Joseph Backler made the best of his transportation to Australia by becoming a prolific and highly regarded portrait painter. He travelled the east coast taking commissions and leaving a rich legacy of 19th century Australian portraiture.
portrait and landscape painter, was born in London, son of an artist of the same name who had some reputation as a painter on glass – probably the J. Backler who is recorded as having worked on a window for the Arundel Baron’s Hall in 1816-17. His father had married Jane Cowie at St Mary’s, Marylebone on 1 February 1810, and Joseph was born about three years later. In spite of a good education and respectable parentage, Backler was accused of using the artistic talents acquired through apprenticeship to his father for dishonest purposes. On 30 June 1831 he was prosecuted at the Newgate Gaol delivery for the County of Middlesex (the Old Bailey) on three indictments of forgery and attempting to pass forged money orders. He was found guilty only of attempting to pass forged orders (although his crime continued to be referred to as forgery). The sentence of hanging was later commuted to transportation for life.
Backler arrived at Sydney aboard the convict ship Portland in May 1832, described in various indents as a landscape painter by profession, able to read and write, of fair and freckled complexion with sandy hair and hazel eyes and five feet five inches tall. He was assigned to the Surveyor-General’s Department under Major Thomas Mitchell as a draughtsman, but his penchant for absenting himself from duties resulted in his relocation to Port Macquarie, a penal settlement for men convicted of further offences in the colony, in May 1833. He remained there for nine years, during which time he continued to accumulate a considerable record of offences. Finally, after an unsuccessful petition to Governor Gipps in 1840 from 'Maternal Relations’ in Glasgow attempting to secure some kind of remission of his sentence, Backler successfully negotiated his own ticket of leave. At first he was confined to Port Macquarie (January 1842), from which period can be dated two oil landscapes of the township (ML). In 1842 he married Margaret Magner in St Thomas’s Church, Port Macquarie (a building he painted at least twice). Permitted to transfer to Sydney in January 1843, he moved into 6 Domain Terrace and advertised his services as a painter of portraits, miniatures and landscapes in oil and watercolours. Unfortunately, Sydney was in the grip of a major recession and by January 1844 he was insolvent.
Backler continued to trade in the Sydney area for over three years. Oil portraits of Mr and Mrs John Scarr (Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society) are signed and dated 1844 on the back. Portraits of Mr and Mrs Howe of Glenlee, commissioned by Campbelltown residents for presentation to the sitters, could be seen at 'the Artist’s residence opposite the Royal Hotel, George-street’ at the end of January 1845. During this time with the assistance of his erstwhile employers, the picture frame-makers, carvers and gilders Messrs Cetta & Hughes of George Street, he attempted to gain a full pardon from the Colonial Secretary. He was finally granted a second-class conditional pardon in mid 1846, which meant he could travel to country districts.
He seems to have prematurely ensconced himself at Goulburn in anticipation of this, being reported in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1 September 1846 as having been successfully painting portraits at Goulburn for the past 12 months. His subjects included members of the Sinclair and Styles families (ML). An oil painting of the township (ML) had been completed by September, for Backler was then about to paint out a mythical steam train he had inserted into it, 'the gentleman for whom it was painted wishing a correct representation of the town as it is’. In February 1847 the Sydney Morning Herald reported his 'temporary residence’ at Bathurst, also for the purpose of portrait painting. There he painted another oil 'of the town as it is’, which properly focused on the gaol (ML). He must have been back in Sydney by 6 November 1849, when 'J. Backler’ of Miller’s Point signed a petition published in the Sydney Morning Herald , along with 'M. Backler’ and others. Portraits of the Bathurst residents Edward and Mary Ann Austin (Bathurst Regional AG) are dated 1850 and members of the Lane family (AGNSW) were painted in 1854, so he clearly became a regular visitor to the district.
Backler’s portrait of Councillor Iredale (a wealthy emancipist ironmonger in Sydney) was lent to the first exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia held in June-August 1847 and he was recorded as one of the colony’s artistic core in Heads of the People soon after the exhibition closed. His reputation as a portrait painter appears to have grown in the late 1840s. Commissions occasionally included copying existing pictures, like Marshall Claxton 's Captain Cook (AGSA) and J. T. Dennis 's Judge Dowling . Not all copies were acknowledged. An admitted copy (in a splendid gold frame) of The Favourite- a much-admired Scottish Art Union prize picture in Sydney-appears to have been successfully raffled at a guinea a ticket in 1849; although when this was followed by Actaeon and Diana in Joseph Grocott’s 1850 art union, there were caustic newspaper comments to the effect that he was trying to pass off a Titian as his own composition.
Backler regularly travelled around northern New South Wales and Queensland painting portraits and landscapes. He was at Tenterfield in 1860 61 and painted two known views of the town (ML dated 1861; Tenterfield Historical Society). He moved on to Glen Innes in 1862, where he executed oil portraits of William Rodgers, his wife Annie and their two unmarried daughters, Rebecca (later Mrs James Alexander Meston) and Anne (Mrs John Fletcher). Three of the Rodgers family portraits are now in the Glen Innes Historical Society’s collection; the portrait of Anne is lost. Backler reached Brisbane in 1863. He made further trips to Queensland in 1865-66 and late 1868. On the last occasion he continued on to Gympie, returning two years later (1871) to paint a life-size posthumous portrait of Governor Blackall from a large photograph given to the Gympie Dramatic Club by the Governor. Later purchased by the Brisbane Municipal Council, the painting now hangs in the Rockhampton and District Historical Society’s meeting hall at Rockhampton.
At Brisbane, Backler painted a full-length portrait of Sir Gilbert Eliott , first Speaker of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, now cut to half-length (Brisbane Civic Museum and Art Gallery, Town Hall, Brisbane). Other known sitters include James Dunlop and his wife Jean, known as Jane (c.1843, ML), Mary Faithfull with other members of her family (1845, p.c.), Andrew Hamilton Hume (c.1848, ML), a young Emily Louisa Kite (later Mrs George Lee) of Bathurst (1847, National Trust, NSW), Richard Ridge (1854) and Margaret Smail and her two children (1858, ML). Over 100 oil portraits on canvas have been identified and, apart from his portrait of Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor of NSW 1872 79, and Governor Blackall, most of his subjects were from the middle rather than upper echelons of colonial society-unromanticised images of self-made working people.
Late portraits were dependent on photography, e.g. his portrait of Sir Hercules Robinson (ML) is an enlarged copy of a J. Hubert Newman photograph. Few works, however, are known after 1880. Aged 82, Backler died of 'old age, asthma and cerebral apoplexy’ on 22 October 1895 in his home at 338 Liverpool Street, Sydney. Survived by his second wife Sarah, née Tincer, whom he apparently married soon after his first wife died in 1852, he was buried in the Church of England section of the Waverley Cemetery. The Mitchell Library holds over forty of his portraits and landscapes; in 1999-2000 it held a small exhibition of the portraits —Backler’s first retrospective.