John Alfred UPTON

In the Dictionary of Australian Artists (Kerr, 1992) John Upton’s date of birth is given as 1850, which means he was only 17 years old when he was the Adelaide Photographic Company’s water colour artist. In February 1867 the Company advertised that it had ‘just introduced a most exquisite description of photograph, entirely new to the Adelaide public. They are large (although they can be taken of any size), which can be produced from any negative now in our possession. They are beautifully worked upon by their artist, Mr Upton, who gives them the appearance of the most delicate mezzotint engraving. In addition to these beautiful pictures, they are prepared to execute portraits in oil of any size; portraits in water colours, for which they are so famous; or copies from any description of picture, either enlarged or reduced. Prices according to size.’ The Company’s artist in oils was G.A. Appleton (q.v.)

In 1868, ‘Mr Upton, colourist of the Photographic Company’ presented a silk banner to the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart. ‘The banner, measuring about 3 feet by 4 feet 6 inches, has on it a painting in oil of our Saviour, the result of the patient and painstaking labour of the donor. Oil painting on silk is at all times a difficult task, requiring great skill on the part of the artist, but in this instance the arduous nature of the work was increased by the fact that only night hours, after other duties ended, were devoted to this undertaking. We have on former occasions referred to the colouring and expression in paintings by the Company's artist, and need only add that former excellence has been here maintained.’

In December 1870 a fire in the upstairs rooms of the Adelaide Photographic Company’s premises destroyed their collection of 15,000 negatives, and water damage spoiled some of their gallery of photographs and paintings downstairs. As their insurance had been allowed to lapse, the loss to the company was very severe.

The fire damage was repaired and the Company was back in business by February 1871, and before long new photographs and paintings adorned their gallery. One of these was a life-size oil painting of the late Rev. James Maughan painted from a photograph taken when he was in England. ‘The powerful eyes and the clear expression of his countenance are well brought out, and the picture altogether is an excellent representation, and creditable to the artist, Mr J.A. Upton, by whom it was produced. The figure is in a sitting posture, and nicely relieved by an appropriate background of a book-shelf and curtain. It still wants a few finishing touches, and when completed and framed, which will be in the course of a few days, the portrait will be open for public inspection. The proprietors of the business are to be congratulated on the number and variety of photographic and other works of art with which their studios and showrooms are adorned, considering the short time which has elapsed since their serious loss by fire.’

In 1872 Upton painted a portrait in oils of Mr Abraham Abrahams, Hon. Secretary to the Society of Arts, described as ‘a work of great merit and most lifelike, highly finished, correct, and full of expression.’ It was one of two paintings by Upton that were sent to the London International Exhibition in 1873, the other being a portrait of Mr Justice Boothby, which was awarded as gold medal. When the paintings were returned to Adelaide they were put on display at the Company’s rooms. ‘We have, by the kind permission of Mrs Boothby, seen an oil painting of the late Mr Justice Boothby, which was painted by Mr Upton, of the Adelaide Photographic Company, some years ago, and was sent to the London International Exhibition of 1873, where it was awarded a gold medal. It is a splendid specimen of the painter’s art, and the work seems to have improved with increased age. The likeness is an excellent one, and those who remember the features of the late Judge will take pleasure in looking at it. The portrait will be on exhibition for a day or two at the rooms of the Company, where also may be seen an oil painting of Mr Abraham Abrahams, which was likewise shown at the great Exhibition at South Kensington.’

In 1874 the Adelaide Photographic Company also had on display Upton’s life-size painting of a fourteenth century priest in the attitude of prayer, which was to be sent to the Sevenhill College near Clare. ‘The figure is in a kneeling posture on a rocky rise, and the dark clerical robes bring the form out in strong relief against a warm Italian sky. Heavy drapery hangs in natural folds and the lights and shades are thoroughly artistic. The foreshortening of the limbs where their outline appears beneath a loose robe is done with much skill and attention to the minutest details of shading in the folds of the dress. The hands are clasped, and to the upraised face the artist has given an expression of earnest faith and lofty determination suggestive of the purpose of the suppliant, who is seeking for help to meet the difficulties of his work. Floating in the air above the pleader's head is an angel pointing out his future path, and encouraging him in his undertaking. This figure is also represented with much taste and skill, the features being distinct and expressive, but not "of the earth earthy," like too many pictured heavenly visitants. Mr Upton by enlarging this picture from a small sketch will increase his reputation as an artist.’

In 1875 Upton’s painting over an enlarged photograph of William Shoobridge, who was drowned in the wreck of the Gothenburg, was declared ‘a most faithful portrait.’ However, his copy of Murillo’s painting of St. Anthony of Padua and the Infant Jesus drew some minor criticism, although the review did say ‘the painting on the whole is a good one, certainly far superior to any of Mr Upton’s previous works, and we believe he is capable of doing still better things.’

John Upton did go on to do better things. He went to Europe and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, and in September 1877 it was reported that after two years of study he had been awarded a bronze medal, ‘no small distinction when it is considered that only three such medals are given at each examination and that there are three hundred students at the academy.’

The following year Upton again received one of the three medals awarded for proficiency. ‘Reference has more than once been made to the growing popularity of Mr John Alfred Upton, of Adelaide. This clever young artist, who is making much progress in his studies, has just received from the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich a second medal for the excellence of his drawing from nature.’

John Upton won another medal in 1879. ‘It may be gratifying to the numerous friends of Mr John Alfred Upton, from Adelaide, to learn that this clever young painter, still industriously pursuing his studies at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, under the first professor of painting, has again, in July last, received the medal for painting. He has just sent to London an admirably executed painting in oils of the late William Howitt, the well-known author, a picture pronounced by those who knew Mr Howitt to be an admirable likeness.’

It appears John Upton returned to Adelaide in 1881 and was to have taken up the newly created position of painting master at the Adelaide School of Design, which was attached to the Art Gallery of South Australia, but was too ill teach and could have returned to Munich. His directory entries as an artist were:

1868-1869   Carrington Street, Adelaide
     1873   Rundle Street, Kent Town
1874-1875   Flinders Street, Kent Town

End.