Mason was an artist and print maker born in London, son of John Mason, an upholsterer, and Jane Eliza, née Browning. In 1840 he was apprenticed for seven years to Waterlow & Sons, a well-known London firm of lithographers. On completion of his articles he went to Paris for a year, spending part of this time teaching in a boys’ school. On his return, he started in business on his own account. In 1852 he wrote and published a little book called The Practical Lithographer . Early the following year he migrated to Melbourne, arriving in June in the James L. Bogart . There he was engaged by Thomas Ham to carry out the production of his ‘settled districts’ map. In October Mason took over Ham’s business, in partnership with F. Stringer , as Stringer, Mason & Co. of 35 Swanston Street, Melbourne. The partnership was dissolved early in 1854 and Mason continued on his own.
In addition to standard commercial lithographic and engraving work, the firm – later Mason’s alone – produced many prints, either as engravings or lithographs, from sketches by David Tulloch , George Strafford , Edmund Thomas , Henry Heath Glover and probably Mason himself. At the 1854 Melbourne Exhibition Mason was awarded a bronze medal for his lithographic specimens and at the 1855 Victorian Industrial Society Exhibition he received a silver medal for lithography. In September 1855 he issued an illustrated weekly newspaper, the Illustrated Family News , with lithographic illustrations in the letterpress text. It ran to about four issues. In September 1856 he joined the Engineer-in-Chief’s Department of the Victorian Railways as a lithographic draughtsman and set up its lithographic printing branch.
Mason left the Victorian Railways in 1864 and went to Woods Point in Gippsland, setting up in Bridge Street as a mining agent and sharebroker. He became insolvent in September 1867 after guaranteeing debts of the local Anglican Church and Common School and being unable to collect money owed to him as legal manager of several mining companies. He returned to Melbourne and secured employment as draughtsman and chain-man with Doyne, Major & Villet, who were to survey the Launceston to Deloraine railway in Tasmania. On completion of the line Mason started The Building Times in Melbourne, an architectural and engineering journal modelled on the London Building News , which was illustrated with lithographic plans and drawings. It was published from October to December 1869.
Following the failure of this venture Mason undertook freelance work, during which time his sketch of the new Melbourne Town Hall, which he lithographed himself, was published by De Gruchy & Co. He wrote and illustrated a small children’s book, The Australian Christmas Story Book , published in Melbourne in December 1871 (republished National Library of Australia, 1988). This was so successful that he produced a second number in December 1872. He attended art classes at the National Gallery School in 1871. In October 1872 he was reappointed draughtsman in the Engineer-in-Chief’s Office of the Victorian Railways, a position he held until retiring on 15 October 1889, having reached the age of sixty.
Most of Mason’s known original art dates from the 1870s. In 1870 he exhibited two watercolours with the Victorian Academy of Arts, Red Bluff and Half Moon Bay and Sundown from Windmill Hill, Launceston . He joined the academy in August 1873, was elected to its council in December 1874 and served until 1878, but was struck off the membership roll in 1880 for non-payment of subscription, presumably after losing interest. He exhibited at the academy from 1874 to 1877. He joined the newly formed Victorian Artists’ Society in March 1888 but was also removed from the roll of that body in November 1890. In addition to these activities, Mason was involved in the formation of the Melbourne Musical Union. He was secretary of the Art Union of Victoria, formed to promote the work of Australian artists, until October 1876 when he resigned owing to pressure of business. At the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, Mason showed ‘Sketches of the Bridges over the Yarra Yarra River, Melbourne 1884’; his sketches were also included in the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne.
During the 1870s Mason gave three public lectures. The first, at the Technological Museum in May 1871, was on the techniques of printing illustrations, titled ‘The Multiplying Art’, while the second, illustrated with his own drawings, at the Mechanics Institute in September 1871 was on ‘Railways’. The third, at the Athenaeum in April 1873, ‘Sketching from Nature – Ruskin applied to Australia’, was widely acclaimed and is alleged to have influenced the young Frederick McCubbin to take up art. In May 1883 he founded the Buonarotti Club for the ‘cultivation and practice of Art, Literature and Music among its members’ and was its president until its demise in September 1887. His influence on Melbourne cultural life through his club has been largely overlooked, yet it numbered among its members Elizabeth Parsons , John Longstaff , John Mather , E. Phillips Fox , Tom Roberts , Walter Withers , Fred McCubbin and Alex Sutherland .
Following his retirement, Mason moved to Tynong in Gippsland and spent much of his time sketching. He returned to Melbourne in about 1900 and lived at Mentone. His wife Jessie, née Campbell, widow of George Conway Montague, whom he had married in Melbourne in 1853, died on 29 November 1909. Mason died at East Melbourne on 8 August 1915.
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