JJ Hilder Australian Watercolour Artist

J.J. Hilder: A Biographical Sketch by Bertram Stevens

JESSE JEWHURST HILDER was born on the 3rd July, 1881, at Toowoomba, Queensland. His parents moved to Brisbane in 1890, and he was sent to the Bowen Hills Public School, where he won a scholarship entitling him to three years education at the Brisbane Grammar School. At Brisbane Grammar, he studied art under James Cowan who must have been an encouraging teacher as another Brisbane Grammar School student, William Grant (1876–1951), became one of Brisbane’s leading artists in the first half of the twentieth century.While there, he passed the Junior Public Examination held by the Sydney University, and left school in 1897 to enter the service of the Bank of New South Wales.

At this time Hilder was tall and robust looking, a very fair athlete and particularly fond of football, boating and walking. In childhood he showed considerable facility in drawing, and must have begun to dabble in watercolours when very young. At the age of fourteen his painting won high praise from the best artist then in Brisbane. Hilder’s father and grandfather were engineers. No others of his family gave evidence of artistic faculty, though all were musical. Jesse never learned to read music well, but his accurate ear and retentive memory enabled him to play a good deal of classical music without the score.

The Plough J J Hilder

After a few years in various Queensland branches of the Bank, Hilder was transferred to Goulburn, N.S.W., and then to Bega, where he discovered the first symptoms of tubercular trouble. In 1904, he went to Waverley, a suburb of Sydney, where he made the acquaintance of Fred Leist, to whom he showed some little water-colours he had painted. Leist advised him to take them to Julian Ashton. Up to this time Hilder had had no tuition, and did not attach much importance to paintings he had made from sheer delight in colour. Encouraged by Ashton’s praise he joined his class, and sent in over twenty water-colours for the Society of Artists’ Exhibition in 1907.

The Hilder panel at that Exhibition created a sensation amongst the artists and art-lovers of Sydney. They welcomed the new-comer with a chorus of praise-and bought all his pictures. Arthur Streeton, who happened to be in Sydney, was taken by Lionel Lindsay to see “Ashton’s latest discovery.” Streeton looked at the pictures for some time in silence, and then exclaimed, “By God, Lindsay, this fellow’s a genius!”

Earlier in that year, Hilder’s illness became more pronounced, and he applied for a removal to the drier climate of the West. During the exhibition which established his reputation he was at Wyalong. The proceeds of his sales warranted him in obtaining six months’ leave, which he spent in New England. In 1908 he was sent to Young, where he met and fell in love with Phyllis, the daughter of Mr. Clement Meadmore. As his pictures continued to sell well, he felt that he could depend upon his art for a living, so in that year he left the Bank and returned to Sydney. He was grateful to the Bank for their generous treatment during his illness and on leaving them. Hilder and Miss Meadmore were quietly married in 1909. With the exception of a month in Brisbane and a brief visit to Melbourne, he lived for the rest of his life near Hornsby.

The despondent and reckless moods which first followed the realisation that he was doomed, were cast off altogether after his marriage. Proud, shy, and sensitive, he found in his wife a sympathetic and understanding helpmeet, and his outlook on life was altered for the better. The appreciation of artists, and the appearance of a discriminating article on his work by D. H. Souter in Art and Architecture (1909), gave him great pleasure. He resolved to employ what time he had left in improving his technique, and painting better than ever.

A passionate enthusiasm went into Hilder’s art. When at work he became absorbed, and forgot all else. One day he propped up a just completed picture on the veranda, and, with head perched on one side, stood gazing at it critically for some minutes. Then he walked backwards to get a better view, and knocked over his easel; stepped further backwards and upset a little table covered with sketches, paints, etc.; oblivious still of everything but his vision of beauty, he trampled over sketches and paints to get to his picture and give it the additional touch – ” and how much it is “- which he saw it needed. He could hardly realize afterwards that he had caused the wreckage on the veranda.

Hilder hated any display of sentiment in words, but behind his reserved manner was an intensely romantic nature, which found an outlet only in his painting. A couple of years ago he had to undergo an operation, and for four weary months he was unable to paint. The deprivation affected him greatly. Towards the end of his convalescence he was counting the days impatiently until he could handle the brush again. Nothing could exceed his joy when he got to work once more, and found that his hand had not lost its cunning.

During that enforced idleness he read his favorite George Borrow over again. Then his wife gave him her copy of “Ivanhoe,” which captured his fancy, and he read the rest of Scott’s novels. Hilder was not widely read, but his taste was sound, and the books he liked became part of himself. He admired Joseph Conrad greatly, being drawn to him in the first instance on finding that his novels dealt with ships and the sea, which Hilder loved. Towards the end he enjoyed Gilbert Murray’s translations of Euripides, and derived no little consolation from the “Enchiridion” of Epictetus.

One of the hardships of his long illness was that athletic sports, of which he was very fond, were denied him. He made no complaint against fate, but his independent spirit instinctively avoided the possibility of patronage or pity. As his illness progressed he shrank from company, and in the last year or two saw few people save his family and Mr. Hardy Wilson, a fellow artist whose criticism he valued. Knowing that his time was short, he grudged any expenditure upon himself, for he wanted to leave as much money as possible for his wife and two little sons. Few knew how bravely he had fought his long fight, when it suddenly ended on the 10th April, 1916. His body was buried at Rookwood; his spirit will remain among mortals so long as his exquisite watercolours endure.


Australia may well be proud of Jesse Hilder, for he is entirely her own by birth and training. His art was intuitive; what instruction he received, and the inspiration he got from other men’s work, helped him but little towards self-development. His water-colours show the strong individual note of the true romantic artist; they are not like
anything done previously in Australia or elsewhere.

Bertram Stevens

J J Hilder Paintings