Two paintings by Isaac Walter Jenner (1836-1902) Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, New Farm 1888 (illustrated) and View of Brisbane 1885 (illustrated) are currently on display. Such paintings at the time of their execution supplied the population of Brisbane with artistic impressions of their new home, and in some ways validating it — art as a sense of place — and for us viewing the paintings today, as historical records of the busy shipping life of the young port city.
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At the age of 47 Jenner travelled to Australia with his wife and seven children, and his eldest daughter Mary Ellen’s fiance. During his stay, Jenner worked tirelessly to secure opportunities where artists could show and sell their work.
Jenner spent eighteen years in Brisbane and was a major force in the burgeoning cultural life of the young city. Following his arrival in Brisbane in 1883, he lobbied for a public art gallery, exhibited widely, held art unions, and with fellow artists Oscar Friström (1856 –1918) (illustrated) and LWK Wirth (1858 –1950) was instrumental in the development of, and a founding member of the Queensland Art Society in 1887 and also lobbied consistently for the establishment of a national gallery in Queensland.
From 1887 Jenner had a private teaching studio at the Brisbane Technical College and from his studio at Taringa attracted leading Queensland artists, among them he encouraged Brisbane artist JJ Hilder (1881–1916) (illustrated).
Oscar Friström ‘View of Scarborough’ 1899
JJ Hilder ‘Island schooner, Moreton Bay’ 1910
When the Queensland National Art Gallery opened in 1895, Jenner was one of the first three artists to present a painting for the Gallery’s founding collection with Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador 1893 (reworked 1895) (illustrated), together with R Godfrey Rivers (1858-1925) with Woolshed, New South Wales 1890 (illustrated), and Oscar Friström with Duramboi 1893 (illustrated).
The painting of the Coast of Labrador, imagined fifty years after the event and half a world away, is a romantic recollection from Jenner’s voyages to the frozen North with the distant crimson glow suggesting the fate of a ship which disappeared during a failed expedition to discover the North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The tragedy captured popular imagination during the nineteenth century.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador’ 1893
R. Godfrey Rivers ‘Woolshed, New South Wales’ 1890
Oscar Friström ‘Duramboi’ 1893
Jenner was an untrained artist, who, after serving as a seaman with the Royal Navy (illustrated), retired at the age of 29 to Brighton, England, to pursue a career in art. Though this might be perceived as a somewhat unconventional decision, Jenner undoubtedly had a natural, conservatively expressed talent and he achieved moderate success in England. His first-hand experience of ships and the sea made it inevitable that he should become primarily a marine painter.
As a seaman, Jenner was knowledgeable about the construction and rigging of ships; he also worked as a ship’s painter, which included doing decorative work and signwriting.1 It is likely that Jenner would have observed marine artists at work on board ships throughout his naval career.
Isaac Walter Jenner serving in the Royal Navy
As historical documents, Jenner’s paintings of early Brisbane record the busy shipping life of the municipality. This is particularly true of Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, New Farm, not only for its depiction of early Brisbane, but especially of the rigging of the ships, which testify to Jenner’s love and knowledge of the sea. The main ship in the painting is the RMS Quetta (illustrated), which was regularly used on the London-Brisbane ocean mail service. A photograph of a similar view appeared in a local paper in 1895. In 1890, two years after Jenner completed this painting, the RMS Quetta sank in Torres Strait.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, New Farm’ 1888
The outlook employed by Jenner in Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, New Farm was ideal for capturing the impressive sweep of the Brisbane River and its lively traffic, with the rising cityscape in the background. The popularity of this vantage point is confirmed by several contemporary photographs, and by engraved illustrations in the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia that feature the same scene.2 Quite a few of Jenner’s compositions resemble individual engravings in the volume of the atlas that deals with views of Queensland. Though it has been suggested that the artist produced some of these paintings as ‘speculative’ works for the publication, it is more likely that Jenner himself was taking inspiration from the large pool of popular illustrative material that was in circulation at this time. The engravings appeared in the first volume of the atlas published in 1883, thus pre-dating Jenner’s paintings by several years.3
Onésime Reclus ‘Contemporary views of Brisbane’
Brisbane from Bowen Terrace
Frederic B Schell ‘Brisbane from Bowen Terrace’
Jenner’s View of Brisbane (illustrated) also seem to be based on sources available in the Picturesque Atlas. This is not to suggest that Jenner was not personally familiar with the sites featured. Rather, his adoption of the viewpoints indicates that the rendering of these scenes had already become a pictorial convention. There is no record of the paintings being exhibited in Brisbane during Jenner’s lifetime, but it is interesting to note that all these works were reacquired from private English collections in the early 1980s. Whether they were taken to Britain as souvenirs of mercantile success or have had interesting, alternative histories is now impossible to trace.
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘View of Brisbane’ 1885
When Jenner arrived in Brisbane there was little in the way of an ‘art world’. Until the 1880s the Queensland National Agricultural and Industrial Association art shows offered a limited showcase for the developing Queensland art community. The newly established Technical College was providing training, and the existence of a small but influential ‘establishment’ gave hope for an increasingly prosperous market for local art. JA (Joseph Augustus) Clarke (1840–90) (illustrated) was the only teacher of drawing until Jenner’s arrival.
DELVE DEEPER: JA Clarke’s ‘grand picture’ of Brisbane
Joseph Augustus Clarke ‘Panorama of Brisbane’ 1880
The comparison of both paintings with how the area has changed is remarkable — in Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, New Farm, the city skyline is now one of a modern twenty-first century borne out of its settlement in 1825, while in View of Brisbane the Story Bridge now dominates this same skyline, rather than ships’ masts. Jenner has created paintings which are intimate, while still depicting the busy shipping lanes Brisbane once was, they now give the contemporary viewer an idea of what Brisbane was like.
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Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Hamilton Reach, Brisbane’ 1885
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Brisbane River, Bulimba Reach’ 1894
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Brisbane River, view up the river opposite the Hamilton Hotel’ 1894
Isaac Walter Jenner ‘Brisbane River, Garden Reach from near dry dock looking down river’ 1894
Edited extract from Bronwyn Mahoney’s ‘A Sense of Place: Jenner and Brisbane History‘ from Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998.
Additional research and supplementary material by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA
1 Gavin Fry and Bronwyn Mahoney, Isaac Walter Jenner, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 1994, p16.
2 Bettina MacAulay, notes, in Fry and Mahoney, p.45. For the reproduction engravings (after Frederick Schelbeck), see Picturesque Atlas o f Australasia, vol.1, 1883: Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, in ‘Historical sketch of Brisbane’, plate opp. p.333
3 Bettina MacAulay confirmed in a conversation in March 1997 her speculative belief that Jenner was creating images for the Picturesque Atlas and the possibility that his work was copied by other artists. In light of what we know of Jenner’s prickly nature and the dates of the similar works by him, all postdating the atlas, it seems unlikely that they were copied by the producers of the atlas, or were paintings prepared by Jenner for submission. Jenner’s ambition
and his passion for letter-writing, including ‘letters to the editor’, would not have allowed such a failure of accreditation. It is more plausible that he used the atlas, along with many other similar publications, as a source of inspiration in his own work.
Isaac Walter Jenner
Featured image detail: Isaac Walter Jenner Brisbane from Bowen Terrace, New Farm 1888