Jessie Traill by Jo Oliver

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Jessie Traill’s beautiful print Good night in the gully where the white gums grow 1922 is representative of her distinctive style and embodies her great love for the Australian bush. Showing Art Nouveau and Japanese influences, Traill used etching and aquatint to create a background of soft curving shapes as light shines between trees. The trunks of slender white gums stand in the foreground extending out of the picture plane, a daring composition prefiguring Fred Williams’ work. The effect is both gentle and strong, decorative and representational. The print sensitively evokes the mystery and beauty of the bush by one who loves and reveres it but does not presume to contain or define it.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Traill studied etching with John Mather in Australia, then Frank Brangwyn in London. She adopted the latter’s innovative use of plate tone to radical new uses of the etching medium. By the end of 1914, she had produced an extensive body of work showing her familiarity with the Australian bush and her growing concern about the relationship between humans and their natural environment. Her work was distinctively feminine and environmentally conscious, counter‑cultural for the early twentieth century when articulation of ecological sympathy was in its infancy and printmaking was a rare pursuit for a woman.

From 1914–19, Traill interrupted her art practice to work as a voluntary nurse with victims of the First World War. On returning to Australia in 1920, she designed and built her studio in the trees at Harkaway, east of Melbourne. When she and her sister Elsie first bought the block of land in 1912, she wrote of her excitement to her mentor Tom Roberts:

We have only five acres of bushland but every bit of it is paintable, the old orchard, the out buildings in tumbled picturesqueness, the trees … It is all that one could desire in a mile’s radius—so I am content—at least I try to be with so very much and my small capacity of doing one little bit justice.(1)

Traill did do justice to her beloved bush, developing a lyrical fresh vision of the Australian landscape. Good night in the gully where the white gums grow is the mature work of a woman who developed her own printmaking techniques to express a poetic and distinctly female response to the landscape of her homeland. In addition, her legacy includes teaching etching to Arthur Boyd and Franz Kempf and donating her etching press to RMIT, where it was used by George Baldessin in his printmaking workshops.

(1) Jessie Traill, ‘Letter to Tom Roberts 1912’, Tom Roberts manuscripts, Mitchell Library State Library, Sydney, A2480, vol 3.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Oliver, Jo. "Jessie Traill" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 356–357.

JO OLIVER is a writer and printmaker and author of Jessie Traill: A biography (2020).

Jessie Traill appears in

  • The Book

    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.