The_ Australasian Photo-Review _of August 22 1898 noted that W Lister Lister had opened the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of New South Wales. He affirmed his belief in the beauty and importance of photography and was thinking of taking the medium up himself. He seems not to have done so.
William Lister Lister was born in Manly, Sydney, on 27 December 1859. His English born parents, John Armitage Lister and Eliza Kirkby née Bateson, had first settled in NSW in 1854 but after the death of William’s paternal grandfather the family returned to England in 1868. Lister was educated at Bedford School in the southern English Midlands, and under the influence of Mr Rudge, the art master, began to sketch and paint. Lister left Bedford School and completed his education at Pont Sainte-Maxence, north of Paris. While this is the commonly accepted view of his early education, art historian William Moore, in his 1934 Story of Australian Art [volume II, p 195] states that Lister was taught at Bedford School of Art and completed his art education in France. It seems that Moore incorrectly assumed that Bedford School was an art institution. While in France, Lister began sending works to art dealers in London and by the age of 17 the artist claimed to have exhibited three watercolours at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. Lister’s parents were not supportive of his wish to become an artist, and persuaded him to enrol in a mechanical engineering course in Glasgow, Scotland. During his time in Glasgow he joined the St. Mungo Art Club. After four years studying engineering and art in Glasgow, Lister spent two years working at sea, and by his mid twenties he had reached the position of Chief Engineer.
After travelling the world, Lister abandoned his maritime engineering career in the mid 1880s and became a professional artist based in southern England. By 1888 Lister had returned to the city of his birth, and begun sharing a studio with fellow artist Percy Spence. His documented early Australian period images were mainly watercolours with English themes, but by the mid 1890s his work was dominated by watercolours and oil views of Sydney and regional NSW. Soon after arriving in Sydney, Lister became an art teacher and one of his first pupils was the 13 year old Margaret McPherson (Margaret Preston). Lister saw the latent talent in his young pupil and encouraged her mother to persevere with her art education after her move to Melbourne. The teenage artist was certainly impressed by Lister and in later life she remembered him as a 'very nice-looking, charming young man.’ [E. Butel, Margaret Preston, Penguin 1985, p 7] Lister’s first major sale was The Ever Restless Sea which sold for £150 at the 1892 Art Society annual exhibition. Despite attempts at changing his technical approach to Australian landscape, his works remained more subdued than other local landscapers and can be compared with the Melbourne based artist John Mather. Seascapes were a popular subject in the late nineteenth century and most of the artist’s work included water scenes. Lister was a great advocate of plein air painting and according to a 1905 profile, by fellow artist D.H. Souter, all his small works were 'begun and finished in situ, and many of his larger canvases completed in the open air’. [Art & Architecture, Jan/Feb 1905, p 27]
Soon after arriving in Sydney, Lister joined the Art Society of NSW then under the leadership of Julian Ashton. By 1889 he was a member of their Council and within six years was the vice-president. 1895 was a difficult time for the Art Society which saw a split between professional and amateur artists over voting rights which led to the formation of the rival Society of Artists, whose members included Julian Ashton, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. Lister was elected president of the Art Society in 1897, a role he would hold until 1941. As president, Lister helped the Art Society reunite with the Society of Arts in 1901 and it is to his credit that he was reappointed to the leading position in the reunited Society. In 1903 the Art Society was awarded a Royal Charter (perhaps a reward for amalgamation) making it formally known as the Royal Art Society of NSW (RAS). Lister also steered the organisation through the second permanent split in the Society which led to the re-establishment of the rival Society of Artists in 1907. Lister was appointed as a lifetime trustee on the board of the then National Art Gallery of NSW in 1899. The artist married a divorcee, Bessie Enid Wilkinson-Waldron at Woollahra, Sydney, in 1899, and the couple moved to Mosman, on Sydney’s North Shore. The Lister’s home on Redan Street, Mosman was positioned on an elevated site with fine easterly views of Middle Harbour and Manly’s imposing North Head. Some of the artist’s works were painted in Mosman and the surrounding area. Other popular painting spots included Sydney’s northern beaches, the Hawkesbury River, the Hunter Valley, the Central Tablelands and the south coast of NSW.
Arguably, the most successful period in the artist’s long career was from the late 1890s to the end of World War I. In 1898 the artist won the Wynne Prize for with a Hawkesbury River landscape subject, The Last Gleam. Lister went on to win the Wynne prize seven times. His 1906 winner, The Golden Splendour of the Bush, a large low-light portrait of gum trees, remains his best known work. Lister’s skill as a representational painter saw him chosen as the 1913 winner of the Australian Government’s competition to paint a topographical view of the future national capital at Canberra. Every year Lister entered several oil and watercolour works in the RAS annual exhibition including at least one large canvas image. Lister’s reputation as a painter of gallery sized works was mentioned by Julian Ashton in a review of the 1912 Royal Art Society spring exhibition, published in the Sydney Mail:
'Mr. Lister-Lister president of the society again has the largest picture in the show. The public expects it; therefore he paints it.’
From the time of the outbreak of World War I up to the beginning of World War II, Lister began his long association with Anthony Hordern’s department store gallery. Around March or April each year the artist held a solo exhibition at the large gallery. Being the president of the Royal Art Society and a gallery trustee, these exhibitions were often opened by vice-regal representatives or prominent members of the art world. These exhibitions were almost always covered by the local Sydney newspapers although the specialist art press, which was mainly controlled by the Society of Artists president Sydney Ure Smith, largely ignored Lister’s work. The artist’s exhibitions were generally well received up to the early 1930s but with changes in taste his work began to garner criticism, as in this Sydney Morning Herald review (2 April 1936, p 6) of his 1936 annual exhibition:
'Each year, as regularly as Easter, Mr. W. Lister-Lister’s art show comes around. For some time now, Anthony Horderns’ Gallery has been the locale. There the public may see 48 examples of oils and water-colour of the kind which in earlier times, made Mr. Lister-Lister well known in the art world, and finally raised him to the eminence of president of the Royal Art Society. The wheel of taste has spun; and the faithful artist’s offerings no longer look so vivid or original as they once did. But visitors who take the trouble to examine these pictures closely will find a number of excellences behind a sober, rather unvaried exterior.’
In the late 1930s there was a successful attempt by Prime Minister Robert Menzies to create an Australian Academy of Arts similar to the Royal Academy of Arts in England. Lister resigned from the Sydney provisional committee believing that the proposed list of foundation 'Academicians’ (which initially did not include his name) were dominated by members of the rival Society of Artists. In April 1941 Lister held his final solo exhibition at Anthony Horderns’ Art Gallery and later the same year he retired as president of the Royal Art Society, a position he had held since 1897. Despite his retirement Lister continued in the role of gallery trustee, faithfully defending the interests of the RAS and representational art at a time when Modernism was emerging as a mainstream movement in Australia.
While Lister’s work is in several national collections, he did not actively exhibit interstate and is therefore little known outside the city of his birth. His early success as a painter reflected the popular taste for Barbizon-influenced rural idylls and seascapes which were popular in Australian and British art during the late nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century. The 83 year old artist was killed on Saturday 6 November 1943 after being fatally injured by a taxi in Mosman. He was survived by his daughter Muriel and step-daughters Marjorie and Gladys, his wife having predeceased him in 1935. Several years after his death, the National Art Gallery of NSW held a memorial exhibition of his work in September 1946. Titled the 'Lister Lister Memorial Exhibition’ the show included 55 works by the artist. While the show was not a true retrospective, the hang included eight paintings from the host gallery’s collection.