Monash University

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A Victorian house painter & plein-airist : John Mather's early Melbourne years (1878-1891)

posted on 2018-03-13, 00:09 authored by Joan M. Cornell
The thesis highlights John Mather's role as a disseminator of Aestheticism and Plein-Airism in Melbourne during 1878-1891. Mathers trained as a professional house painter and decorator and he boasted the work had taken him to the major centers in Britain, and to Paris. He became involved in a number of important decorative commissions in Melbourne, from the onset of his arrival in Janurary 1878: namely at Mandeville Hall which was being refurbished in the latest London Aesthetic stle, and subsequently for the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings, where he was the main contractor for the decoration and painting. For all commissions Mather displayed a working knowledge of English Aestheticism and was a key player in establishing the style in Melbourrne. Mather executed four main tableaus under the dome of the Exhibition Buildings during 1880, which were derided by the press as "circus posters" for their stylisation and flatness, two vital aspects of good design, which had been at the heart of Henry Cole's reformist policies for decorative art in Britain. The situation demonstrates colonial ignorance about Aestheticism. Mather had lessons in water-colour from Thomas Fairbairn, a painter associated with a group of Scots, who had established an equivalent of Fontainebleau at Cadzow forest near Hamilton, during the 1850s. Mather arrived already familiar with the plein-air progamme, at first using water-colour as a useful tool for sketching from nature and later applying the principles of brevity to the oil medium. Although Mather at first adapts to Buvelot's brand of picturesque naturalism, he had a tendency to focus on the foreground representation of local grasses and flora and to localise the landscape by truthfully recording the disposition of flora. Mather's interest in prosaic urban views contrasts with his respresentations of mountain scenery and cliffs lashed with wild seas. It is sa residual taste for the sublime which links Mathere with von Guerard and with his Scottish predecessors and contemporaries, such as Horatio McCulloch and Peter Graham. But with on significant difference: Mather paints wild subjects en plein air.


Principal supervisor

Leigh Astbury

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Visual Arts


Master of Arts

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts

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