Walter Herbert Withers (1854-1914), artist and teacher, was born on 22 October 1854 at Aston Manor, Warwickshire, England, son of Edwin Withers, roper, and his wife Sarah, née Welch. Sent to school at Sutton Coldfield, Walter later attended art classes at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and South Kensington schools before embarking for Australia at the behest of his father who opposed an artistic career. Breaking his journey at Port Said, he arrived in Melbourne on 1 January 1883.
After working on several country properties as a jackaroo for eighteen months, he moved to Melbourne where he enrolled in evening art classes at the Melbourne National Gallery school of painting under G. F. Folingsby. Withers began to paint 9 by 7 ins (23 by 18 cm) oil sketches, and also sought black-and-white work. Employed as a draughtsman by William Inglis & Co., and next by Ferguson & Mitchell, lithographic printers, he produced portraits in black and white for several periodicals. His work was accepted for exhibition in the Old Academy, Melbourne. At this time he met Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Louis Abrahams who became lifelong friends.
Encouraged by Roberts to travel overseas, Withers left Melbourne for London in May 1887; having journeyed overland from Naples, via Paris, he arrived in June. On 11 October 1887 he married Fanny Flinn in the parish church, Handsworth-with-Soho, Staffordshire. Soon after, they departed for Paris, settling for six months in a flat in Rue Tronchet. He studied with Australian artists E. Phillips Fox, Tudor St George Tucker and John Longstaff at the Académie Julian where he drew from life under the supervision of Adolphe William Bouguereau and Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury. On the weekends he toured Paris, visiting major galleries where he was impressed and influenced by the works of Bastien LePage, Monet, Manet and Anton Mauve.
Commissioned by Ferguson & Mitchell to illustrate with pen and ink The Chronicles of Early Melbourne by Edmund Finn, Withers and his wife went to England to farewell relations and friends, travelled to Italy and returned to Melbourne on 11 June 1888. They rented a cottage at Kew where Withers established a studio and met the artists Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Artur Loureiro and George Rossi Ashton. While his wife revisited England in 1889, Withers shared with Roberts and Streeton the home of Charles Davies at Eaglemont. His attempts to organize his fellow artists earned him the nickname ‘Colonel’. In 1890 the Withers family moved into the mansion, Charterisville, at Heidelberg, where Withers established a studio and sub-let cottages to other artists. In April 1891 he also established a city studio in Collins Street, took private pupils and in May held a successful major exhibition there. With the onset of the 1890s depression, black-and-white work became scarce and Withers contemplated returning to England. He decided to stay when McCubbin found him teaching positions at three schools.
In 1893 Withers taught at Creswick, giving day classes en plein air and evening drawing classes at the School of Mines; among his students were Percy and Norman Lindsay. Next year he rented a house in Cape Street, Heidelberg, and produced some of his finest work: ‘A Bright Winter’s Morning’ (1894), ‘Tranquil Winter’ (1895) and ‘The Storm’ (1896) which won the first Wynne prize for landscape painting in 1897. He again won the prize in 1900 with ‘Still Autumn’. ‘Tranquil Winter’ was exhibited in the colonial art exhibition held in London in 1898. That year he moved into a home that he had helped to design at Heidelberg.
Withers then rekindled friendships with pastoralists Edmund Smith and W. T. Manifold. Smith invited him to paint at his properties at Point Henry and Cowes, while Manifold commissioned him to produce six large, historic, Art Nouveau panels as a mural for Purrumbete. Payment for this commission, completed in 1902, provided Withers with the means to buy Southernwood, a house on 2½ acres (1 ha) at Eltham, to which he added a studio. Because of ill health, he lived during the week at his studio in Oxford Chambers, Melbourne, and on weekends and holidays with his family at Eltham.
In 1904-05 Withers was president of the Victorian Artists’ Society. Becoming dissatisfied with that body, he joined a group of fellow professional artists who formed the Australian Art Association in 1912. He was one of the judges of the work of the National Gallery students for fourteen years and in 1912-14 was a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria. Withers’ daughter remembered him as six feet (183 cm) tall and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. Plagued by rheumatism and in later life by heart and lung disease, he died of cerebral thrombosis on 13 October 1914 at Eltham and was buried nearby in the Anglican churchyard at St Helena. His wife, four daughters and a son survived him.
In his art Withers developed his own distinctive, poetic style, capturing nature in all her moods, and reflecting his early interest in the works of the English water-colour artists Peter De Wint and David Cox. Critics have discerned the influence of Constable in Withers’ sombre, low-toned, lyrical landscapes, and of the Impressionists in his use of broken colour, his preoccupation with light and his interest in the momentary and the commonplace. He is represented in national, State and regional galleries, and in many private collections in Australia and abroad. An exhibition of his paintings was held in Collins House, Melbourne, in 1915, an Art Union of his paintings and those of his son Charles Meynell was held in May 1926, and a major retrospective exhibition of Withers’ works was held in 1975 at the Geelong Art Gallery.
Biography from the Australian Dictionary of Biography written by Andrew Mackenzie.