Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Backler, Joseph (1813–1895)

by Richard Neville

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Joseph Backler (1813?-1895), convict artist and portrait painter, was born probably in 1813 in London, son of Joseph Backler, painter on glass, and his wife Jane, née Cowie. Convicted in 1831 for uttering forged cheques, the 18-year-old, who seemed to The Times 'a highly respectable young man', was sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation for life.

Backler arrived in Sydney in the Portland on 25 May 1832. Indents described him as being able to read and write and by profession a landscape painter. He was assigned to the Surveyor-General's Department but, suspected of being involved in further crimes, he was sent in May 1833 to Port Macquarie. Here Backler was continually in trouble. All told he received 150 lashes, a year in irons and twenty-three days in cells. At some point, however, he also painted at least six landscape oils of the settlement—either there or soon after his return to Sydney in January 1843. Two of these views were of St Thomas's Church of England, Port Macquarie, where he married Margaret Magner on 7 May 1842.

In February 1842 he had been granted a ticket-of-leave and from 1843 was assigned to Messrs Cetta & Hughes, frame makers and carvers in Sydney. He was granted a conditional pardon in 1847. In 1843 Backler advertised his services as a 'Portrait, Miniature and Landscape Painter, in oils and watercolours'. It was as a portrait painter in oils, however, that he made his name. In August 1845 he visited Goulburn, advertising his availability for portrait painting. During the 1840s he visited Yass, Bathurst (where he also painted a townscape), Newcastle and Maitland despite complaining, during an 1849 insolvency hearing, that itinerant portrait painting was not profitable. Creditors claimed that in two months at Newcastle he made more than £100.

Backler rarely involved himself with the small, Sydney art world. He contributed to a commercial art union in 1850, recklessly claiming as an original design an entry which was spotted immediately as a copy after Titian. His wife died in November 1852, yet in June 1853 a 'Mrs Backler' had a son who did not survive long. In the early 1860s he travelled north. He was at Tenterfield in 1860 (returning in 1878), painting a number of portraits and at least two landscapes, and in Brisbane by 1863. By 1869 he had moved to Gympie where he remained for a time. By 1882 he was back in Sydney. His style was now based on photographs and more sophisticated because of it. Survived by his second wife Sarah Vincer, Backler died on 22 October 1895 at Liverpool Street, Sydney, and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

With few exceptions, his client base had been drawn from the upper working and lower middle classes: publicans, builders, millers, ship-owners, shop-owners, and farmers—people who had done well in the colonies. His portraits were conventionally posed, using well established stylistic devices, such as background columns and drapery. 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 explained why few middle-class families employed him). Despite this, Backler was probably the most prolific of all oil painters in early colonial Australia. More than 120 of his works have survived; the Mitchell Library holds an extensive collection of them.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Buscombe, Artists in Early Australia and Their Portraits (Syd, 1978)
  • J. Kerr (ed), The Dictionary of Australian Artists (Melb, 1992)
  • R. Neville, Backler & Friends in the Picture Gallery (Syd, 1999)
  • R. Neville, ‘Joseph Backler. Portrait Painter to the Not Particularly Rich or Famous’, Australian Antique Collector, July-Dec 1993
  • Times (London), 4 July 1831, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1843, p 3
  • Bell’s Life in Sydney, 29 June 1850
  • insolvency files, 2/8855, no 1901 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Richard Neville, 'Backler, Joseph (1813–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/backler-joseph-12778/text23055, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 11 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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