The well-known Australian watercolour artist Jesse Jewhurst Hilder (1881-1916) was born in Toowoomba, Queensland. On joining the Bank of New South Wales he worked at Goulburn (from February 1901) and then Bega (June 1902) where he sold his first paintings. Following his transfer to Sydney in April 1904, Hilder studied art under Julian Ashton’s late afternoon classes.
JJ Hilder first exhibited at the Society of Artists, Sydney, in 1907 where his work made quite a sensation. In 1906 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and, following his marriage to Phyllis Meadmore in April 1909, he became a full-time professional artist. The couple moved frequently seeking a more suitable climate for Jesse, but despite his emerging fame as an artist, he suffered increasing bouts of illness. JJ Hilder died of pulmonary tuberculosis at Inglewood on 10 April 1916 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.1
He was survived by his wife and two sons. Phyllis Hilder resumed the training she had abandoned at her marriage and qualified as a nurse. By the mid-1920s the family had moved to the suburb Castlecrag on Middle Harbour. Over the subsequent decades the family played a prominent role in the artistic and community life of Castlecrag and the wider Sydney region. Phyllis became passionate about the surrounding bushland at Castlecrag, taking groups on bush walks and establishing a wildflower garden in her front garden.2
Vernon Arthur (‘Bim’) Hilder (1909-1990) became a leading Australian sculptor, printmaker and painter who was active during the middle decades of the twentieth century. He left school at the age of 15 and enrolled in a five-year commercial art course at East Sydney Technical College, but after a year he accepted a job with a builder. Walter Burley Griffin soon offered him a job as a carpenter constructing his houses in Castlecrag, an experience that enabled him to observe and embrace many of the architect’s design principles. Bim studied etching under Sydney Long in 1928 and showed his works with the Australian Painter-Etcher’s Society in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
When Bim asked Griffin to design a house for Phyllis, the key stipulation was that it should have sufficient wall spacing to hang her husband’s paintings. Griffin ignored this request and designed a house with open windows, an action that provoked a rift between the families. Phyllis purchased three adjoining blocks of land on the northern side of Edinburgh Road and in 1929 Bim designed a stone residence, Wildflower, to meet his mother’s needs.3
Bim married fellow artist in Roma Hopkinson in 1934 and she became a generous and productive community worker in Castlecrag. He designed and built a stone house at 177 Edinburgh Road for his family and played a leading role in the construction of The Haven Amphitheatre, which was also completed in 1934. He built two other houses in Castlecrag, including one for his brother Brett and his wife Tilly.4
During World War II, Bim worked as a camouflage artist, and then around 1950 he turned his attention to sculpture work. He became an inaugural member of the Society of Sculptors & Associates in 1951 and served twice as president. A major breakthrough came in 1962 when he won the competition to design a ‘wall enrichment’ sculpture for the new Reserve Bank building in Martin Place, Sydney. This work and his 1965 Griffin Memorial Fountain sculpture in Castlecrag are his best-known public art works.
Bim commenced teaching sculpture in 1962, initially at the East Sydney Technical College, and then at the University of NSW. In 1976 he had a one-man sculpture exhibition at the David Jones Gallery with 19 works priced between $150 and $1700. He was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBA) for his services to art in 1978.5
Brett Hilder (1911-1981) was born at Epping as the second son of JJ and Phyllis Hilder. He moved to Castlecrag with his mother and brother the mid-1920s and in 1927 he joined the Australian trading company Burns Philp as a sailor. His journeys took him to the Dutch East Indies, where he met his Dutch wife Mathilda (‘Tilly’), and the South Pacific. He became a ship’s master in the next decade and during World War II he taught navigation to Australian air crews and later flew Catalina flying boats for the RAAF.6
Brett Hilder started painting and drawing during the war, producing watercolour landscapes and portraits of the people and places he visited. After the war he resumed his position as a Burns Philp sea captain and often took small groups of artist friends with him on journeys to the New Hebrides and Solomon Islands, where they would paint and draw while the ship was being loaded at isolated plantations and islands.7
Hilder wrote extensively on navigation and his travels for magazines such as Walkabout and he published three books, Navigator in the South Seas (Percival Marshall, 1961), The Heritage of JJ Hilder (Ure Smith 1966) and The Voyage of Torres (Univ of Qld Press, 1980). Brett and Tilly’s son Julius Wilfred (‘Wilf’) Hilder (1934-2011) took on his grandmother’s passion for the unique landscape and flora of the local bush and became a bush walking trail-blazer in NSW. He became a knowledgeable leader and president of several bushwalking clubs and wrote articles and booklets for these groups that detailed hundreds of walks.8
Wilf had a special interest in the achievements of Walter and Marion Griffin in Castlecrag and was an active member of the Walter Burley Griffin Society and a regular participants in its events.
1 Smith, Bernard, ‘Hilder, Jesse Jewhurst (1881-1916)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 9, 1983, Melbourne University Press.
2 Beatrice Hilder-Yell, ‘Obituary Wilf Hilder’, October 2011.
3 Spathopoulis, Wanda, The Crag: Castlecrag 1924-1938, Blackheath, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007, pp 260-261.
4 The Crag, No. 70, June/July 1990, ‘President’s Report’, p. 1; No. 147, April 2001, p. 4.
5 Clifford-Smith, Silas, ‘Bim Hilder’, Dictionary of Australian Artists Online. With correction by Peter Pinson, April 2013.
6 Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, p 192;
7 Interview EA Harvey at 9 The Battlement, Castlecrag, 21 October 1986
8 Beatrice Hilder-Yell, ‘Obituary Wilf Hilder’, October 2011