painter, scene-painter, professional photographer, actor and entrepreneur, was born in London on 24 December 1833, son of William A. Wilson, a painter of landscapes and architectural subjects and a scene-painter. His grandfather, John H. (Jock) Wilson, was a Scottish marine and landscape painter who also worked as a scene-painter, while his uncle John Wilson was a landscape and marine painter. At the age of twelve Wilson accompanied his father to Edinburgh and painted his first scene, for a production of Macbeth . On their return to London he assisted his father at the Drury Lane Theatre. He then worked for various provincial pleasure-gardens, painting 'such al fresco subjects as Napoleon crossing the Alps, Delhi, the Storming of Algiers, and other colossal panoramic views’. He exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists (of which his grandfather was a founding member) between 1849 and 1854, showing mainly marine works. Although said to have exhibited at the Royal Academy from the age of sixteen, only one work, Calais Pier , is listed under his name by Graves and that in 1853.
Wilson left London in November 1854, arriving at Melbourne on 6 March 1855 in the Ivanhoe . It is possible that his decision to migrate was influenced by George Coppin, who had visited London from Australia in 1854, for soon after his arrival he was engaged at Coppin’s Queen’s Theatre, then the only such venue in Melbourne. He was a founding member of the Melbourne Garrick Club, formed in the year of his arrival. On tour with the company soon afterwards, he was injured by the point of a bayonet at Geelong and blinded in one eye for three months. When he applied to paint the act-drop for the new Theatre Royal he found that his eyes were not strong enough to undertake the job so he worked for several months as assistant to William Pitt at Coppin’s new Olympic Theatre.
On hearing of the planned Cremorne Gardens at Richmond, outside Melbourne, Wilson recollected many years later: 'I interviewed the manager, proposed a large picture, signed a contract, made a model to scale, superintended the building, painted the whole of it (nearly 400 feet long by 50 feet high [122 × 15 m]) in less than four weeks and the Storming of Sebastopol was on view with a pyrotechnic display at the opening of the gardens … on the evening of December 24th, 1855 (my twenty-second birthday)’. At the end of the Cremorne season he constructed a 16-foot (4.87 m) long model of Sebastopol which he exhibited with his panorama at the Salle de Valentino; this later toured the country. After Coppin took over the Cremorne Gardens Wilson painted a new subject annually in collaboration with Melbourne’s other leading scene-painters, including Pitt, Hennings , Tannett , Arragoni and Alexander Habbe . He also painted scenery for the Royal Pantheon Theatre, which Coppin had erected in the gardens, and for Coppin’s other theatres, the Olympic and the Royal. In 1859 Wilson performed in the comedy Extremes at the Olympic and a contemporary reviewer described him as 'a very deserving member of the corps dramatique’.
Wilson moved to Sydney in 1861 on being engaged by the Lyceum Theatre. His first major scenery was for Azael, the Prodigal Son , a play for which he had helped provide the scenery at Drury Lane under his father’s supervision. In June 1862, when the Lyceum re-opened after redecoration, Wilson had painted the new act-drop curtain with a view of the ruins at Philae, Egypt: 'The painting is exhibited as in the oval centre of an elaborately finished gilt frame … On the panels of the dress boxes are eight medallions, representing views taken from different points in the harbour of Port Jackson, and other fancy paintings’. The following year Wilson and Alexander Habbe formed a partnership at the rebuilt Prince of Wales 'to stock the new theatre with scenery etc. ... the act drop (as were most of the scenes) was painted by both, under the style, by agreement, of Messrs Wilson and Habbe’.
Wilson and Habbe’s transparency designs were used as part of the local celebrations for the marriage of the Prince of Wales in June 1863. They painted that on the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts. Wilson sustained extensive injuries at the Prince of Wales in July when he fell while painting a scene 25 feet above the stage but was evidently back at work by December; the 'splendid transformation and last scene, more magnificent than any other ever given in this country’ in the Christmas pantomime was acknowledged as his work.
Wilson also painted backcloths for photographic studios. In January 1866 he advertised photographic backgrounds for sale 'cheap’ at the Prince of Wales Theatre; in February he was advertising cartes-de-visite backgrounds. Later that year he opened his own photographic studio, W.J. Wilson & Co. of 267 Pitt Street. In January 1867 the firm was offering a small self-acting panorama of thirty-six views painted by Wilson and throughout the year he was also chief scene-painter at both the Victoria and Prince of Wales theatres. The following June he left Sydney to take up a six-month engagement at Hokitika, New Zealand. When his contract was renewed, his wife and two children joined him from Sydney.
The family returned to Sydney after twelve months and by November 1869 Wilson had taken on an entrepreneurial role and re-opened the old Lyceum as the Adelphi; Alexander Habbe was one of his partners. In August 1870 they re-opened the Victoria, giving it a new act-drop with a central scene depicting Circular Quay. Wilson worked as a scene-painter at the new Theatre Royal from 1876, painting the scenery for Mrs Scott-Siddons’s season in 1878. The Sydney Morning Herald reported of her Midsummer Night’s Dream , 'No finer scenery has ever been produced upon any Colonial stage within our recollection’. His realistic ice effects in Uncle Tom’s Cabin led the audience to demand the appearance of the artist.
During the 1880s Wilson leased back the Opera House in Sydney and the Bijou in Melbourne. In December 1890 he opened the Garrick Theatre in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Although he had retired from theatrical management by 1903 he continued to prepare scenery for private theatricals, country town halls, schools of arts and the like. In April 1903, when interviewed by Old Times , Wilson recalled that in the early 1860s Sir John Young had commissioned him to paint scenery for private theatricals at Government House. He spoke of the difficulties of scenic artists in the days before electricity: 'In many cases, indeed, we had no gas, and had to be content with oil lamps. Flake white was then almost unknown in a theatre – we used whiting. Green lakes, carnation paste, and other such bright and expensive colours were out of the question. At Christmas time we might venture on half a pound of crimson lake, but it was a luxury. Stock scenes were often painted on backs in order to keep them as long as possible, a piece sometimes being put up at a day’s notice. I fancy few of the present day artists would care to paint an horizon over a number of battens and braces’.
Also an easel painter, Wilson won third prize for four seascapes at the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition. However, the seven oil paintings he submitted to the Art Society of New South Wales in 1894 were not hung, leading him to complain to the Sydney Morning Herald that he had 'never before had a picture rejected’. From 1892 Wilson held his own exhibitions of small landscape paintings at Roseville, his Dowling Street residence, the last in 1908. Like his scene-paintings, the subjects were both European and colonial: Australian coastal scenes, rural English landscapes and views in Venice and on the Thames. The Mitchell Library holds his oil Entrance to Sydney Harbour , painted on a cigar-box lid in 1892. A large collection of Wilson’s stage designs, watercolours, working drawings and notes, including watercolour proscenium cut-outs designed to be assembled into miniature stage sets, was offered by Sotheby’s at Sydney in November 1986. Included were studies for scenic backdrops of the Jenolan Caves which Wilson executed for the New South Wales government’s display in the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition at Dunedin in December 1889.
The last survivor of the Australian scenic artists of the 1850s (as Table Talk pointed out in 1901), Wilson died on 20 June 1909. His eldest son, Willie, who was to have pursued the same career, had died in 1893, aged thirty; his two surviving sons, Frank Hawthorne and Carden Wilson, were comic actors.