"He did not mind what hardships he endured so long as he found subjects for his brush." 1

The Australian born landscape painter, Ernest William Christmas is said, in an age before air travel, to have travelled about 200,000 miles in the course of his career "penetrating, in search of the picturesque, many parts of the world where few white men had preceded him". 2   His upbringing in the rugged, developing country of Australia equipped him with the self-confidence and self-reliance repeatedly to venture off the beaten track to seek out in particular the mountain and lakeland scenes which he would become especially skilled at depicting,3  whilst his genial character ensured he made new friends and contacts wherever he went.4  Over the years he painted in Australia and New Zealand, in Europe, in South America and in North America, particularly Hawaii. In addition to producing his own work for exhibition and sale, he also undertook commissions for governments and businesses,5  guided public art galleries on their choice of works of art for their collections,6  provided illustrations for publications, 7 and, during the First World War, undertook artistic projects in support of patriotic causes.8  He undertook the selection of art works from Europe for a large exhibition staged in Melbourne, Australia, in 1902-3,9  on occasion acted as a go-between for other artists seeking a market for their work10 and offered private lessons and advice to aspiring artists, both amateur and professional.11  Christmas led a full and artistically prolific life, cut short (on the eve of another envisaged adventure to visit and paint in the islands of the South Seas) by his premature death in 1918 aged 55.

Early Life

Ernest William Christmas was born in 1863 at Yankalilla, near Adelaide, South Australia,12  the eldest of eleven children born to first generation English-born immigrants to Australia, John James and Martha Christmas, who were both in their teens when they made their separate arrivals in Australia.

Christmas' father must have had quite an independent and entrepreneurial character, which his son appears to have emulated. From an agricultural labouring family in the Lincolnshire Fens in England, John James Christmas arrived as a voluntary emigrant in Australia in 1857 at the age of nineteen13  (Christmas' mother, Martha, had arrived in 1853 at about the age of fourteen, with her parents and siblings.) 14  He pursued a successful and varied career as a farmer, baker, storekeeper, mining agent and gold prospector, rising to serve as a Justice of the Peace and eventually as Mayor of Kadina in 1880.15

Martha, Florence, John James and
Ernest William Christmas

The Christmas family moved from Yankalilla to nearby Goyder, Port Wakefield when Ernest was still an infant, before moving on to Kadina, also near to Adelaide, when Christmas was about eleven years old. 16 Christmas is said to have been educated in Adelaide and to have "assisted his father in his business until grown up, when he took up the study of painting in oils".17  Either with, or in emulation of, his father (who would eventually die at a gold camp in Kanowna, Western Australia, in 1902), Christmas was one of those to take part in the 1886 "ruby rush" to the MacDonnell Ranges in the Central Australian Bush.18   Surviving oil paintings of his of that region may suggest he took advantage of this visit to new scenes to practice his art.

Early Artistic Development

Christmas is believed to have been educated artistically in Australia in Adelaide and Sydney19  and the landscapes of Australasia were his early and continuing study. In the summer of 1891-2 he took a painting trip up the River Murray, perhaps inspired by the paintings of Henry James Johnstone (1835-1907), the English born but Melbourne based photographer and artist, whose realistic, one might say almost photographic, paintings of scenes of nature, including of the River Murray, may have provided a pattern for similar early works of Christmas.20  Also around this period he visited and painted in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, producing mainly oil and occasionally watercolour depictions of mountain and river scenes and other views from those areas, and exhibited at the Art Societies of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide 21 , in the process cementing "the high opinion many have formed of his ability as a delineator of Australian landscape". 22   His reputation was also spreading abroad with an invitation for one of his paintings to be exhibited at the Royal Institute of Scotland in 1892,23 and he now determined to broaden his artistic education beyond that he had attained in Australia.

Camp By The River, 1896

In about 1895 Christmas travelled to Sydney, intending thence to take a ship to England "but when he got to Sydney he was very successful and the artists there advised him to visit New Zealand. This he did, and he found such field for his brush that he remained in the picturesque country for two and a half years".24 

Christmas revelled in the mountain and lakeland scenes he found in New Zealand, seeking out the remote (he remarked how "if you get off the beaten track it means hard work, and it takes it out of you if you are not accustomed to mountaineering"25)  and valuing the company and assistance of the native Maori people there.26 His work found an appreciative audience in New Zealand where he was judged to have "caught successfully the peculiar freshness of the New Zealand landscape and the atmospheric effects characteristic of our scenery"27  in a style which was seen as in striking contrast to that of his Australian pictures. He returned to Australia from New Zealand in 1897 with some 500 sketches of the scenery he had encountered which, it was said, "will provide him with material for five years without taking another sketch".28   For the time being, however, Christmas had other plans, with his proposed visit to England back on his mind.

Further Afield

Christmas exhibited widely within Australia and New Zealand in the 1890s, earning a rising reputation as a "painstaking and skilled artist" able to capture "a picturesque side in common places."29   In late 1899, however, he set out to travel to Europe to immerse himself in the art scene which was then perhaps at the cutting edge of the Western painting tradition and which, although perhaps most notably after a second visit to Europe about ten years later, would have a profound effect on his painting style.

Frosty Sunrise, Picardy, France

Christmas's first visit to Europe lasted for the best part of three years. He planned to visit the Paris Exhibition, 30 and certainly on this trip produced paintings of French landscapes (in Paris and Picardy) and Mediterranean seascapes. He was in London "during the two seasons of 1901-2 ... and practically lived at the great exhibitions which are open from May to August", also visiting Wales and spending some months in Scotland, in Glasgow and in Edinburgh. He contributed works to exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Scotland, Leeds, Liverpool and at the Royal Institute Galleries in Piccadilly, London.31

E W Christmas circa 1902 in Table Talk

Whilst in England, Christmas was appointed as the travelling art representative of the managers of the proposed Australian Federal and International Exhibition to be held in Melbourne, Australia late in 1902, entrusted with the task of selecting a collection of British and Continental pictures for inclusion in the exhibition. In fulfilment of this role Christmas eventually solicited and forwarded to Melbourne some 270 paintings, including 100 by Scottish artists of the then flourishing Glasgow School.32   Whilst this task undoubtedly severely restricted the amount of time Christmas had available to produce his own work, the value to him of the introduction it provided him with to so many of the prominent British artists of the day, including, for example, Sir Edward Poynter, Sir James Guthrie, Sir John Lavery, John William Waterhouse, Alfred East and Sir Alfred Parsons, was incalculable. He himself declared "it was an education as well as a luxury to have the run of studios of these men of genius, and to observe their different styles of treatment and masterly mode of expression".33

On his return to Australia, Christmas's painting style was remarked as being "greatly improved, having, in fact, undergone a complete change",34  his landscapes described as "depicted with great accuracy of detail and striking boldness of touch".35   His works from this period had evolved from a detailed, almost photographic naturalism towards a more impressionistic evocation of scene. He himself considered that during his stay in the United Kingdom he had "learnt so much. My style is completely altered. It is so much broader." He found the British scenery - and weather - suited his style of painting: "England is, in my estimation, much more paintable than Australia. The aim of a landscape painter is to get a beautiful soft effect. With hard and defined outlines there is no poetry in the picture. The misty effects in the old country help to this end." He found, however, the sale of his Australasian works there to be difficult: "The people do not understand the vivid colouring, not realising that this is a semi-tropical country."36

When interviewed in Adelaide in September 1903, Christmas's future plans were to "return to the Old Country [i.e. England] in a few weeks, and to take a studio in London". 37  It is not at present known whether he did so: his whereabouts from October 1903 to July 1905 are uncertain.

The Valley of the Dart, New Zealand, 1907
By August 1905 Christmas was again in New Zealand and was there "engaged by the Government as the representative of the Tourist Department to paint several large pictures showing the development of the country's resources, principally in regard to agriculture" and to depict some of the beauty spots of the country. These and other works (including an unusual sequence of paintings of different types of New Zealand wood depicted on boards made of each type of wood and featuring in the picture the trees from which the boards were taken) were exhibited at the Christchurch Exhibition and then planned to be toured around Australasia, America and England.38 

Christmas also submitted a bold scheme for obtaining an international selection of pictures for display at the Christchurch Exhibition, although it is not known whether this was implemented. 39  Christmas had planned, when he had completed his government commission in New Zealand, to "leave for a tour of the United States and then back to London".40   Instead he remained in New Zealand until about July 1908, based first at Wellington and then Auckland. He exhibited widely, including at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1906, where he won first prize for a Wellington subject.41

Ernest (left) visiting UK family,
Gedney Hill, Lincolnshire circa 1910

By 1909 Ernest was again in England. A more established artist now, he exhibited widely, including at the Royal Institute and the Royal Oil Institute and had paintings accepted for the Summer Exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1910 and 1911.

In 1909 he was elected to the Royal Society of British Artists allowing him to use the suffix R.B.A. after his name, as he would do in some of his subsequent paintings. He also become a member of the Langham Sketch Club.42

"An Adventurer For Art's Sake"

By 1911 Christmas had fresh travels organised, a new continent to explore and capture in paint. He journeyed to South America where he would spend the next two to three years painting extensively throughout Argentina, most notably (and perhaps most expectedly, given his penchant for mountain scenes) in the Andes, but also at the Iguazo Falls in the north of the country, around Cordoba, Parama, Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata, in the plains of Patagonoia and even in Tierra del Fuego, on the southernmost tip of the continent.43   Whilst near Mendoza in the Andes, Christmas apparently became the first artist44  to paint "The Christ of the Andes", the vast bronze statue erected high in the mountains on the Chilean/Argentinian border just a few years earlier in 1904 to mark the achievement of peace after the settlement of a long-standing quarrel between those two countries. He exhibited some of his works in Buenos Aires where they "called forth splendid criticism from artists and pressmen." 45 

A Paisano's Hut on the Chilean Frontier
As usual, Christmas clearly relished the fresh experiences encountered during his travels in South America, later reminiscing about "glittering Rio and the green Amazon, of gauchos he'd drunk maté with, and of liquid-eyed Senoritas".46

The purpose of his trip may have been a commission to provide illustrations for the 1914 (2nd Edition) of W H Koebel's publication Argentina Past and Present, where some 32 of his Argentinian paintings were subsequently reproduced. However, whilst in South America he is known also to have executed "a commission from one of the great railway companies for two or three paintings of life on the pampas."47 

In 1913 Christmas appears to have returned briefly to England, before setting out back across the Atlantic, this time travelling to North America. He arrived in New York in the United States of America in December of that year, apparently en route to San Francisco.48   Whether Christmas visited any other parts of North America whilst crossing the continent to San Francisco is not known, but by 1915 at latest he appears to have been resident in that city. There he exhibited during that year at the Society of Californian Artists' exhibition at the Golden Gate Museum and scored a notable success with his painting of El Christo de Los Andes (the statue of the Christ of the Andes which he had travelled to in Argentina) which won him a bronze medal in the "international section" of paintings exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (or World Fair) held in San Francisco that year.49

At the start of the following year, Christmas was once more on the move, setting out from America bound for Australasia, the South Seas and the Orient. But once more he changed his plans en route, so struck by the beauties of the mountainous isles of Hawaii when he stopped off in Honolulu to exhibit some of his works that he chose to extend his stay there.50

Vibrant Orange Sunrise Over Haleakala Crater
Over the following two and a half years in the Hawaiian islands, Christmas "prolonged his stay from month to month, the while painting steadily".51   The volcanic island of Maui was a particularly favoured subject of his paintings, but he both painted and exhibited widely, as well as offering private tuition in his art. He also took time to contribute several works to the Patriotic cause in support of the Allied Forces in the Great War in Europe, resulting in his tackling some more unusual subject matter, including a depiction of "The Tragedy of the Lusitania" and the design of a poster to aid food conservation work on Maui.52

Christmas made a wide circle of friends during his stay in Hawaii. Reminiscences of his stay in the islands recall his "unusually genial and humorous disposition" and his gift for story-telling.53   One particular friend on the island of Maui was the manager of the Haleakala Ranch, Louis von Tempsky, New Zealand-born, with a sense of adventure and lust for life to match Christmas's.

Von Tempsky's daughter, Armine, would later write of Christmas's visits to Von Tempsky when they would hunt, drink and reminisce together: "They were two scamps giving their devils a scamper with Bacchus, while they plotted fresh mischief which scattered laughter and fun... In their widely different spheres Dad and Father Christmas had both lived constructively and done things which would live on. They had tackled life joyously, taken spills, got up, dusted themselves off, and gone on. They'd laughed at defeats, been merry and understanding with friends, but most of all they had stayed in love with life and relished every step of the way".54

Journey's End

Christmas, however (like Von Tempsky also) was no longer in the best of health. He had suffered for a number of years from heart problems, for which he carried a white powder in a "poison ring" for medication55   and his health was increasingly breaking down, resulting in his hospitalisation in Maui soon after his arrival there in Spring 1916.56

At one stage Christmas considered making his home in Hawaii,57  but subsequently he resumed his plans of two years earlier to travel back to Australia and then on for a tour of the South Seas and Java.

Ernest William Christmas in Hawaii circa 1917

In December 1917 he announced that he would be staging a farewell exhibition and auction in Honolulu before leaving the islands.58   By July 1918 he "was awaiting transportation and expecting, from steamer to steamer, to depart for Australia".59   But, on the verge of this new adventure, Christmas was finally, permanently stopped in his tracks.

Suddenly, on July 28th 1918 Christmas was taken ill. He was rapidly admitted to the Queen's Hospital in Honolulu, but by the following morning he was dead from heart failure.60

A funeral service organised by the British Club and the local artists' colony was held for Christmas at St Andrew's Cathedral, Honolulu the day after his death.61   He was then buried at Oahu Cemetery, Honolulu where a commemorative plaque in his name can still be seen in the Columbarium.62

The Columbarium, Oahu Cemetery, Honolulu

Text © Copyright Alison J Cassidy 2005 and 2008. All rights reserved.