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Conflicting Visions: The Life and Art of William George Wilson, Anglo-Australian Gentleman Painter

  • Kerry Heckenberg


Research for this paper was prompted by the appearance of a group of nine small landscape paintings of the Darling Downs area of Queensland, displayed in the Seeing the Collection exhibition at the University Art Museum (UAM), University of Queensland from 10 July 2004 until 23 January 2005. Relatively new to the collection (they were purchased in 2002), they are charming, small works, and are of interest principally because they are late-colonial depictions of an area that was of great significance in the history of Queensland.



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1 McCulloch, Alan and McCulloch, Susan, The Encyclopedia of Australian Art, rev edn (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994), 759; J. Johnson and A. Greutzner, The Dictionary of British Artists 1880–1940 (Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1976), 553; Queensland National Art Gallery, Illustrated Catalogue of the Queensland National Art Gallery (Brisbane: Government Printer, 1908), 11; Edward D. Craig, Australian Art Auction Records 1975–1978 (Sydney: Mathews/Hutchinson, 1978), 301; Australian Art Auction Records 1984–1987, vol. 5, 344; Australian Art Auction Records 1997–1999, vol. 11, 427; Australian Art Auction Records 2003, vol. 13, 485.

2 Roberts, Stephen Henry, The Squatting Age in Australia 1835–1847 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1935), 375.

3 Thirteen of his early watercolours (1870–1878) are in Sydney: State Library of NSW DG∗D26 f.1-f.13.

4 See Jay, L.J., ‘Pioneer Settlement on the Darling Downs: A Scottish Contribution to Australian Colonisation’, The Scottish Geographical Magazine 73 (1957): 35–49 (the quotation comes from p. 40); John Mackenzie-Smith, Moreton Bay Scots 1841–59 (Brisbane: Church Archivists’ Press, 2000). William Wilson's birth date is given on his tombstone in Kensal Green Cemetery, London, as 15 June 1811.

5 For Mount Flinders and the Wilson brothers, see Collyer, Angela, ‘The Process of Settlement: Land Occupation and Usage in Boonah 1842–1870s’ (MA thesis, University of Queensland, 1991), 36, 66–68, 89, 95, 127, 149, 157–58; and ‘Country Sketches. No. XIII. The Peak Mountain’, The Queensland Times, 27 October 1877, n.p. Although the latter suggests that Robert died in 1848, a will for Robert Wilson, ‘residing at Moreton Bay of New South Wales’, is recorded in the Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories with the date 29.9.1847 (Ref SC70/1/68); there is also a death notice: Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1847. The address given here is 39 London St, Edinburgh. For details of land speculation on Kangaroo Point, see Therese Alice Mary Murtagh, ‘Perspectives on Place, People and Their Interaction on Kangaroo Point 1842–1920’ (PhD Thesis, The University of Queensland, 2002), 52, n.35; John Greig Smith, ‘The Foundation of Kangaroo Point 1843–46’, in Brisbane: People, Places and Pageantry, ed. Rod Fisher (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group Papers, 1987), 103. For the marriage, see Familysearch (accessed 19 January 2005), available from

6 For the official record of W.G. Wilson's birth, see Archives Authority of New South Wales, ‘Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, 1787–1856. Micofilm’ (Sydney: Archives Authority of New South Wales, 1984). His father's address is given as Mount Flinders, County of Stanley, Moreton Bay, and his occupation as ‘Settler’. William George was baptised in Sydney at the Scots Presbyterian Church on 14 May 1850. With regard to the likely birthplace, it is known that the family resided at Kangaroo Point in the early 1860s because of the isolation of living in the bush (see ‘Country Sketches') and the second child, Mary Elizabeth Wilson, was bora in Brisbane, at ‘View Cliff Cottage’ on 25 March 1851: Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1851. William is also described as a ‘resident of Brisbane’ when standing for election to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1851: Moreton Bay Courier, 12 July 1851, n.p. See also Mary McConnel, Memories of Days Long Gone by/by the Wife of an Australian Pioneer (Brisbane?: privately printed, 1905), 33 and 35. Mary's birth is noted above; Robina Jane Wilson (Father — William Wilson, Mother — Elizabeth) was born on 18 December 1852: Queensland Pioneers’ Index. On David McConnel. see Nehemiah Bartley, Australian Pioneers and Reminiscences: Together with Portraits of Some of the Founders of Australia, ed. J.J. Knight (Brisbane: Gordon and Gotch, 1896), 202–05.

7 Russell, Henry Stuart, The Genesis of Queensland (Sydney: Turner & Henderson, 1888), 453. Also 'Moreton Bay Courier’ Extraordinary, 14 January 1850, 1–2. This special issue of the newspaper notes that the convenor of the meeting, Dr Dorsey, ‘proposed that William Wilson, Esq., should take the chair. The proposition was seconded by Patrick Leslie, Esq., and unanimously carried’ (p. 1). Disagreements led to this meeting being dissolved and a new meeting was convened nearby, but William Wilson was again appointed as Chair. See also Moreton Bay Courier (MBC), 19 January 1850, 2. Russell and Wilson probably did not encounter each other again since the time they both spent later in Queensland did not coincide and therefore he probably did not associate Wilson with Pilton rather than Peak Mountain Station.

8 For William Wilson's role in the election of 1851, see MBC, 28 June 1851: n.p.; MBC, 6 September 1851: n.p.; MBC, 13 September 1851: n.p.; William Coote, History of the Colony of Queensland from 1770 to the Close of the Year 1881, two vols, vol. 1 (Brisbane: William Thorne, 1882), 122–23; for the editorial comment, see MBC, 12 July 1851: n.p. For the ideological formation of the early squattocracy, see Howard le Couteur, ‘Gramsci's Concept of Hegemony and Social Formation in Early Colonial Queensland,’ Limina 6 (2000): 2540.

9 Birth details for the other children are as follows: Ann Salmond was bom in 1855, Frederick James on 13 January 1858 and Louisa Rosabella on 26 December 1861: Familysearch. For the family's return to Queensland, see ‘Country Sketches’. The article notes that a Mr Gammie rented the station for ‘four or five years’ while the Wilsons were away. For Pollet Loftus Cardew, see Matt J. Fox, The History of Queensland: Its People and Industries. An Historical and Commercial Review, Descriptive and Biographical Facts, Figures and Illustrations. An Epitome of Progress, three vols, vol. 1 (Brisbane: States Publishing Company, 1919), 467. For the educational practices of this class, see Mary Macleod Banks, Memories of Pioneer Days in Queensland (London: Heath Cranton, 1931), a book of reminiscences of life on the land by one of Mary McConnel's daughters. On p. 52 she tells a tale that took place when her older siblings were away being educated in Britain. For the obituary, see ‘Mr F.J. Wilson’, The Times (London), 4 October 1926, 16.

10 Queensland Post Office Directory (Brisbane, 1874), 250. On the lease of Pilton, see Shirley Irene Murray, Pilton: Its History and Its Hall (Clifton: Shirley Irene Murray, 1995), 10. See also ‘William Wilson — Papers’ (1865–1890), Mitchell Library A5345, Sydney, which has a number of documents relating to Wilson's business dealings and various partnerships such as his agreement with Henry Bates Fitz (1863–69). For the sale of Peak Mountain, see Collyer, 149. On pp. 157–58, Collyer notes that this was the official sale date, but ‘that partnership had been transacting business for the run “on behalf of William Wilson” since early the previous year’.

11 Rudd, Steele, Green Grey Homestead (Sydney: Macquarie Press, 1934), 127. For Rudd's time on Pilton, see Eric Drayton Davis, The Life and Times of Steele Rudd, Creator of on Our Selection. Dad and Dave (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1976), 46.

12 Bonyhady, Tim, Images in Opposition: Australian Landscape Painting 1801–1890 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1985), 40–59.

13 For the information about Martens’ Flinders Peak, see Steele, J.G., Conrad Martens in Queensland: The Frontier Travels of a Colonial Artist (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1978), 25, 119. Thanks also to John Steele for a personal communication on this topic. For Martens’ work in Queensland, see Steele; also the essays on this topic in Queensland Review 9(1) (2002).

14 Queensland Government Gazette 15 (1874), 4 records that ‘William Wilson, Esquire’ was ‘summoned to the Legislative Council’ on 2 January 1874. His address is listed as ‘Pilton, Darling Downs’. Thanks to Denver Beanland, 29 October 2004, personal communication, for help in finding this information. Note that the wrong William Wilson is identified as serving as a member of the Legislative Council between 1874 and 1878 (he was absent during the last two years) in D.B. Waterson, Biographical Register of the Queensland Parliament 1860–1929 (Second Revised Edition) with an Outline Atlas of Queensland Electorates 1860, 1872, 1878, 1887, 1910 & 1921 (Sydney: Casket Publications, 2001), 203. Waterson suggests that it is William Wilson (1832–1903), Brisbane mercantile agent, but the Queensland Government Gazette lists the member's address as Pilton, Darling Downs throughout this period. Information from the 1881 British census shows the family at the Earls Court Square address along with three domestic servants: Familysearch. Information about Wilson's studies at the Royal Academy was obtained from Andrew Potter: email, 8 December 2004 (Royal Academy Library). Elizabeth Wilson's dates are 15 April 1821–27 May 1883 (information from tombstone at Kensal Green Cemetery). For William Wilson's death notice, see The Queenslander, 18 June 1887, 961.

15 For W.G. Wilson's marriage, see The Times, 28 September 1889, 1. Georgeanna was the ‘daughter of Thomas Watkins Wilson, MD, HM Ind Med Service, Bengal (ret.)’. Records of the sisters’ deaths were announced in The Times: 10 August 1934, 1 (Robina Jane Wilson died aged 81 on 8 August 1934); 8 November 1938, 1 (Mary Elizabeth Wilson, ‘eldest daughter of the late William Wilson Esq’ died aged 87 on 6 November 1938). The Times, 24 May 1892, 1 records that Annie Salmond Wilson married Lt-Colonel C.F. Thomas, Bengal Infantry, at St Cuthbert's Church, South Kensington. Her death in Madras on 19 June 1893 is noted in The Times, 14 July 1893, 1. The entry states that she was the ‘third daughter of the late William Wilson Esq. of Pilton, Queensland’. F.J. Wilson's obituary records his marriage in 1888 to Mary Phoebe Birch, ‘daughter of Colonel E.A. Birch, I.M.S., a well-known authority on health in the tropics’: ‘Mr F.J. Wilson’, 16.

16 For the birth announcements, see The Queenslander, 28 February 1891, 393; The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 25 February 1891, 2. The birth took place at Kingston, a ‘first class boarding establishment’ (according to newspaper advertisements) in Russell Street, Toowoomba. The son's name is recorded as part of the 1901 British census information, living with his father at 12 Dynevor Road, Richmond, Surrey ( For the mortgage document, see ‘William Wilson — Papers’, A5345, No. 58. Information about the management of Pilton was obtained from the Clifton Divisional Board Valuation Records: personal communication from Shirley Murray, 21 February 2005. Many thanks to Mrs Murray for her help.

17 The Capital of the Darling Downs’, The Queenslander, 21 January 1893, 107. For the early history of art in Queensland, see Keith Bradbury and Glenn R. Cooke, Thornes & Petals: 100 Years of the Royal Queensland Art Society (Brisbane: Royal Queensland Art Society, 1988), 9–39. On Rivers, see Vida Lahey, Art in Queensland 1859–1959 (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1959), 7, 9; McCulloch and McCulloch, 603; and Joanna Vera Strumpf, ‘Looking Beyond Biography; Interpretation of Two Works by Richard Godfrey Rivers’ (BA Honours thesis, University of Queensland, 1996).

18 The Queenslander, 13 August 1892, 310. For Brisbane society at this time, see Ronald Lawson, Brisbane in the 1890s: A Study of an Australian Urban Society (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1973), especially 226–28. The fact that the address entry for Wilson in the 1902 QAS annual exhibition catalogue takes the form ‘Geo. Wilson c/o R. G. Rivers’ suggests continuing contact between the two men and thus the possibility of a friendship. Rivers had travelled to England in 1902 and must have returned to Brisbane with the pictures: Glenn R. Cooke, ‘Research Notes’. Queensland Heritage, January 2001 (manuscript held in QAG Library).

19 Quenouille, La, ‘Social Gossip’, The Queenslander, 29 July 1893, 235.

20 For Lindsey's career, see his obituary, ‘An Enterprising Miniaturist’, The Times, 2 September 1952, 6, and the entry in Johnson and Greutzner, Dictionary of British Artists, 313. The pictures can be viewed online: they are Kangaroo Sticking, 1894 ( and A Bush Race in Australia, Darling Downs, 1894? ( For information about the signature on the former, thanks to Johanna Murray, National Library of Australia, email 22 June 2005. The name of Wilson's collaborator is given as ‘T.A. Lindsey’ in the 1893 Queensland Art Society Annual Exhibition Catalogue, 5, 10 and 22. It is mispelled ‘Lindsay’ in The Queenslander reports (29 July 1893, 235; 12 August 1893, 307).

21 The Queenslander, 12 August 1893, 307.

22 See Brown and Maynard for details of pictures exhibited with the QAS; for his donations to the QAG, see Illustrated Catalogue 11, 13, 25, 27 and 28; and Cooke for a recent discussion of their present status.

23 The Queenslander, 11 August 1894, 261 ('Java Sea'); Brown and Maynard 38: 45, 39: 116 (fruit pictures); The Queenslander, 22 September 1900, 639–40; The Queenslander, 21 October 1905, 8.

24 See ‘Minutes of Royal Queensland Art Society’, in Records 1901–1987 (Fryer Library, University of Queensland, St Lucia). Meeting held Tuesday, 19 August 1913, Correspondence: a letter had been received notifying the society ‘that a parcel of pictures from W.G. Wilson (England) was lying at the GPO, with £2 duty to pay thereon.’ For the review, see The Queenslander, 10 October 1908, 357; for the 1913 pictures, see Brown and Maynard, 138: 32, 33.

25 For his London Salon works, see The London Salon of the Allied Artists’ Association, exhibition catalogues 1909–12 on microfiche, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire: Chadwyck Healey; Teaneck, New Jersey: Somerset House, 1975–79. He did not ever exhibit with the Royal Academy, contrary to the suggestion in Johnson and Greutzner, 553. Although a William G. Wilson exhibited works at the RA in 1908, 1910 and 1914, he was an architect exhibiting architectural drawings. For Kandinsky, see The Times, 24 March 1908, 14. For the changing nature of the London Salon, see the reviews in the London Times between 1909 and 1913: 12 July 1909, 3; 11 July 1910, 16; 8 July 1911, 13; 30 July 1912, 8; 7 July 1913, 11. By 1913, the reviewer felt that the ‘effects of artistic freedom’ were valuable because of the experimentation it encouraged although the exhibition also included ‘pictures that one never sees elsewhere, except above the sideboard in sea-side lodgings’. For notice of Wilson's death, see St Catherine's House Index, July–September 1924, Vol 2a, 462. The final quotation comes from The Times, 13 July 1908, 10.

26 See Steele, Figure 48 (sketch of grass trees near Pilton) and Plates 11, 14 (station houses).

27 For developments in English landscape at this time, see Ysanne Holt, British Artists and the Modernist Landscape (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). A short biography of Richardson in included in Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond (International Cultural Corporation of Australia in association with the National Gallery of Victoria. 1985), 24–25. For the Heidelberg approach, see Bonyhady, 135–54.

28 Russell, 200 mentions the grass trees; for background information on labour and land disputes, see Jan Walker, Jondaryan Station: The Relationship between Pastoral Capital and Pastoral Labour 1840–1890 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1988).

29 On nationalism and bush workers, see Jane Clark, ‘Naturalism and Nationalism’, in Clark and Bridget, 128–49; for Rivers’ painting, see Brown and Maynard, 28: 3165; and Bradbury and Cooke, 26.

30 For the quotation, see Davis, Arthur H. ('Steele Rudd'), On Our Selection (Sydney: The Bulletin, 1899), title page; for more about Rudd's work and his illustrators, see (accessed 31 May 2005).

31 For the pictures included in the London exhibition, see Grafton Gallery in association with the Trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Exhibition of Australian Art in London, London: Grafton Gallery, 1898, 49: 312, 53: 343, and 55: 358–59. The quotation comes from an insert inside the front cover of the catalogue.

32 See White, Richard, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688–1980 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 85–109 on bohemianism. The quotations come from The Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1894, 4.

Conflicting Visions: The Life and Art of William George Wilson, Anglo-Australian Gentleman Painter

  • Kerry Heckenberg


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