Shoreline by Eliza Thurston

‘Professor of Drawing and Painting in every style’

English-born painter Eliza Thurston was one of Australia’s earliest female colonial artists. After her husband’s death in 1846 she migrated to Australia with her six children, and found work as an art teacher and painter. Despite difficult financial circumstances and the demands of raising a young family in a new country, she became an award-winning painter. Eliza Thurston Water colour

Born in 1807 in Bath, England, Eliza studied art before marrying John Thurston, an auctioneer, in 1830. The couple had six children, and Eliza continued to work as a drawing teacher. After her husband died of tuberculosis, Eliza eventually decided to move to Australia with her children, arriving in Sydney in 1853. 

She worked as a painter and art teacher to support her family, advertising herself as Mrs Thurston, ‘Professor of Drawing and Painting in every style’. However, on 13 December 1855 she was declared bankrupt — her debtors included the booksellers Waugh & Cox, who had supplied her painting materials. 

Undeterred she continued to paint, exhibiting at the 1857 Victorian Fine Arts Society show in Melbourne and at the 1866 Melbourne Inter-Colonial Exhibition — which included two of her watercolour views of the Blue Mountains — and receiving a silver medal for four ‘opaque watercolours of Australian Scenery’ at the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition. 

She exhibited several landscapes at the Agricultural Society of New South Wales inaugural exhibition in 1869, including a painted view of ‘Capertee Valley from Crown Ridge on the Sydney-Bathurst Road’ (held by the Library). She became known for her picturesque views of Sydney Harbour, decorated with delicate shell and seaweed mounts. 

The Library recently acquired her painting of Sydney Harbour, c 1864, showing an expansive view of the harbour with the burgeoning city skyline in the distance. The painting is surrounded by an arrangement of shells and seaweed, adding to the decorative appeal of the work. These shells were almost certainly gathered from the Sydney shoreline, and are a record of the local plant and sea life of the time. 

Eliza Thurston died in 1873 and is buried in Balmain Church of England cemetery. Very little of her work survives, and it rarely comes onto the market, which makes the Library’s acquisition of her work the more important.

By Jennifer O’Callaghan, Librarian, Collection Strategy & Development 

Eliza Thurston biography, Design and Art Australia Online.
This article first appeared in SL magazine summer 2017–18.

Other works by Eliza Thurston in the Library's collections
View of Sydney Harbour, ca. 1864, Eliza Thurston,  gouache on paper with seaweed and shells, XV/168
Sydney Harbour, ca. 1864?, Eliza Thurston, watercolour - 8 in. x 10 3/8 in. oval, SSV1/c.1864?/1
Distant view of Sydney,  Mrs [Eliza] Thurston, watercolour - 6 1/2 in. x 9 5/8 in. oval,  DG SSV1/2
Capertee Valley taken from Crown Ridge Sydney Road 1868, Eliza Thurston, watercolour - 47.7 cm x 67.7 cm, V1B/Cap V/1