Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Patersons and their artistic legacy

Frozen Moment. A National Library of Australia photo of Esther Paterson
One of the best known paintings in the Hinton Collection, Esther Paterson’s The Yellow Glove also known as Portrait of Betty Paterson, is now on tour as part of the NERAM travelling exhibition. Esther entered the painting in the Archibald Prize competition in 1938. She didn't win, but the following year Howard Hinton purchased the arresting portrait for his Armidale Teachers' College collection.

I have known this painting since childhood because the Armidale Teachers’ College was just up the road and I went there quite often. The paintings in the Hinton Collection were everywhere, hanging in the hallways and the lecture theatres.

I was probably seven when I first saw it. It is a piece of art that I really like, but I knew nothing about either Esther or Betty Paterson. Investigating, I find that they were members of one of those artistic families that Melbourne seems to specialise in.

Our story begins in Scotland with John Ford Paterson and his wife Elizabeth, née Stewart. I have no information on John Ford Paterson nor on Elizabeth, but the family was clearly artistic with the three oldest boys all completing initial artistic training in Scotland.

In 1872, the Paterson boys decided to emigrate en-mass to Melbourne. Sister Mary Jane followed in 1881 after the death of her husband with her young son, the future Australian poet and dramatist Thomas Louis Buvelot Esson.

Marvellous Melbourne was booming. In 1880 the population reached 280,000, then 445,000 in 1889. Money flowed like water, and a fair bit of that went to Paterson Bros, the interior design business established by the eldest boy Charles Stewart with his brothers. One of their best known projects was the interior design for William Greenlaw’s Villa Alba, now a Melbourne museum.

Hugh Paterson, Esther and Betty's father, was born in Scotland in 1856 and, like his brothers, attended the Royal Scottish Academy schools. In addition to his work with Paterson Bros, both he and brother John quickly became prominent Melbourne artists, active in the cultural politics of the time.

The Paterson studio managed by Hugh became an artistic centre. Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher whose office was next door liked to drop in. This led, among other things, to the imposition of tariffs on imported paintings and the establishment of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board.

Ester Paterson was born in 1892, Betty Paterson in 1895 to Hugh and wife Elizabeth. Both were prodigies who played with, mixed with and trained with the elite of Melbourne's bohemian set. Both were talented artists, cartoonists and writers who went on to long artistic careers.

I think that the thing I notice most about their work are the lines, the colours and the simplicity. Their work is quite striking, part of the Art Deco scene. Betty in particular became artist by appointment to the flappers, both captured the resonance of the 1920s.  
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

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