Born on the Isle of Wight on 9 May 1817, Samuel Elyard, the fourth son of Dr William and Sarah Elyard, arrived in Sydney on 18 December 1821. His father was surgeon superintendent on board the John Bull, a female convict ship from Ireland, carrying 80 convicts and 22 free settlers. During the voyage, the behavior of the female convicts was somewhat problematic as they were constantly being found in crew quarters; Dr Elyard wrote about the troublesome voyage in his diary and gave evidence at a hearing after their arrival in Sydney. This may have left a mark on an impressionable boy as later in life he was drawn to women from the edges of society.
A few years after the family had settled in Sydney, in about 1826, Samuel was sent to Mr Gilchrist’s school where he was taught drawing by Edmund Edgar and showed an aptitude for art. By the age of nineteen he was teaching some drawing classes, taking on commissions and portraits and tried, unsuccessfully, to make a living as a professional artist. In 1837, he took up a position as a Clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s Office and as he wrote “There is not so much anxiety about this kind of life as there is in the profession of painting alone – consequently more of happiness. It is however an everyday sort of life.” He continued to paint and take commissions in his spare time.
After being taught drawing at Mr Gilchrist’s school in 1826, he attended John Dunmore Lang’s Australian College where, under J. B. East, he studied miniature and oil painting. At about this time he also took additional lessons with William Nicholas.
He also became acquainted with Conrad Martens, purchasing a number of Marten’s landscapes as well as painting his portrait. Along with Martens, the most significant influence appears to be John Skinner Prout, under whom he studied in the early 1840’s. Elyard’s preferred medium was watercolour and, like Prout, his preferred subject matters were picturesque buildings, street scenes and landscapes.
Elyard was an innovative artist and can be said to be an early starter in the use of a relatively new medium, and using quality watercolours painted on a very large scale; his panoramas are up to 130 cm in length. He painted en-plein-air years before this was common practice by Australian artists, who only regularly painted direct from nature from the 1880’s, and as he left England too young to remember or be influenced by the light and colours of the English landscape he could be said to be one of the first Australian artists to capture, in watercolour, the land, light and colours of Australia. Amanda Judd and Craig Judd comment that “Elyard’s idyllic Lake Illawarra is an example of the romantic vision that colonial artists brought to their interpretations of the Illawarra’s raw majesty” and that “there is a strange, visionary quality to this work, emphasised by the grisaille technique and coloured ground of the paper.”
He was also an early adopter of photography and purchased a daguerreotype from Freeman Brothers in Sydney in 1856, although he only started advertising himself as a photographer and exhibiting his photographs from 1890. Elyard also experimented with over-painting photographs, his own as well as photographs he had purchased.
The adult Elyard was drawn to women of “ill repute”, and married two prostitutes, both marriages were annulled. He accused his first wife of poisoning him with belladonna. Elyard suffered from mental health issues from that time on, including delusions that he was a Prince of Judea, King of Australia and the prophet Elijah, among others. To quote Jonathan Watkins, Design & Art Australia Online – Samuel Elyard Biography:
“Elyard’s life in Sydney was not uneventful. On 10 April 1849 he went through a form of marriage with Angelina Mary Hughes Hallett, née Scott, an alleged prostitute later gaoled for robbery and child-stealing. Elyard quickly repudiated the marriage and printed posters and pamphlets explaining his insanity at the time due to her systematic and malicious administration of drugs. However, the insanity did not simply disappear when they separated, for within a few years he was claiming another strange marital relationship. He was apparently convinced of his being 'Samuel Rex, King of Australia’, reigning with Phebe Hilly, 'Empress of Australia’. Their partnership was also dissolved, probably by 1860. Elyard cut a controversial figure in local ecclesiastical circles. For a number of years he believed he was, among other biblical characters, the prophet Elijah sent by God to herald the second coming of Christ. The Church of England refused him permission to preach, but he was more seriously entertained by Herman Hoelzel of the Sydney Synagogue, who signed a petition supporting Elyard’s outlandish claims. When the Synagogue Board discovered this, Hoelzel was forced to resign.”
In 1868, due to ill health, he retired on a pension, and by March 1869 was living permanently at Nowra. This ‘forced’ retirement at age 51, to a quiet life in the Shoalhaven was undoubtedly very good for his physical health and assisted in moderating the mental health issues. He lived a productive artistic life and died at Nowra, aged 93. This retirement due to the health issues also resulted in an extremely beneficial artistic and historic legacy for the Shoalhaven, as he was then able to spend time capturing favourite scenes and landscapes in his art.
When producing art Elyard quite often made sketches of a scene as well as a watercolour. As can be seen with the March 1870 Nowra flood series of three works, the first two consist of a sketch March Flood, from Ferry Lane 21th March 1870 and from the same day, a large watercolour on two sheets of paper Flood Scene, Ferry Lane 21st March 1870. These two works can possibly be considered as “studies” for the third work, a panorama on one large sheet of paper, produced over a month later, Flood from Ferry Lane 26th April 1870.
There are also a number of examples of the same scene sketched, painted and or photographed within a short space of time as well as revisited over much longer periods. He also sometimes combined media such as composing a scene from several over-painted photographs, a collage of images which modifies the actual landscape, and in 1892, produced, with the assistance of photographer M. D. Hussey, photographic facsimiles of his watercolours, that were published in Sydney as Scenery of Shoalhaven.
Samuel Elyard produced very few oil paintings over a very long life and even then his technique was similar to watercolour, the oil paints being applied thinned by turpentine; the resulting works are pleasant but not inspired and it is obvious that his interest lay elsewhere.
A watercolour of a vase of wild flowers - Flannel Flowers, Waratah, Banksia and ferns is annotated by the artist Samuel Elyard. Nowra. A D 9th May 1910. The 9th of May was Samuel Elyard’s 93rd birthday, and it could be supposed that the flowers were a gift that he was delighted to record for posterity.
Samuel Elyard died 6 months later on 23 October 1910.
Shoalhaven City Council acquired, for the Regional Collection, approximately 130 of Elyard’s watercolours and photographs when they were offered for sale in the latter half of last century. The images used are all from the Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Untitled ( boats berthed on river) sketch coloured, Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Shoalhaven River from Coolangatta Mountain, watercolour, Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Untitled ( photograph-river bend) Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Untitled ( watercolour-river bend) Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Mr Gray’s Point from Nowra Cliffs , oil, Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- 1870 Flood from Ferry Lane, watercolour, Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Tree and Church scene watercolor, Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Untitled ( photograph-family ) Shoalhaven City Art Collection
- Untitled ( wildflowers 9 May 1910 ) watercolour, Shoalhaven City Art Collection
Jonathan Watkins Design & Art Australia Online - Samuel Elyard
State Library of NSW Samuel Elyard and the Jews in Sydney
Australian National University Australian Dictionary of Biography
Amanda Lawson & Craig Judd A Place for Art University of Wollongong
Stephanie Burns Samuel Elyard research documents forwarded to the author