James Anderson was a prolific portrait painter of the mid to late 19th century. His subjects included everyone from the well-known circus proprietor Joseph Rowe to the explorer William Charles Wentworth.
portrait painter, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (he used the initials RHA after his name), Anderson seems to have worked as a painter in Scotland and England, as well as Ireland, before his departure for Victoria in about 1852. In May 1853 he was on the committee organising the Victorian Fine Arts Exhibition in Melbourne, to which he contributed three works. One was Portrait of Mr Joseph Rowe , a well-known circus proprietor. The critic of the Armchair thought Rowe’s hands and gloves were badly drawn but that 'a view of the well-known Circus in the background adds to the effect of the picture’. The painting of Rowe’s famous horse, Adonis, also exhibited by Anderson, was stated to have been painted in collaboration with Frederick Frith and was praised for its 'simple truth’ of expression. It was shown again at the 1854 Melbourne Exhibition together with portraits of W. Kerr, the Town Clerk, and W. E. Barlow. Anderson’s third painting, Can You Refuse? , also attracted attention as it depicted a young Italian girl playing a hurdy-gurdy accompanied by her brother, a pair who frequently performed opposite the Bourke Street Post Office.
Anderson was apparently in Beechworth by 1857, although mistakenly listed in a local directory as artist 'John’ Anderson. There he doubtless met the recently widowed Mrs William Macleod (mother of the artist and cartoonist William Macleod ), who was certainly in Sydney by 1858, the year he exhibited a portrait of the American consul, Mr Merrill, at Buist’s shop in George Street. The Sydney Morning Herald of 30 October praised this as a 'clever and effective portrait … by an artist who has only recently arrived from Victoria to follow his profession in this colony’. In 1860, when Anderson’s studio was in George Street above Peek & Fotheringham’s Auction Rooms, a Southern Cross reporter inspected his portrait of William Macpherson and commented: 'all the accessories of skilled art, careful drawing, delicate manipulation, masterly effects of light and shade, render the study … valuable as a work of art independently of its worth as a faithful likeness’.
Reviewing a portrait of the Catholic priest Fr John Felix Sheridan in 1861, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Anderson 'had portrayed on canvass many of our citizens, and always with the greatest success—his works being as much esteemed for their artistic finish as for their correct likeness’. Sheridan’s portrait, with its background showing the Sacred Heart Church at Darlinghurst (as proposed), was commissioned for presentation to the sitter by members of the Catholic Young Men’s Society which Sheridan had founded and directed. The portrait now hangs in Lyndhurst, Glebe (Historic Houses Trust). Anderson’s portraits of Mr William Andrews (1861, oil on mattress ticking) and its companion, Mrs William Andrews – the parents of William Andrews – are in the Mitchell Library, along with his portraits of Gilbert Wright, Jane Wright, Kelson Wright and Gilbert Vaughan Wright junior (all 1859). His portrait of Bishop Polding is in St John’s College, Sydney University.
In 1861 Anderson was drawn into the controversy over a proposed portrait of the retiring governor of New South Wales, Sir William Denison. While the committee could not decide on a suitable artist, its members clearly showed a preference for an English one rather than a colonial. This prompted the well-known critic Joseph Sheridan Moore to write a pungent letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1861 championing Anderson’s cause. 'It makes no matter’, he stated, 'that we have Mr. James Anderson, a member of the R.H. Academy, an Associate of a Scotch Society of Painters, and a student of, and exhibitor at the Royal Academy, London, living amongst us. We cannot give him the order because he is here – we must send it “home to England”. His skill, his ability – the chefs-d’oeuvres he has exhibited here, do not make the slightest difference in the case… Mr. Anderson has painted Mr. Macpherson, the Rev. J.F. Sheridan, Mr. Gilbert Wright and family, and in every instance has succeeded in turning out not only portraits but pictures’.
Anderson married the widow Mrs Macleod, in Sydney. Her son, William , also became an artist although now better known as manager of the Sydney Bulletin between 1886 and 1929. As 'Master Anderson’, William Macleod studied drawing at the Sydney School of Arts under Edmund Thomas and was selected as a star pupil in 1865 by F.C. Terry. By all accounts the family led an unhappy life due to Anderson’s increasing bouts of alcoholism. Nevertheless he continued to produce portraits, and he formed close associations with several professional colleagues, including S.T. Gill (another alcoholic) and Edmund Thomas.
The Herald of 27 July 1864 reported on a posthumous portrait of the former surveyor-general, Alaster McLean, which Anderson painted from a photograph by Edwin Dalton. The large canvas in its 'handsome Sir Thomas Lawrence frame’ by Corti of Pitt Street was hung in the surveyor-general’s office in Macquarie Place (now Lands Department Building). In 1868 Anderson executed oil portraits of the pioneer Yass pastoralist Frederick Manton and his son John (ML). Two portraits were shown in the NSW Agricultural Society’s annual exhibition in 1872. The following year Anderson had three oil portraits on view in Furze’s shop, George Street, his subjects being the late C. Nathan FRCS, William Charles Wentworth (1872, ML) and the German poet Schiller, all most likely painted from photographs. The Mr Anderson who showed 'some clever varieties’ of pen-and-ink drawing at the New South Wales Academy of Art Exhibition in 1877 was probably James also.