Painter, photographer, engraver, lithographer, surveyor and lawyer, was born at Dumfries, Scotland, on 12 January 1815, son of James and Isabella Shaw and brother of George Baird Shaw . The family lived at 28 Gayfield Square, Edinburgh, and his father worked nearby as senior clerk and proofreader for the booksellers and publishers Cadell & Company. Having trained as a lithographer and engraver in Glasgow and painting for his own pleasure, it is likely that James Shaw senior instructed both sons in these arts from an early age.
After attending the Edinburgh Royal High School James was sent to the University of Edinburgh to study law, qualifying in 1836. Through family contacts he met a wide range of prominent literary and scientific men and came close to fulfilling his father’s wish that he receive ‘a liberal education’. In September 1836, sponsored by Justice Thomas McCornock, he left Edinburgh for Jamaica to be a junior bookkeeper on one of the estates for which McCornock was attorney. There, in his leisure hours, he drew and painted. As word of his talents spread among the colonial population, Shaw began to receive commissions to draw the planters’ estates. In 1841 he was invited to leave accounting and become a surveyor, a position which brought with it more money and greater freedom. With the ending of slavery and the subdivision of many larger estates, there was no shortage of work to be had and Shaw gradually acquired entrée to a higher social class, resulting in several portrait commissions. He also had frequent opportunities to sketch Jamaican scenery. Some of his artistic efforts were sent home to Edinburgh for sale and from time to time he asked his father for criticism of his work.
In 1847 Shaw returned to Edinburgh and soon set up as a portrait painter and photographer, photography being a skill he had reputedly just acquired from his brother George. On 5 July 1850 he married Janet Liddle Paterson. Five days later they left Scotland in the Sacramento bound for South Australia. They reached Adelaide in November and Shaw found work soon afterwards as a clerk in the Adelaide Post Office. As always, he continued to sketch, paint, engrave and take photographs, producing a large body of work throughout the next three decades. Wood-engravings are also known: Free Church, Adelaide (1852), McLaren Wharfand Mitcham Church . In 1857 he showed five paintings at the first exhibition of the South Australian Society of Arts, of which he was a founding member. View of the Hills from South Terrace, Adelaide received an honourable mention from the judges ‘for the spirited and correct effect of a portion of the foreground, comprising the wagon and horses’, although, they added, ‘much of the rest of the drawing is very unequal’.
Shaw also produced lithographs but these appear to have been begun somewhat later, during his brother’s 1866-67 visit (George was an expert lithographer). Penman & Galbraith lithographed as well as printed one of James’s sketches, Gawler Town, S.A., from the South , in about 1864, but two years later they were merely the printers for his large lithograph, Town Hall Opening Ball, Adelaide June 1866 (Mitchell Library), Shaw having put this on the stone himself. The undated Adelaide, S.A. from Montefiore Hill (Art Gallery of South Australia [AGSA]) inscribed ‘Drawn by J. Shaw’, which Carroll calls ‘surprisingly awkward’, may be an early effort.
Shaw exhibited regularly with the Society of Arts from 1857 ( Scene in Jamaica and Island of St Paul’s ) until 1871. He rarely received unqualified praise for his paintings. In January 1862 the South Australian Advertiser commented equivocally on his oil in the society’s sixth annual exhibition: ‘Mr. Shaw’s “Eagles’ Nest” … is an ambitious attempt, inasmuch as the scenery in the part of the hills he has taken for a subject is extremely difficult; but the painting is much better than any of this artist’s former productions’. He won a special 3-guinea prize for his paintings in the society’s 1863 exhibition, invented because they did not fit into the various stipulated categories: Flood at Kent Town and Sticking Up were called ‘historical’ works. The critic of the South Australian Register felt that in failing to keep back his distances Shaw gave his paintings a hard and wiry appearance and the South Australian Advertiser liked them even less: ‘His style is peculiar and astonishing. Adhering to the primitive colors, and using them in primitive strength, he disdains to modify a blue, soften a green, or tone a red. One advantage that they possess is that the colours will not fade soon’. This critic thought that his more ‘poetical’ The Drifting Wreck was ‘not without a certain charm, evanescent though it be, that points conclusively that the ideal and not the real is the peculiar forte of Mr. Shaw’.
Ironically, Shaw’s paintings now most appreciated are those dating from 1852 to 1879 which portray ‘real’ events, places and buildings in and around Adelaide in his detailed, colourful and meticulous manner. Oil paintings such as Fire at the Adelaide Steam Flour Mill, Mill Street, Adelaide, 17 April 1855 , The Admella Wrecked, Cape Banks, 6th August 1859 , views of the Adelaide Botanical Gardens (1865), The Tannery (1865), Residence of F.B. Carlin, Kent Town (1860) and Livingstone House(1861) – all now in the Art Gallery of South Australia – are valuable, if technically naive, precisely because they tend to depict every object with equal clarity. His most distinctive works, however, are those few combining painting and photography in a unique way. The South Australian Parliament: The House of Assembly (c.1867, AGSA), The Town Hall Opening Ball (1866) and City Ball in Honour of Prince Alfred(1867, both Adelaide Town Hall) all include painted figures with photographed faces glued onto the canvas. These small photographs could have been taken by James, but it has been more plausibly suggested that James obtained them from Townsend Duryea , who specialised in such ‘gem’ portrait photographs.
In 1868 Shaw’s wife died suddenly at the age of forty-one and he was left to raise their six young children. From then on his artistic output declined. He died on 1 September 1881, aged sixty-six. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds the major collection of his work.
Written by Joan Kerr