Joseph Backler (1813-1895)

Joseph Backler was born in 1813 in England and was transported to Australia aboard the convict ship Portland 18 years later for forging cheques. He was the son of a painter and chose painting as his profession when arriving in Australia.

His early work concentrated mainly on landscapes, and in 1843 Beckler was advertising his services as a ‘Portrait, Miniature and Landscape painter in oils and watercolours’. However, it was through his truthful, and often unflattering, portraits of middle and working class Australians that his reputation grew.

As Timothy Roberts reflected, ‘Though lacking the formal training and subsequent polish that can be seen in the work of more prominent Australian society portraitists at the time, Backler’s contribution to the portrait genre is no less significant. His honest depictions of successful lower middle and upper working-class colonists colour the story of Australian colonial art and provide depth to the understanding of colonial Australia’s social character’. The Australia Dictionary of Biography goes further and notes, ‘The most distinctive feature of his work was his careful delineation of his subjects’ faces. The apparent literalness of his portraits could be startling, and rarely flattering (which may explain why few well-to-do families employed him).

Backler travelled extensively around NSW, selling his painting services to the local business people around Goulburn, Yass, Bathurst, Maitland and Newcastle presumably making a living as a painter of portraits and landscapes. His first wife died in Sydney in 1852 and a year later he married Sarah Tincer. From this point, not much is known of his activities – other than he travelled through Brisbane and Gympie painting landscapes as well as portraits. In 1882 he returned to Sydney where he continued his portraiture practice, increasingly using the new technology of photography to base his images on. This seemed to produce a more ‘sophisticated’ treatment of his subjects.

Backler became one of the most prolific oil painters of his time, with more than 120 of his works still surviving, many of which can be found in the NSW Mitchell Library.

1. Signifying Success: Joseph Backler’s portraits of Robert and Alice Pollock. Timothy Roberts, Queensland History Journal, Vol. 21, No. 7, Nov 2011: 438-446
2. Australia Dictionary of Biography

James Harley

Joseph Backler, Portrait of Henry Johnson, c.1843, oil on canvas. Benalla Art Gallery Collection.
Joseph Backler, Portrait of Caroline Johnson, c.1843, oil on canvas. Benalla Art Gallery Collection.

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