John Alexander Gilfillan

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John Alexander Gilfillan


Gilfillan with one of his daughters in 1856

This article by H T Porter was first published in the 1970 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

John Alexander Gilfillan, who, as a painter, made a considerable name for himself in New Zealand and Australia, was born in Jersey in 1793 and baptised at St Brelade on 23 January 1794.

His sister, Elizabeth Caroline Mary Gilfillan, was baptised in the same parish on 5 August 1792. Their father, Lieut John Gilfillan, of the 83rd Regiment of Foot, married Elizabeth Bridges.

A painting of a native village

Royal Navy

John Alexander Gilfillan spent eight years in the Royal Navy before deciding to take up art as a profession. On 31 July 1826, in Kirkbean, Scotland he married Sarah Murray. His second wife was Mary Bridges, whom he married in Glasgow in 1838.

After holding the posi¬tion of Professor of Painting and Drawing from 1830-1841 in Anderson's University in Glasgow, he emigrated to New Zealand and settled in the Hutt Valley on the outskirts of Wellington. During the Maori insurrection, his wife and three children were murdered and, although severely wounded himself, he succeeded in escaping. The culprits were given up to justice by men of their own tribe.

In 1848, with his three surviving children, he went to Sydney and painted, among others, a portrait of the Chief Justice, Sir Alfred Stephen. In 1851 he moved to Adelaide and, in the same year, painted a view of the city which is now in the National Gallery of South Australia. On 9 March 1852, in Adelaide, he married Matilda Witt. They had several children.

Robinson Crusoe

Lady Young, wife of Sir Henry Young, Governor of the province, was among those who gave him sittings for portraits. Other works for which Gilfillan was responsible are Robinson Crusoe landing Stores from the deck and Scotch Loch.

In 1853 he was attracted to the goldfields in Victoria, but soon settled in Melbourne where he obtained a position in the customs department, which he retained until his retirement in 1864. He died on 11 February 11 of that year in Glasgow Street, East Collingwood, Melbourne, aged 70 and was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery, having lived for eleven years in Victoria. He will be particularly remembered as the painter of Captain Cook taking Possession of New South Wales which was engraved by Calvert. Its whereabouts are unknown.


A bluestone memorial, in Melbourne General Cemetery, bears the following inscription:

'Sacred to the Memory of John Alexander Gilfillan who departed this life on 12 February 1864, aged 70 years'. [1]
A scene from Robinson Crusoe

New Zealand history

From John Alexander Gilfillan, his wife, Mary, and their six children settled in Wanganui in late 1842. Gilfillan was a gifted artist and his work provides a valuable record of Wanganui's early colonial history. The family arrived in Wellington on Christmas Day 1841, secured an allotment of 110 acres in the Matarawa Valley near Wanganui, and moved onto it in late 1845. Their farm was attacked by a group of upper river Maori in April 1847. Mary and three of the children were killed.

John Gilfillan and his surviving children moved to Australia. He initially settled in Sydney where he used some of his sketches from his time in Wanganui to complete the painting 'Interior of Putiki Pah', which appeared in London at the New Zealand Court during the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Gilfillan moved to Adelaide in 1851 and then onto the Victorian goldfields in 1853. Some of his sketches from this time appeared in the Illustrated London News. In 1856 he moved to Melbourne, where he worked for the Customs Department. He retired in 1861 and died two years later.

From Born Jersey, son of Lt John Gilfillan. Was said to have run away to sea, perhaps served in the Royal Navy but at some time studied under Sir Henry Raeburn and was Professor of Painting at the Andersonian University, Glasgow c1825–40, and illustrated a number of books.

Before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1842 learned carpentry and engineering to fit himself for new life. First settled at the Hutt, Wellington, and painted portraits of the Maoris and his surroundings. In 1845 began to farm at Matarawa out of Wanganui and near Putiki Pah; became very friendly with Maoris there and made many drawings. In 1847 young marauding Maoris travelling through the district killed his wife and four children and seriously injured Gilfillan and his eldest daughter. Gilfillan and his surviving children left New Zealand for Australia.

First stayed in Sydney where, from sketches he had made earlier, he painted a composite picture of the interior of Putiki Pah, an affectionate remembrance, and through the good offices of F Moore, in charge of the New Zealand Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the painting was taken to London and featured at the Exhibition and viewed by the Prince Consort.

At his suggestion lithographs, some hand coloured, were made after the painting which itself is thought to have been taken to Spain. In 1851 Gilfillan moved to Adelaide, in 1853 to the goldfields and a series of sketches appeared in the Illustrated London News. 1856 he moved to Melbourne, exhibited with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts and worked with the Customs Department until he retired c1861. Work included in Centennial Ex Wtn 1940. His very fine A Native Council of War 1853 and some of his sketchbooks are in Hocken. A drawing of Te Rauparaha, pencil with added colour, is in Turnbull.

Jersey stamp issue in 1984

Notes and references

  1. The date on the memorial does not correspond with that on the death certificate. The latter gives 11 February
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