Jessie Traill

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Jessie Traill
StateLibQld 2 184183 Melbourne artist Miss Jessie Traill, Brisbane, 1936.jpg
Jessie Traill in 1936
Born 29 July 1881
Brighton, Victoria, Australia
Died 15 May 1967(1967-05-15) (aged 85)
Emerald, Victoria, Australia
Known for Etching, Lithography
Notable work
  • The red light, Harbour Bridge, June 1931 (1931)
  • Building the Harbour Bridge VI: Nearly complete, June 1931 (1931)

Jessie Constance Alicia Traill (29 July 1881 – 15 May 1967) was an Australian print maker. Trained by Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, and by painter and printmaker Frank Brangwyn in London, Traill worked in England and France in the period immediately preceding World War I. During the war she served in hospitals with the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Traill is best known for a series of prints created in the early 1930s depicting the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Critic and art historian Sasha Grishin describes her as "one of the great Australian artists of the 20th century".

Early life[edit]

Jessie Traill was born in Brighton, Victoria on 29 July 1881. Her father was Scotland-born George Hamilton Traill, who had administered a vanilla plantation in the Seychelles, before becoming a bank manager in Victoria; her mother Jessie Neilley was Tasmanian.[1][2]

Frederick McCubbin, leading member of the Heidelberg School, who taught Traill at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School

Traill was one of four daughters of George and Jessie, all of them educated at a boarding school in Switzerland, where they learned French and German.[1][2] The family were deeply religious Anglicans; two of Traill's sisters would later join religious orders,[1] while Margaret would become a carver.[3]

Returning to Australia, Traill in 1900[notes 1] studied under John Mather at his Austral Art School, before proceeding to the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1902 to 1906,[notes 2] where she was taught by a leading member of the Heidelberg School, Frederick McCubbin.[2] Her fellow students were mostly women and included Hilda Rix Nicholas, Norah Gurdon, Ruth Sutherland, Dora Wilson, and Vida Lahey.[5] In March 1906, Traill and her sister Minna, together with her father, sailed for England, while her two older sisters, Kathleen and Elsie, remained in Victoria.[6][7] George died while they were travelling in 1907, and is buried in Rome.[1]

Traill studied in London under Anglo-Welsh painter and printmaker Frank Brangwyn, as well as taking classes in summer with him, in Belgium and the Netherlands.[2] She was the most accomplished student from Australia that he taught.[8]

Early career, 1908 to 1931[edit]

Traill's first notable successes were in 1909, when works by the artist were hung at the Paris Salon and London's Royal Academy of Arts,[8] while her first solo show was opened in Melbourne.[2] She was successful again in 1914 with work hung at the Royal Academy.[9]

When war broke out in 1914 Traill, like fellow artist Iso Rae,[10] joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment.[2] She worked in hospitals, including at a convalescent facility in Roehampton in May 1915,[11] then later in a military hospital in Rouen.[10][12] Traill and Rae became the only Australian women artists to portray the war while in France. When in 1917 Australia first appointed official war artists, sixteen men were chosen; Traill was not included.[10]

Back in Australia, Traill in 1921 became a member of the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society, and entered its exhibitions. Her works from this period reflected her interest in both Art Nouveau and in the woodblock printing of Japan.[2]

Sydney Harbour Bridge series[edit]

When the Australian Painter-Etchers Society in 1932 held its only thematic exhibition, Sydney Harbour Bridge Celebrations, Traill contributed a series of seven prints. The works comprised six etchings completed across the period 1927 to 1931, and a coloured aquatint created after construction was finished in 1932.[13] These have become Traill's best known and most highly regarded images. At the time they were created, the artist Arthur Streeton observed:

Melbourne should be proud of that fine draughtswoman and etcher Miss Jessie Traill. By incessant labour and observation she has won for herself a high position by her fine sense of design and her most capable rendering of very difficult subjects. She dares to do a large drawing composed of enormous curves and angles and she does it successfully. There is no other artist in Australia today who can compare with her in the fine and varied exhibition of Sydney Bridge and other designs which will open today at the Athenaeum Gallery. Her drawings of the Harbour Bridge from 1927 to 1931 form a triumphant and original record of that mighty masterpiece of steel, and it would be well if the finest of them were acquired and housed as a national collection and an artistic record of the structure.[14]

Describing the series as "perhaps the finest representations of this genre", National Gallery of Australia curator Roger Butler singled out her Building the Harbour Bridge VI: Nearly complete, June 1931 for comment, with its "towering, skeletal structure framed by foreground cranes".[15] Sandy Kirby, writing for The National Women's Art Book in the mid-1990s, focussed on the earlier, fourth print in the series, Building the Harbour Bridge IV: The Ant's Progress,[16] noting how it drew attention "to the technical feat of building, reflected as much in the viewpoint Traill selected as in the very medium of etching itself, with its linear emphasis echoing engineering drawing".[17]

Reviewing an exhibition of Traill's works, art critic Christopher Allen, writing for The Australian, considered the images of Sydney Harbour Bridge to be "her greatest achievement".[1]

Later career, 1932 to 1967[edit]

In 1935, Dora Wilson, artist and longstanding friend of Traill (they had studied together and shared a Melbourne studio), painted a portrait of Traill, which was acquired by the State Library of Victoria.[18] Another portrait of Traill, by Janet Cumbrae Stewart, is held by the National Gallery of Victoria.[2]

Traill died on 15 May 1967 at Emerald, on the eastern fringes of Melbourne.[2]


As a print maker, Traill worked on zinc plates in etching and aquatint. [8] Her biographer Mary Lee observed that in the 1920s Traill "worked with the largest plates that the press would take and achieved dramatic chiaroscuro".[2] She was also a lithographer, a technique in which she was similarly accomplished.[19]


Butler collected works by Traill throughout his tenure at the National Gallery of Australia, which one reviewer considered was responsible for the "rediscovery of an artist previously almost unknown to the public".[1] When the Gallery held a retrospective of her work in 2013, it described her as "a key figure in the history of Australian printmaking".[20] Author and art critic Sasha Grishin reviewed the exhibition for The Canberra Times, concluding that the show "reasserts the supremacy of Jessie Traill as one of the great Australian artists of the 20th century".[4] Roger Butler observed of Traill's etchings that they were "the most poetic and technically refined prints produced in Australia before World War II".[15]


  1. ^ According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Traill studied with Mather from 1900;[2] art critic Sasha Grishin places her commencement there at 1903.[4]
  2. ^ Kirby states the period was 1901 to 1905.[3]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Allen, Christopher (11 May 2013). "Imprint of the divine Jessie Traill". The Australian. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lee, Mary Alice (1990). "Traill, Jessie Constance Alicia (1881–1967)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Kirby 1995a, p. 465.
  4. ^ a b Grishin, Sasha (23 March 2013). "Etcher saw beauty in nature, industry". The Canberra Times. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  5. ^ Pigot 2000, p. 6.
  6. ^ "The ladies' pages". Australian Town and Country Journal. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 14 March 1906. p. 40. Retrieved 30 April 2014. 
  7. ^ "Melbourne Lady's Letter". Australian Town and Country Journal. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 17 April 1907. p. 43. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c Butler 2007, p. 38.
  9. ^ "Australian artists". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 1 May 1914. p. 7. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c Snowden, Betty (1999). "Iso Rae in Étaples: another perspective of war" (PDF). Wartime. Australian War Memorial. 8: 36–41. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 April 2013. 
  11. ^ "Our folks at home". The Prahran Telegraph. Vic.: National Library of Australia. 15 May 1915. p. 1. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  12. ^ "Australians abroad". The Australasian. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 13 November 1915. p. 48. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  13. ^ Kirby 1995, p. 201.
  14. ^ "Art exhibitions". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 3 May 1932. p. 10. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Butler 2007, p. 90.
  16. ^ Traill, Jessie (1929). "Building the Harbour Bridge IV: the ants' progress, November 1929". AGNSW collection record. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Retrieved 10 May 2016. 
  17. ^ Kirby 1995, p. 202.
  18. ^ Wilson, Dora (painted 1935). "Portrait of Jessie Traill". Cowen Gallery. State Library of Victoria. Retrieved 29 April 2014.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  19. ^ Butler 2007, p. 46.
  20. ^ "Stars in the river: the prints of Jessie Traill". National Gallery of Australia. 2013. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 


  • Butler, Roger (2007). Printed. Images by Australian Artists 1885–1955. Canberra, ACT: National Gallery of Australia. ISBN 978-0642-54204-5. 
  • Kirby, Sandy (1995). "Town & Country (Jessie Traill)". In Joan Kerr and Anita Callaway. Heritage: The National Women's Art Book. Roseville East, NSW: G + B Arts International / Craftsman House. pp. 201–202. ISBN 976-6410 45-3. 
  • Kirby, Sandy (1995a). "Traill, Jessie Constance Alicia". In Joan Kerr and Anita Callaway. Heritage: The National Women's Art Book. Roseville East, NSW: G + B Arts International / Craftsman House. p. 465. ISBN 976-6410 45-3. 
  • Pigot, John (2000). Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art. Carlton South, Victoria: The Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84890-7. 

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