Notable People of Collingwood

Collingwood Notables Database

John Alexander Gilfillan



Personal Photo 1
Gilfillan with one of his daughters in 1856

Born on the isle of Jersey of Scottish parents, Gilfillan led a varied and eventful life, before spending his last decade in a cottage in Collingwood, continuing to paint and exhibit while working for the Customs Department.

Before deciding to take up art as a profession, Gilfillan had spent eight years in the Royal Navy, and was rumoured to have been shipwrecked and press-ganged. After holding a position as Professor of Painting and Drawing in Glasgow from 1830-1841, he emigrated to New Zealand. During the Maori insurrection, his wife and three of his children were murdered.

In 1848, with three surviving children, he went to Sydney where he painted, among others, a portrait of the Chief Justice, Sir Alfred Stephen. In 1851 he moved to Adelaide, where his proposal of marriage to Catherine Helen Spence, the noted author, reformer and feminist, was rejected. He was briefly attracted to the Victorian goldfields but by the mid 1850s settled in Melbourne where he was employed in the Customs Department until being superannuated in late 1862. He was a member of the Philosophical Institute, which he presented with a ‘magnificent painting’ (since lost) of the proclamation by Captain Cook of NSW as a British settlement. He was rewarded with a life membership. More locally, he was on the committee of the National School in Oxford Street, located a few blocks from his house.

His oeuvre included portraits, New Zealand landscapes, nautical themes, and goldfields scenes. Gilfillan was prolific and his work was generally admired, but although he was able to purchase his wooden cottage, he seemed not to have made a great deal of money from his output. Within a few days of his death his executor and brother-in-law had advertised an auction sale of his goods and chattels. Other than the usual household effects and artistic materiel, there was a rosewood piano, some silver plate and books and a collection of ‘superior oil paintings’. There must have been some family dispute about these, because as quickly as the sale had been arranged, the paintings were hurriedly withdrawn.

Life Summary

Birth DateBirth Place
Spouse NameDate of MarriageChildren
Sarah Murray18263 daughters and one son survived him
Mary Bridgesc. 1839
Matilda Witt9 March 1852
Home Addresses
Home StreetHome CityStatus of Building
Glasgow StreetCollingwoodDemolished
Death DateDeath PlaceCemetery

John Alexander Gilfillan, 1793-1864; The Argus; The Age; Catherine Helen Spence: an autobiography

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