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Art teacher and painter, John (Jimmy) Samuel Watkins was born in the English Midlands town of Wolverhampton on 8 November 1866. His father, Joseph, owned an iron foundry while his mother, Hannah, came from a family of yeoman farmers. He was educated at Dudley Road School and later attended the local technical college. Watkins did well in his art classes and despite his youth was appointed to an art teaching position.
Having saved money from his teaching, Watkins sailed to Australia arriving in Brisbane by late 1882. After doing some casual work he decided to make his way overland to Sydney. There he gained employment as a photographer, while in his spare time he studied art with Julian Ashton and at the classes organised by the Art Society of NSW given by A.J. Daplyn and Frank Mahony. Keen to study in Europe, Watkins moved to Paris in 1887 where he studied art at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. He later travelled around Europe and returned to England where he did further study. Despite returning to Australia, Watkins later exhibited nine works at London’s Grafton Gallery in their 1898 'Exhibition of Australian Art in London’.
By 1893, Watkins was back in Sydney and exhibited six works at the Art Society of NSW annual exhibition. During the mid 1890s there was a quarrel within the Art Society on the influence that amateur artists held within the organisation. This disagreement led to the establishment of a breakaway group known as the Society of Artists (SOA) of which Watkins was a founding member. Despite his involvement with the SOA, Watkins maintained contacts with the old group and occasionally exhibited with the Art Society in the early 1900s.
From 1896-98, Watkins established an art school in Sydney on the floor above Julian Ashton’s art school at 88 King Street. Initially only open two evenings per week, Watkins’ class included lessons in drawing and painting as well as a life and outdoor class. Over the following forty years his school relocated a further five times around the northern parts of central Sydney, locations included: 26 Hunter Street, 1899-1908; corner of Jamieson and George Streets, 1911-20; 38a Pitt Street, 1921-23; 56 Margaret Street, 1924-36; and 76 Pitt Street, 1937-38. At each subsequent change of location Watkins built up his art school business by expanding the range of classes offered. To do this he was aided by several assistants, most notably by Alan D. Baker. By the time of his retirement in the late 1930s 'Wattie’, as he was affectionately known by his students, had taught approximately 5,000 students.
Watkins’ school was well patronised by students keen to gain work as cartoonists and commercial artists such as John Banks, Henry Garlick, Peter H. Lindsay and F.W. Mahoney. Artist Herbert Badham, writing in his 1949 art history A Study of Australian Art (p 204), commented on Watkins’ methods:
“J.S. Watkins ran an art school for many years which proved surprisingly popular and a large number of students passed through his hands. The training Watkins offered was elementary, without artistic principle. Little came from it although a number of students learned sufficient to function in the advertising world with success.”
Despite Badham’s criticism, Watkins had many successful fine art students, including: John Muir Auld, John Eldershaw, Sir Erik Langker, Fred Leist, John Salvana and William Edwin Pidgeon. Former pupils Henry Hanke and Normand H. Baker went on to win the prestigious Archibald Prize in 1934 and 1937 respectively.
With the disbanding of the SOA in 1902, the old Art Society of NSW was later reconstituted as the Royal Art Society of NSW (RAS) under the continued presidency of William Lister Lister. Watkins joined the reorganised group and was elected to its executive council. He stayed on the RAS council, with the exception of 1909, from 1903 to 1939. With the re-establishment of the SOA in 1907, Watkins remained loyal to the RAS, and in 1922 was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Art Society (F.R.A.S.). Two years later he was appointed to the position of joint Vice-President of the RAS, a role he maintained until his retirement.
Watkins was a regular contributor to the RAS annual exhibitions up to the late 1930s. Most of his exhibits were oil portraits and figure studies. These varied from formal portraits such as his 1911 image of the acting New South Wales Labor Premier W.A. Holman, to mildly risqué depictions of women in the academic style popular in France during the late nineteenth century. Watkins’ first public recognition was in 1903 when his oil Delores was purchased by the (then National) Art Gallery of NSW from the RAS annual exhibition, although this work was later exchanged for The Mirror (1906). During WW1 Watkins designed a recruiting poster titled Women of Queensland – send a man to-day to fight for you (1917).
Reviewers were generally appreciative of Watkins’ draughtsmanship although there was some criticism of his use of colour. Badham, in A Study of Australian Art, was critical of his technique:
“His work was built on tone values, but lacks design. The shapes of his tone patches present a rather untidily realized chiaroscuro through their vague beginnings and reluctant endings, and he gave minor consideration to colour. He succeeded in teaching his students, however, the means of immediately reproducing something like the appearances of objects and he was popular in consequence” (1949, p 111).
The artist’s own view of his technique was touched on in a profile on Watkins published in the August 1923 issue of the Triad magazine:
“Mr. Watkins is a great believer in hard work and careful drawing, and he regards as most pernicious to a student the idea that a few casual and incoherent brushmarks can make a picture” (pp 17-18).
Although he rarely exhibited outside the walls of the RAS, Watkins was an all round artist, proficient in many media, such as watercolour, oil, pencil, pastel, and etching. One of his former students, Erik Langker offered an assessment of his methods:
“Watty inspired and enthused us. He encouraged us to cultivate our own outlook rather than to follow any particular style. He was essentially a draftsman more than a painter” (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1942, p 9).
In 1932 Watkins was appointed a trustee of the National Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney and later a member of their Marshall Bequest Committee, a trust which purchased Australian art for the gallery.
In May 1916 Watkins married Emily (Emmie) Griffin Cave, and after the conflict they moved to a house at 7 Pockley Ave, Roseville. This house was a weekend retreat for Watkins who mainly stayed in the city during the working week. After his retirement in 1938 the couple moved to a house at 141 Queen Street, Woollahra.
Watkins closed his school in 1938/39 and retired from all his RAS commitments, although he maintained his position on the board of trustees at the AGNSW until his death. Perhaps inspired by fellow art teacher Julian Ashton, Watkins began to write his memoirs. The whereabouts of this unfinished, yet possibly revealing document remains unknown. One of the last works created by the artist was a commission by the RAS to paint a portrait of George Collingridge. This oil, depicting the joint founder of the Art Society of NSW, was later purchased by the AGNSW.
After years of poor health, Watkins died at his Woollahra home on 25 August 1942 and he was cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium two days later. The Bulletin wrote a pithy, yet lively, description of the man:
“Artist and art teacher John Samuel Watkins (passed on in Sydney at 75) was for many years past “Watty” or “Old Wattie” to thousands – a fair epitaph. Short, square figure, uncommonly long arms, rugged phiz of one who had been a good boxer in his death, he was familiar to many apart from the 5000 or so pupils… who had heard him on his favoured theme – that an artist should learn his craft. With that as his guiding principle, he lived to see the day when a fried egg could be thrown at a canvas, framed and called a work of art; his comments on this development – he had a Carlylean hatred of all shams and affectations – were pungent and fruity” (2 September 1942, p 9).
During June 1943, a loan memorial exhibition of sixty-two works was held at the National Art Gallery of NSW. In April 1976 the artist’s widow sold her collection at the Bloomfield Galleries, Paddington, Sydney. A portrait of Emily Watkins purchased from the 1976 exhibition was later sold at Christies, Melbourne (2 April 2003, lot 51) for $29,375, a record price for his work.