Jackson was born on 3 July 1882 at Bunnythorpe, near Palmerston North, New Zealand, one of eleven children of George Albert Jackson, a farmer from England who was descended from a family renowned for silversmithing, and his wife Mary Ann Julia, née Leach, who was born in India. Following Mary’s death in 1890, the family moved to Darlinghurst, Sydney. The visual spectacle of the harbour made an indelible impression on James. Leaving school at an early age, he was apprenticed to a city decorator and studied drawing in the evenings at the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales (fellow, 1922; life vice-president, 1965). He also briefly attended J. S. Watkins’s art school.
Having failed to enrol with Bernard Hall at the National Gallery schools in Melbourne in 1906, Jackson went to London and worked under (Sir) Frank Brangwyn who encouraged him to paint thickly and taught him the basic technology. Jackson then spent a year at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, living in the Latin Quarter. He absorbed the principles of Impressionism and travelled through Europe during the summer holidays.
Back in Sydney in 1908, Jackson joined and began to exhibit with the Art Society. His home was on the North Shore where he preferred to paint landscapes and seascapes of Sydney Harbour with the sun on his back. A member (1916-33) of the Australian Art Association, Melbourne, he exhibited regularly and established a strong following there. In Sydney, Jackson taught (1917-26) drawing and painting at the Art Society and arranged many field-camps for his students. In 1920 he held his first solo exhibition at the Gayfield Shaw Art Salon. At St Paul’s Anglican Church, Middle Harbour, on 10 December 1924 he married Dorathea Elizabeth Toovey, a 25-year-old typist and one of his students; they were to have a daughter and son before he divorced her in 1947.
In December 1926 he and Dora left for Europe; journeying through France, Italy and Switzerland, they visited Paris and London before travelling through the Pyrenees and Spain. In April 1928 they returned to Sydney. Exhibitions of his new work received wide press coverage and Dora also exhibited successfully. The Depression hit Jackson hard, and in the early 1930s he was forced to let the house he had built at Seaforth and take his family for long periods to the country (around Gloucester) where they could live more economically. There he painted many accomplished landscapes. He was eventually forced to sell the home in Sydney, but by 1936 had settled into a new studio at Mosman.
Jackson was a foundation member (1937) of the Australian Academy of Art with which he exhibited annually until 1946. Meanwhile, he joined the camouflage section of the Department of Defence in 1942 until dismissed when the department discovered his real age—a fact he had always concealed. A ‘chirpy little man’, 5 ft 3 ins (160 cm) tall, he enjoyed fishing and belonged to the Journalists’ Club. Survived by his children, he died on 9 September 1975 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated. He had lived alone for many years, happily independent and satisfied with the long haul of his career. His work is represented in most public and many private collections throughout Australia; the early Impressionist paintings of Sydney Harbour were fluent and superior to his later, prize-winning works.
Written by Barry Pearce
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