Thursday, 14 January 2016

Jessie Traill - Harkaway Artist

Jessie was born on July 29,  1881 to  a well off family in Brighton. She was the youngest of four daughters  of George Hamilton Traill and Jessie Frances Montague Neilley. George was the Manager of the Oriental Bank in Melbourne. We have an account of Jessie's life written by her cousin, Bethia Foott (nee Anderson) in 1966. Bethia writes that when Jessie was young she was playing on the beach at Black Rock and met 'a younger friend of her father, Tom Roberts. The little girl admired him greatly. She loved to watch him painting those charming sketches he made of Port Phillip Bay, and when she grew up she formed a lasting friendship with him and his wife and little son, often meeting them when they lived in London'



Jessie Traill, c. 1920, proofing an etching by subdued light. 
State Library of Victoria Image H2000.63/6

The Traill family travelled overseas on a regular basis; when Jessie was about twelve her mother took the four girls to England and they all went to School in Switzerland. Her mother,  Jessie,  died on October 1, 1893. Bethia Foott records that when Jessie was nineteen (so about 1900) her father took Jessie and her sister Minna to Italy and sadly George died when he was overseas and the sisters had to organise his funeral. This doesn't actually tally with George's probate papers which states that he died on April 7, 1907, but this discrepancy doesn't diminish Bethia's account of Jessie's life. Thus by 1907 the four sisters were orphans  but had inherited enough to allow them to have a secure income and live independent lives. Interestingly, Bethia records,  after the death of their father, two of her sisters, Kathleen and Minna, then entered the Community of the Holy Name at Cheltenham in Victoria as Church of England nuns. Kathleen died in November 1952 and Minna in September 1964.

Jessie attended the National Gallery Schools in Melbourme from 1902 to 1906, where she was taught by Frederick McCubbin. She was one of the first women to practice etching in Australia and studied this further in London and Paris. In 1909 Jessie held her first one-woman show in Melbourne.

Review of Jessie Traill's show from Table Talk May 27, 1909

When the Great War broke out, Jessie went to England and joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and nursed in a military hospital in Rouen, France from 1915 until 1919.  The State Library of Victoria has a photograph album, which belonged to Jessie, of images take in Rouen of the hospital, the nursing staff, the soldiers and also various post cards of local towns. Click here to access the album..

After the War, Jessie joined the Australian Painters-Etchers Society and had regular exhibitions. Her subjects included the Sydney Harbour Bridge, factories and mines and landscapes. Jessie and Elsie lived together at Sandringham and Elsie formed the first Red Cross shop in Melbourne where wounded war veterans could sell some of their work.  Elsie later donated money to have the E.M Traill Wing built at Janet Clarke Hall (the first Women's College)  at Melbourne University, from where she had graduated.



Shire of Berwick Rate Books entry from 1918 (click on image to enlarge) 

Jessie and Elsie  had  a local connection. According to the Shire of Berwick Rate Books (see above) Jessie and her sister Elsie purchased land at Harkaway in 1913/1914. The property consisted of  a house, and 5  acres and was part of Lot 3, Parish of Berwick ( the actual address is 238 Harkaway Road) The property was named Harfra.


Possum time: Harfra at Night etching by Jessie Traill. 

Jessie spent time at Harkaway when she was not travelling overseas or in Australia and had a studio built on an adjacent block in 1924. Elsie died in December 1946. Harfra was sold in 1948 to her friend, Enid Joske, who was a teacher at Melbourne University and Principal of Janet Clarke Hall, but Jessie kept the the Studio on one acre of land.


Shire of Berwick Rate Books 1948 (click on image to enlarge) 

Jessie later sold the Sandringham house and lived in her Studio at Harkaway, until she died on May 15, 1967,  having lived an amazingly interesting and worthwhile life. Bethia wrote this lovely tribute to Jessie in 1966, the year before  she died.

Whether she is in England, France or Australia, Cousin Jessie, with her keen blue eyes and graceful flexible hands is loved by us all and I know of no-one elsewhere in the course  of so long a life  has done more good or helped more people,  than she has done. In all her many exhibitions she has always donated the proceeds to charity.  She has sponsored migrants, helped those in their distress; and as for us if -some one needs to add a  room, replace an old car, paint  a house or buy a ram - who is that helps us? Cousin Jessie.

Deeply religious, selfless in her wants and ways, she is indeed the  truest Christian I have ever known.  And although she no longer works at her craft, those lovely hands, moving so expressively, so decisively and so surely are still as flexible and lissom as they were when she was  girl.



Jessie Traill, c. 1965  outside her house in the north of England, aged 84.
State Library of Victoria Image H2000.63/7

There is an exhibition of Jessie Traill prints on at the Geelong Gallery until February 14 2016. You can read about it here.

Jessie Traill Nature Reserve in Harkaway is on land partly donated by Jessie to the Council and is named in her honour.

You can read more about Jessie Traill here in her entry, written by Mary Alice Lee,  in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really interesting article thanks heather -at