Colonial portrait painter who lived and worked in Parramatta, NSW. He set up a successful portrait studio there and introduced the novel idea of payment by instalment, thus allowing citizens from all classes the opportunity to have their likenesses taken.
painter, had undertaken some professional training in France before coming to Sydney in the Alfred on 7 January 1840. Ten days later Griffith married Susanna Duffus and they moved to Parramatta. Their first child Margaret was born on 16 December 1840. The Griffiths took up residence in George Street, Parramatta in a property reportedly owned by The King’s School, Parramatta. His wife later conducted her own school in the George St residence, advertising in the Australian of 24 April 1841 for female boarders 'who would be carefully instructed in the Useful and Ornamental Branches of Education’. As well as teaching at The King’s School (1839-42) and establishing himself as a local portrait painter, Griffith presumably taught drawing at this school also. By 1843 they had moved to Marsden Street, Parramatta.
Despite competition, Griffith quickly set up a successful portrait practice in the studio room (later renamed the Picture Gallery) of John Mackay’s fashionable Australian Arms Inn. He introduced the then novel concept of payment by instalment, thus enabling all classes of citizens to have their likenesses taken. Examples of Griffith’s portraits, mainly in chalk or crayon, were on display at the Picture Gallery in December 1843, his sitters including the auctioneer Patrick Hayes and members of the pioneering Paton family. He lent his support to the Scottish Art Union held at Parramatta during the summer of 1845 46.
In 1844 Griffith was paid the extraordinary sum of £200 to paint a full-length portrait of Sir William Westbrook Burton, New South Wales Supreme Court judge and legislative councillor. The result was shown in the first exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia at Sydney in 1847 together with Griffith’s Portrait of the Late Thomas Moore, Esq. Both received poor reviews. According to the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 July 1847, they were 'deficient in both drawing and effect. If the likenesses be correct, the paintings remind us of Conrad the Corsair. We forebear to say more.’ However, the reviewer did praise Griffith’s 'crayon’ portraits of George Suttor, Esq. and an unidentified lady also on exhibition. Bell’s Life in Sydney of 31 July 1847 was far more complimentary, calling Griffith 'one of the best painters in the colony, and certainly the first chalk draughtsman’. Heads of the People of 28 August 1847 misnamed him 'J. Griffiths’ but stated that he was 'an excellent likeness painter of Parramatta’.
In October 1847 an important local exhibition of the fine arts took place in the 'large room’ at The King’s School. Mounted in aid of the Benevolent Asylum, it consisted entirely of loan works drawn from the surrounding district. Griffith played a key role in its organisation and was certainly the major contributor. Most of his works were 'portraits of the living unknown’ (to quote the Herald reviewer), but he also showed a sepia drawing, Stacking Wheat , an Italian Head and a View of Sydney Harbour from Woolloomooloo after Conrad Martens . The original Martens painting was on display and, in the Herald 's opinion, suffered by comparison. Altogether, the reviewer stated, 'judging from specimens of [Griffith’s]...talent shown in other works than copies of “the human face divine”, it is to be regretted that his ability is not more honourably employed’.
Three other copies by Griffith were shown at the 1849 Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia Exhibition in Sydney. His version of The Favourite after McNee’s Scottish Art Union painting attracted the Herald 's attention on 2 June 1849 and was again found superior to the original: 'Mr. Griffith’s practised eye has enabled him to correct a defect in the harmony of colour which exists in the original by slightly varying the colour of the bird’. Possibly the same painting, now titled A Young Lady of Australia with a Parrot and intended for an art union which never eventuated, was the subject of a legal dispute in 1851. (Once the case was settled, the picture was raffled.)
With the introduction of the daguerreotype into the colony, Griffith’s fortunes plummeted. According to Moore, 'henceforth the artist’s life was a grim struggle’. He joined the newly formed Australian Artists’ Society in August 1850 (basically a mutual benefit group) but suffered a further setback in 1854 when many of his crayon portraits were destroyed by fire. Nothing is known about him after this time but he appears to be the William Griffith who died at Sydney in 1870 aged 62 and his widow dying in 1898, aged 90.
Many of Griffith’s portraits are still owned by descendants of the sitters, including a pair of French crayon drawings Richard Rouse and Elizabeth Rouse (1847). He is attributed with the portrait of Bishop Broughton long at The King’s School, Parramatta. An excellent if somewhat stylistically outmoded watercolour and pencil portrait of an unidentified young woman, dated 1849, is in the Art Gallery of South Australia. A large and unusual 'needle painting’ by a 14-year-old Parramatta girl, Eliza Staff, which depicts the occupied triple-decker pulpit of St John’s Church of England, Parramatta (1845-46), has had inserted into the embroidery three painted faces, reputedly by Griffith, of Rev. Samuel Marsden (in the top pulpit), curate Rev. Henry Bobart (in the middle) and John Foreman Staff, Eliza’s father, parish clerk (at the bottom).