James Muir Auld was a respected Sydney-based portrait and landscape painter who trained with J.S. Watkins and Julian Ashton. He was active as a painter and illustrator for forty years and won the Wynne Prize in 1935.
James 'Jim’ Muir Auld (b. 19 June 1879, d. 8 June 1942) painter, illustrator and commercial artist, grew up in the Presbyterian Manse in Ashfield, Sydney, where his father was the Minister. His Scottish parents, John Auld and Georgina Muir, migrated to Sydney not long after their marriage in 1873. Prior to the move John Auld had been a locomotive driver before being ordained as a Minister in the Presbyterian Church.
Auld attended Ashfield Public School and completed his secondary education at Sydney Grammar School. He took evening art lessons at Ashfield Technical College while working as a clerk with Ashfield Borough Council. He later studied for six to seven years at J.S. Watkins’s art school in Hunter Street, Sydney. John Samuel Watkins, a painter, was popular with students seeking careers as commercial and black and white artists. Auld also took lessons with Julian R. Ashton at his school in central Sydney.
From 1902 the artist exhibited black and white studies and poster designs at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales (RAS) annual show in Sydney, but from 1906 he contributed mostly oil portraits and landscapes. With the re-establishment of the Society of Artists in 1907 Auld maintained membership with the RAS. He resigned from his Ashfield Borough Council clerical position in 1907 to work full-time as a professional artist, advertising his services as a teacher of “drawing, painting and black and white” from his studio at Commercial Union Chambers, 99a Pitt Street, Sydney. The same year he was appointed to the RAS Executive Council and joined their hanging and selection committees.
The following year Will Ashton shared Auld’s studio and the pair held a joint studio show titled 'Sketches & Impressions’. For this debut exhibition, Auld presented thirty-five landscapes with Sydney water themes. However, he was best known in his early career for his illustrations and joke blocks published in the Sydney Mail,Bulletin and Lone Hand. He exhibited four illustrations from the Sydney Mail short story 'To the Gold Diggings’ in the 1912 RAS annual exhibition. The artist illustrated at least five books, titles include: Seafarers, by Charles D. Websdale (1905); Little Pitcher, by Elsie Linacre (c.1905); Gray Horses, by Will. H. Ogilvie (1914); A Rogue’s Luck, by Arthur Wright (1919); and Lyrics and Mystic Sketches, by Agnes Littlejohn (1928).
In 1909 Auld travelled to London where he visited galleries and, according to the biographical article in his (then National) Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) memorial exhibition catalogue (pg. 5), he admired the work of John Constable and contemporary painters Sir John Lavery and C.W Furse. While in London he contributed pen and ink drawings to London Opinion magazine.
Auld returned to Sydney in early 1911 and reconnected with the Sydney art scene. He married Maggie Kate Kane, a divorcee, on 1 July 1914 in Woollahra; his wife and young stepdaughter soon became regular models in his work. When theAGNSW purchased Auld’s oil titled The Broken Vase, an illustrated profile by Bertram Stevens was published in Art in Australia (Third Number, 1917). Stevens’s (unpaginated) article mentioned that Auld, prior to going to England had been influenced by the impressionist-influenced painter Emanuel Phillips Fox. By 1918 Auld was living at Pacific Parade, Dee Why, on the northern beaches of Sydney, a picturesque area popular with artists, and he socialised with several including Lawson Balfour and Roland Wakelin who both lived nearby.
In August 1919, Auld exhibited in his last RAS show. Two months later he began his long association with the Society of Artists (SOA), at the time of his election an organisation led by his former teacher Julian R. Ashton. Around this time Auld was recruited to the leading commercial art firm of Smith and Julius where he worked with Sydney Ure Smith, Albert Collins, Roland Wakelin, James Adam, Percy Leason, Frank Payne, Lloyd Rees and Harry Julius – all members of the SOA. According to a posthumous profile on the artist published in the catalogue of hisAGNSW memorial exhibition (pg. 5), Auld found the work at Smith and Julius in the 1920s both “interesting and stimulating”. While the exact reasons for Auld’s defection from the RAS to the SOA are unknown, his changing art society affiliation was presumably connected with close friendships formed while working at Smith and Julius.
Auld was also a competent watercolourist. From his student days up until 1930 he painted watercolour landscapes, and during the second half of the 1920s he contributed work to the Australian Watercolour Institute’s annual exhibition. While Auld was well known in Sydney, he held his first solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1927. Following the success of this event he began his association with the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, with a solo show in November 1928. The thirty oil works on view were mainly landscapes inspired by the coastline near his Dee Why home. Auld also painted portraits such as his shadowy image of Australian poet Roderick Quinn (1929), a work later purchased by the AGNSW. Many of Auld’s portraits were submitted into the annual Archibald Prize competition held at theAGNSW including several self-portraits.
Sometime around 1930 Auld became infected with tuberculosis. His relationship with his wife ended and, acting on medical advice, he relocated from Dee Why to a house in the bush at Thirlmere on the south western fringe of Sydney. He won the 1935 Wynne Prize for his oil landscape Winter Morning and following this achievement held a solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries of landscapes painted at Thirlmere as well as a few portraits. While the artist had previously only used brushes in his painting he was now using the palette knife.
Perhaps partially due to his close association with Sydney Ure Smith and the SOA, Auld was a foundation member of the Australian Academy of Art (AAA) in 1938. He held his third, and final, exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in October 1938. Despite his illness, he continued to paint and exhibit with the AAA and SOA up until the end of his life. He died in Camden District Hospital, New South Wales, eleven days short of his sixty-third birthday. A memorial exhibition of sixty-six works was held at the AGNSW in December 1942. His final career works were praised by art critic Paul Haefliger (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 December 1942, p 7):
“Only in the last two years of his life did this painter attain, to some degree that detachment from the world so essential to the artist… his slightly brittle manner, so marked in his paintings of the nineteen thirties, left him, to give place to a beautifully subtle quality, opened to the majesty of the countryside. He began to feel the poetry of growing things, and the colours of his canvas lost their isolation and began to merge harmoniously.”
Artist and long time friend Roland Wakelin wrote along the same lines in the obituary for the Society of Artists Book 1942 (p 44):
“... it was not until the last years of his life when, broken in health he retired to Thirlmere, that his best work was produced. Here, except for the periodical visits of his sister and a few good friends, he lived for eleven years virtually alone. Children of a neighbour did odd jobs for him, brought him a hot meal. He was quite cut off from the art world, saw few books, would not even have a wireless in his small cottage, and the landscape around was not of an inspiring character.”
Although little known after his death, Auld was a respected artist within the Sydney art community long before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His emotional and physical battle with this disease saw a greater intensity in his work which led his last works being his most enduring.
© Silas Clifford-Smith
This peer-reviewed profile was first published on the Design and Art Australia (DAAO) scholarly website