Prout was a painter, lithographer, art teacher and writer. An Australian critic once described his works as 'one of those wild and scattery bits, both in form and colour, which so nearly verge on the grotesque, that they stamp their authors as "genius run mad"'.
painter, lithographer, art teacher and writer, was born on 19 December 1805 in Plymouth, Devon, eldest child of John Prout and Maria, née Skinner. His father was the elder brother of the watercolour painter Samuel Prout (1783-1852) and Samuel Prout Hill was his first cousin. Little is known about his early life, but there is no evidence that his uncle had anything to do with his artistic training. Nevertheless, after moving to Penzance from Plymouth in 1827, Skinner Prout was listed in local trade directories as a drawing teacher. His earliest known work is dated 1824 (when he was eighteen) and has the ascribed title Alderly Mill, Buckinghamshire . His earliest known lithograph, dated 1831, was published by J.P. Vibert in Penzance.
On 19 June 1828 Skinner Prout married Maria Heathilla ( Prout ), daughter of John and Ann Marsh of Sidmouth. Their eldest child, Matilda, was born on 7 April 1829, their second, Anna Maria, on 25 October 1831. The family remained at Penzance until the end of 1831 then moved to Bristol; they lived there until 1838. During this time they had another two daughters, Rosa Heathilla (1833) and Agnes (1838), and three sons: Frederick (1834), Victor Albert and Edwin (1837). At Bristol Skinner Prout was a member of a local sketching club which included William J. Muller, Samuel Jackson, T.L.S. Rowbotham, William West and William Evans; he went on numerous sketching excursions throughout southern England, Wales and Ireland with Muller and Jackson. He showed paintings at the first annual exhibition of the Bristol Society of Artists in 1832 and at subsequent exhibitions, as well as in the Works of Living Artists Exhibition at Bath in 1836. During 1834 his first volume of lithographs, Picturesque Antiquities of Bristol , was published in London by C. Hullmandel. Three further volumes of lithographs— Antiquities of York , Antiquities of Chester and The Castles and Abbeys of Monmouthshire —were published while he was living in Bristol.
At the end of 1838 Skinner Prout and his family moved to London; their fourth son, Edgar, was born there the following year. Prout was elected a member of the New Society of Painters in Water Colours on 3 December 1838 and exhibited at each of its annual exhibitions from the fifth (1839) to the eighth (1842). He did not exhibit in London again until after his return from Australia in 1848.
Skinner Prout and his family left England for Australia on 1 August 1840. His uncle Cornelius was under-sheriff of the colony of New South Wales and his aunt Mary (née Prout) and her husband William Woolcott, a merchant, had also settled there, while Samuel Prout Hill came to Sydney soon afterwards. In June 1841 Skinner Prout was elected a member of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts and that month delivered two lectures on painting to his fellow members. During December he gave a series of six subscription lectures as a preliminary to what he hoped would be the establishment of a society to hold annual exhibitions of paintings, a hope that was not immediately realised. A further two lectures on painting followed at the School of Arts in August 1843. His sketches of Sydney and its environs appeared in a four-part set of lithographed picturesque views, Sydney Illustrated , produced in collaboration with John Rae (q.v.). Three of the four parts, each containing four plates, were produced in Sydney, the first during August 1842 and the next two in November 1842 and March 1844; part four was published in Hobart Town soon afterwards.
Prout was employed as a scene-painter at Sydney’s Olympic Theatre in January 1842 but remained in this position for only four months. At the same time he was employed as drawing master at Sydney College. In July the Prouts’ ninth child, Mary Fredrika, was born. Soon afterwards Prout left on the first of the sketching tours he made in New South Wales, proceeding south from Sydney to the Illawarra district and then down the coast to the Broulee area. In January 1843 he went west to Parramatta along the Bathurst Road, through the Weatherboard Valley to the Jamieson Valley and on to the Hartley area. Other tours were taken north to Newcastle and Port Stephens and south-west from Sydney down the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers to the Camden area. After a final trip to the Wollongong area, where he drew his first recorded portraits of Australian Aborigines, he left with his family for Van Diemen’s Land in January 1844.
Before leaving, Prout had exhibited twenty oil paintings and watercolour drawings in October 1843 at Cetta & Hughes’s shop in George Street, but there were apparently few sales. Even so, his paintings and sketches continued to appear in Sydney exhibitions long after his departure, lent by various local owners, initially mainly fellow sketchers, especially John Rae, who showed a large collection of Prout’s works at the 1847 and 1849 exhibitions of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia (the art exhibition society which belatedly emerged in Sydney). The wealthy businessman Thomas Walker showed Tree Fern by Prout at the 1849 exhibition which the critic in the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 June 1849 called 'One of those wild and scattery bits, both in form and colour, which so nearly verge on the grotesque, that they stamp their authors as “genius run mad”’.
On the other hand, Prout’s Snow Piece in Ireland , owned by Frederick Garling senior, was considered 'One of the gems of the room: natural in the highest degree’, while Moonlight Scene in Wales (which Garling also owned) was judged one of the stars of the show, its 'really Rembrandt-like’ shadows giving it a most startling and scenic effect. Despite the fact that a local moonlight scene (owned by Rae) and the dramatic Burning of the Albion Mills, Sydney (owned by Garling) were included, no Australian subject was judged to have reached these heights.
After arriving at Hobart Town, Skinner Prout delivered two sets of lectures on art and began drawing a new lithographic series, Tasmania Illustrated . Consisting of twelve plates, this was issued in four parts between June 1844 and early 1845. He produced a second volume of six plates in 1847 and a six-part Views of Melbourne and Geelong later that year. He actively and successfully encouraged a group of friends, including J.E. Bicheno, G.T.W.B. Boyes, Peter Fraser, W.P. Kay, Bishop Nixon and Francis Simpkinson (qq.v.), to undertake the organisation of an art exhibition. Held in January-February 1845, the Hobart Town Art Exhibition consisted of loan collections of oil paintings, watercolour and pencil drawings and prints by local as well as British and European artists. A second exhibition, organised by the same committee, was held during May and June 1846.
Once the 1845 exhibition had opened, Prout, Fraser and Simpkinson took a sketching tour to Lake St Clair in the Tasmanian highlands. Prout and Simpkinson continued on to Flinders Island, where both produced numerous drawings, Prout’s contribution including at least twenty-one realistic and sensitive portrait sketches of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people in exile there, such as Queen Flora of Oyster Bay , Lallah Rookh [Trukanini] from the Huon , Methinna , Cranky Dick , Amelia & her Little Bobby, Cape Grim V.D.L. , Neptune, Circular Head, & his Son, Moriarty, Flinders , Agnes from Ben Lomond and Mary from the Hampshire Hills . These are now held by the British Museum (Natural History), together with Prout’s drawings of Victorian Aborigines made in 1846 and autographed portrait sketches of the five Maoris who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land during the New Zealand Wars, drawn by Prout in the Hobart Town penitentiary on 16-17 November 1846.
Prout undertook numerous sketching tours in Tasmania over the next three years, including one up the east coast through the Fingal Valley to Launceston and then back to Hobart Town. Accompanied by Simpkinson, he visited Victoria from mid-December 1846 until early February 1847. During this trip he sketched in the district around Melbourne, then set out to Tallarook and the upper Goulburn Valley, returning to Melbourne via Geelong and the Barwon River. On his return late in January he delivered his lectures on art at the Melbourne Mechanics Institute. He regularly travelled between Hobart Town and Launceston, the Examiner noting on 7 February 1846 that he had recently made 100 drawings of views and places between the two towns. The journey was taken more frequently in 1847 when Prout was engaged in distributing the second part of Tasmania Illustrated and was working on lithographic illustrations for Ronald Gunn; it was undoubtedly on one of these trips that he made the sketch of John Glover (q.v.) asleep in a chair at Patterdale Farm which was subsequently used to illustrate Glover’s obituary notice in the London Art Journal . A 'numerous list’ of 'Pictures, in Oils and Water Colour, by Mr Prout, the eminent artist’ was included in the Launceston Exhibition of January 1848.
During their stay in Hobart Town the Prouts’ eldest son was killed in an accident (March 1845) and their tenth and last child, Francis John, was born. The family left for England in June 1848 and settled in London. Over the next twenty-eight years they lived at different addresses in the Camden Town-Kentish Town area. In the summer of 1850 Skinner Prout produced a diorama called Voyage to Australia based on his Australian experiences. The views were painted onto glass lantern slides and shown by projection. After the discovery of gold in Australia in the latter part of 1851 he updated it to produce a 'moving panorama’ (on rollers) which was exhibited over 600 times in London during 1852 53, taken on a three-month tour of the Plymouth-Torquay area in April-June 1854, and shown again at Leicester Square in 1855.
In February 1849 Skinner Prout was re-elected to the New Society of Painters in Water Colours and exhibited in its annual summer shows until 1876 and in its winter exhibitions from their inception in 1866 until his death. He showed approximately 250 works with the New Society between 1854 and 1876 at prices ranging from 8 to 150 guineas. He died at Camden Town on 29 September 1876. At his studio sale in February 1877 over £1200 was realised for his remaining works. Hence, although most productive, his Australian visit was but a short interlude in a long painting career.
From 1854 until his death, Skinner Prout continued to make sketching tours in the summer months, annually alternating between England and Europe. As well as painting and sketching, he wrote articles and books based on his Australian experiences, illustrated articles on the colonies for other writers and undertook commissions for lithographs. His art and his teaching were remembered in Australia and reports on his European activities occasionally appeared, the Launceston Examiner reporting on 29 November 1862, for instance, that he had produced 'an ingenious instrument for helping young ladies to draw’. His numerous Tasmanian pupils and sketching colleagues continued for many years to imitate his technique of light pencil and wash drawing with white highlights and his original colonial works never quite disappeared from public consciousness. A retrospective exhibition travelled throughout Australia in 1986.