered a decoration and an etching entitled Beautiful victims, which won a bronze and gold medal respectively. By the time news of her success reached her, the First World War had begun and Traill had left Australia to train with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. 

Just before her death in 1967 the artist wrote the following as part of a biographical note: ‘Went to Europe in 1907 [sic] – Italy, France, Holland, England, studying picture galleries. Worked in Paris (Colarossi Academy) and in London (Stratford Studios) under Frank Brangwyn and Swan and studied especially etching with Frank Brangwyn’.63Manuscript Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. In those brief lines Traill acknowledged the single most important influence in her art. Her contact with that powerful, intense, often irritating but undeniably gifted artist resulted in a body of etchings which were some of the most exciting and innovative in the history of Australian printmaking. 

Mary Alice Lee, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (in 1989).

Notes 

1          Traill was brought to notice in 1977 in two exhibitions at the Important Women Artists Gallery in Melbourne. Since then her etchings have been hung in exhibitions at state and commercial galleries. In 1989 her work was given pride of place at the exhibition of Australian prints at the Australian National Gallery. 

2          Traill was in Britain and Europe from 1906 to 1909 and from 1914 to 1920, in Canada in 1920, and the United States and Europe again from 1926 to 1927. In the last three decades of her life she went abroad every few years. 

3          An account of this trip, entitled ‘Impressions of Java’, was published in the Journal of the Victorian Artists Society in November 1911. 

4          The sketch books are in the La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. 

5          Her watercolours were pinned to blankets hung up in the school-room at Alice Springs. At least one work sold, the purchaser’s house being visible in the picture. 

6          The prints of these artists, all foundation members of the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society, emulated academic British printmakers, for example Walter Greaves, Mortimer Menpes, Muirhead Bone, D. Y. Cameron. 

7          The Sydney Harbour Bridge 1932–1982, A Golden Anniversary Celebration, Art Gallery of New South Wales. 1982. 

8          First prize at the Seychelles Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition, 1903 (watercolour sketch); first prize in the Pastorale Competition of the Book Lover Quarterly Competition, 1904 (drawing of a head from life); first prize Ladies Art Association, Ballarat, 1906 (etching The black hat). Traill also won minor prizes while at the Gallery School. See Argus, 19 December 1902. 

9          The early attempts are in J. C. A. Traill, Copperplate Etchings and Notes Thereon, 1903, Manuscript Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. 

10        Ron Radford, Outlines of Australian Printmaking, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, 1976. 

11        Traill was part of a generation of etchers who were to learn their craft from Hamerton’s indispensable textbook, on the one hand, and from a close examination of the Whistlers purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria by von Herkomer in 1893, on the other. See Leonard B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 46, 50. 

12        Etching, 10.8 x 11.9 cm. See Traill, Copperplate Etchings, folios 56–9. 

13        George Coates, James Quinn and Louise Riggall (Academie Julien, Paris), George Lambert, Hugh Ramsay, Bessie Gibson and Hilda Rix Nicholas (Academie Colarossi), Bertha Merfield (Royal Academy and Colarossi), Dora Meeson (Slade, London, and Julien’s, Paris), Jane R. Price (Royal College of Art, London), Jean Sutherland (Royal Academy, London), Ethel Carrick Fox (Slade, London), Eirene Mort (South Kensington School of Art and Grosvenor Life School, London). 

14        Letter of Traill to R. H. Croll, reproduced in Croll’s Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1935, p. 93. 

15        See the chronology in The Art of Frank Brangwyn, catalogue of the exhibition organised by the Brighton Polytechnic and the Fine Art Society, 1980. 

16        Rodney Brangwyn, Brangwyn, Kimber, London, 1978, pp. 118–23. 

17        In 1895 Brangwyn had contributed to the external decoration of Samuel Bing’s Salon de l’Art Nouveau in Paris. Two of his decorative panels were in the show itself. In 1898 Bing invited Brangwyn to make some designs for stained-glass windows. See Theodore Reff, Modern Art in Paris 1855–1900 (catalogue facsimiles), Dowland, New York, 1981, nos 32, 38–40, ‘Exhibition de I’art nouveau’; and The Art of Frank Brangwyn, chronology. 

18         Brangwyn, Brangwyn, pp. 90–1, 114, 119–20. See also Julian Freeman, ‘Brangwyn, a career’, in The Art of Frank Brangwyn, p. 9. 

19         At the Royal Exchange and Skinners Hall, 1899–1906 and 1902–09 respectively. 

20        Evening News, March 1904; Brangwyn, Brangwyn, p. 123; The Art of Frank Brangwyn, chronology. 

21        Traill Papers, Manuscript Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. 

22        The plates of etchings exhibited at the Royal Academy were left with Richter in 1909 on her departure from London; Traill, Record of Sales Book, Brighton Historical Society, Brighton, Vic. 

23        Brangwyn, Brangwyn, p. 104; Nina Hamnett, The Laughing Torso: Reminiscences, R. Long & R. Smith, New York, 1932, p. 19. 

24        Hamnett, The Laughing Torso, p. 20. 

25        Brangwyn, Brangwyn, pp. 104–5. 

26        ‘Modern British etchers: Frank Brangwyn, by a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers’, Magazine of Art, vol. II, 1903–04, p. 120. 

27        See also P. G. Hamerton, The Etcher’s Handbook, London, 1881. Sir Seymour Haden set out the norms of his aesthetic in About Etching, published in London in 1879. 

28        Regarding the dictum of small plates, he once told his biographer: ‘it was Whistler who started the rot about the large plate … and that a job done by a small tool must necessarily be small … that’s all b—! What about a cathedral built with bricks and the trowel of the workmen? … Anyway, the large plate has always been done’. 

29        Brangwyn, Brangwyn, pp. 104–7. 

30        ibid., p. 105. 

31        A road in Picardy 1903, and The storm 1904, in William Gaunt, The Etchings of Frank Brangwyn, The Studio, London, 1926, catalogue nos 10 and 29 respectively, are typical examples. (Catalogue hereafter referred to as Gaunt.) 

32        Private collection, Victoria. 

33        Unlike Brangwyn, who worked directly onto the plate to achieve results ‘full of life and spontaneity’ like those of Rembrandt. See William de Belleroche, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, Chapman & Hall, London, 1948, p. 74. 

34        Levon West, Making An Etching, The Studio, London, 1932, p. 38. 

35        de Belleroche, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, p. 75. 

36        Traill, Record of Sales Book. 

37        Five prints of the period of Traill’s study with Brangwyn are discussed here. The first three, The roadside, Flanders 1907 (National Gallery of Victoria), Charing Cross Bridge, London 1907 (Australian National Gallery, Canberra), and An old house, Furnes 1908–09 (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales), were all printed by Brangwyn. Another etching, The Barberini Fountain, Rome 1908, has Brangwyn’s drawing on the first state, and for Worship in the cathedral, Ypres 1907, there is a separate sketch by Brangwyn. 

38        Brangwyn, Brangwyn, p. 105. 

39        Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. It is titled, signed, and dated 1907 in pencil. 

40        St Martin was the cathedral of Ypres, destroyed in 1914. 

41        Private collection, Victoria. Brangwyn gave Traill his demonstration sketch as a token of his approval. 

42        For second-wave French realists, The Peasant in French 19th Century Art, an exhibition organised for the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, by James Thompson in 1980. 

43        de Belleroche, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, p. 76; Studio, vol. 19, March 1900, p. 93. 

44        Portfolio, no. 141, September 1881, p. 138. For the popularity of Lhérmitte in England in the early years of the twentieth century see F. Henriet, ‘Léon Lhérmitte, painter of French peasant life’, Studio, vol. 47, June 1909, pp. 3–14. 

45        Edition at least eight. The impression in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, is neither signed nor dated. 

46        See particularly ‘Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge’, c.1872–75, Tate Gallery, London. 

47        Compare his prints London Bridge 1903, Hammersmith Reach 1903, Trees and factory, Hammersmith, Gaunt nos 7, 9 and 11. 

48        Compare with Brangwyn’s Cannon Street Station, exterior 1911 and Cannon Street Station, interior 1911, Gaunt nos 188, 219. 

49        George Clausen, RA, 1852–1944, Bradford Art Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 1980. (An exhibition organised by Bradford Art Gallery and Museums of Tyne & Wear County Council Museums, Bradford.) 

50        ibid., p. 74, catalogue no. 92 (Dusk). Elsewhere the author says of Clausen’s landscapes that they combined ‘Millet’s subjects with Monet’s truth to natural colour’. See his painting Winter morning 1906, p. 76. 

51        Both Gauguin and Modigliani had studied at the Colarossi. It was known in English art circles for its low fees and conservative curriculum. There was a strong tradition of Australian attendance. Raphael Collin, a follower of Bougereau, was chief instructor in Traill’s time. 

52        Brangwyn, Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage, pp. 106, 107. 

53        Impressions of all three states are in the National Gallery of Victoria. 

54        Remarks by Traill in pencil on the verso of the first state, National Gallery of Victoria. 

55        Traill used an alternative title, Scaffolding London – Vic. govt. offices, Strand, in construction. See Victorian Artists’ Society Exhibition Catalogue, 1909, no. 160. Rue des Sisseaux [sic], Paris, the other etching, hung at the Salon in 1909, has been lost, and no prints from the tiny edition of five can be traced today. Information from Traill’s Record of Sales Book. 

56        It was built to house the offices of the Victorian government, but eventually became Australia House. 

57        Gaunt no. 49. 

58        Walter Shaw Sparrow, The Spirit of the Age: The Work of Frank Brangwyn, ARA, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1905, p. 13. 

59        See the two etchings entitled The puddlers 1919, Gaunt nos 256, 257, and Beggars 1907, Gaunt nos 99, 100. 

60        The exhibition was held at Bernard’s Gallery in Collins Street in May 1909. Traill sold about twenty works, mostly watercolours, which she had grouped by country. Few etchings were sold. Letter to Tom Roberts, 1 June 1909, Roberts Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. 

61        The critic of the Herald expressed the common attitude to Brangwyn when he said, ‘The etching of the Victorian Government Building on the Strand when in construction, while showing the influence of Brangwyn, is well done … ’; see Traill Papers, La Trobe Library. The Age, May 1909, commented that: ‘These two etchings [i.e. sent to the RA and the Salon] perhaps show the artist at her best, and though in them can be detected the influence of the strong personality of Brangwyn under whom she studied for some time, yet, “Rue des Sisseaux” and “Scaffolding” … possess originality sufficient to offer assurance of still further advancement in the etcher’s art, for in this medium of expression Miss Traill certainly finds her strength’. 

62        Brangwyn had been asked to paint four panels for a ‘Court of Ages’, which were ultimately ill-received. Traill entered a decoration and an etching entitled Beautiful victims, which won a bronze and gold medal respectively. By the time news of her success reached her, the First World War had begun and Traill had left Australia to train with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. 

63        Manuscript Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.