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John William Tristram was born on 7 October 1870 at Gillingham, Kent, England. He was the oldest of eight children born to Samuel Herbert Tristram and his wife Hannah (nee Thompson). He arrived in Sydney with his parents and siblings on 21 December 1883.

As an artist, he was completely self-taught and took up serious drawing and painting soon after his arrival in Australia. His artistic talent helped to secure his first job and by April 1885 he was employed in the Civil Service of New South Wales as a junior draftsman in the Architect’s Branch of the Department of Public Instruction (which became the Department of Education in 1915). He pursued this career until his retirement in 1930.

By the early 1890s Tristram was living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. On 14 October 1891 he married Maude Face in Woollahra and for the next few years he lived and painted there and in Double Bay.

In 1899 he and his family moved north of Sydney Harbour to the leafy suburb of Mosman which, from it’s earliest days, had strong connections with the creative arts in Sydney. For the next decade he lived in a house bearing the name 'Lionesse’ in Rangers Avenue. Today this house still bears the pair of stone lions which guard the stairs leading to the front door. It is likely that 'Lionesse’ was a play on words named in recognition of the epic poem 'Tristram of Lyonesse’ written by the British poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and first published in 1882. This work recounted the famed medieval tale of Tristram and Isuelt (Tristan and Isolde). Another poem by Swinburne, 'Sestina’, was the inspiration for Tristram’s painting 'A world’s not wholly known of day or night’. He remained a resident of Mosman until his death in 1938.

During his life Tristram was an active participant on the committees of three art societies. On 13 June 1894 he was elected a member of Art Society of New South Wales (which became the Royal Art Society of New South Wales when its Royal charter was granted in 1903). By 1897 he was serving on its Council, a position he held continuously until 1923. Tristram exhibited with the Society in: 1894-1910, 1912-13 and 1916-23.

In September 1923 he joined a select group of fourteen eminent artists to become a foundation member of the Australian Watercolour Institute. The Institute was modelled on the Royal Watercolour Society (established 1804) and the American Watercolor Society (established 1867). The impetus for its creation was the growing feeling amongst Sydney watercolourists that the existing art societies were not giving their work adequate respect and exhibition space. He exhibited with the Institute in: 1924-25, 1930 and 1932.

In 1927 Tristram became a foundation member of the Australian Art Society. According to the catalogue for its first annual exhibition 'This Society was founded with a view to fostering the true Australian outlook in art in emulation of the high standard achieved by the masters of Australian Art; to attract artists in sympathy with this ideal; and to afford the younger generation of artists an opportunity of showing what they are capable of doing.’ (Australian Art Society, 1927). He exhibited with the Society in: 1927-28, 1930-32 and 1934.

Tristram painted in watercolour and his style was soft and delicate. His approach to art was primarily aesthetic, with the objective of balancing elegance and harmony in the colours of a painting. Much of his work employed muted colour and was suggestive rather than realistic. His coastal scenes and rural landscapes were generally soft-edged and appeared as if viewed through coloured, misty veils. There was a sometimes mysterious, sometimes melancholic character to his paintings. His works can be found in the collections of many Australian public galleries including: National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia and Queensland Art Gallery.

Aside from his painting, Tristram was known as a contributor of poetry to publications such as The Bulletin and The Lone Hand. He was also known to be a gifted musician.

J. W. Tristram died at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney on 19 August 1938 from liver disease. He was survived by his wife, Maude; sons, Ashwin & John (Jack); and daughters, Norah (Biddy) & Molly.

Writers:
Staff Writer
Stephen Marshall
Date written:
1999
Last updated:
2014