Serene Scenes

Hunter Artist Emlyn Dickson’s Stay at Maitland Gaol

With razor blade in hand, working on a small section, the heritage painter carefully removed the outer layers of paint on a column in the chapel at Maitland Gaol. It was 2005, and Gordon Sauber, the Gaol Museum’s Coordinator was curious to identify the room’s original colour scheme. Built in 1867-8, the chapel remained in use for compulsory religious services until about 1980.

As the painter scraped, small patches of blue and green appeared, exposing something remarkable. It was a mural of a serene lake pictured within a painted oval frame, wreathed with blue flowers and leaves. Three other murals of similar scenes were also uncovered, prompting museum staff to wonder who had painted them-almost certainly the same artist who completed the chapel’s three arched windows, painted to imitate stained glass.

Subsequent research has been undertaken on the painting, with signs pointing towards the work being by a local Hunter Region artist named Emlyn ‘Ernie’ Britton Dickson (1892-1951). While serving in World War 1, at both Gallipoli and on the Western Front, Dickson had made numerous watercolour sketches. On his return he worked as a sign writer and painted landscape murals, ceilings, and decorative glass panels in public buildings and private houses in Newcastle and Sydney. He also struggled with alcohol. In 1939, he spent a day in Maitland Gaol on a drunkenness charge. Perhaps his murals were inspired then?