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Dunedin's Buried History

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John Irvine c1805 - 22 June 1888

Although John Irvine was already 58 years old when he came to Dunedin in 1863, he played an important part in establishing the English portrait tradition here. He was born in the Shetland Islands to a mother of farming stock and a merchant father who died when Irvine was still a child. Nevertheless he was able to attend the Royal Academy Schools in London from 1826 to 1828.

Irvine was quite successful professional artist: he was elected as an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1834 and enjoyed good reviews of his work in the newspapers of the time. He married Jessie Leisk on 13 September 1836 at Hillswick and had one child before they immigrated to Melbourne in 1859. They may have made this move in order to escape the stigma of mental illness, as their son William was confined to the Dunedin Asylum from 1863 onwards.

Irvine produced domestic portraits with warm glowing colours and formal portraits of the more prominent early settlers and founding fathers of Dunedin such as Captain William Cargill and Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns. He also regularly sent his work back home for exhibition and exhibited in the 1865 New Zealand Industrial exhibition. In 1876, he was the first elected president of the newly formed Otago Art Society where he chaired meetings, helped to organise exhibitions, was on the selection committee and exhibited regularly there from 1876 until 1883.

Simone Lehr

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