27th November 1911, a son was born in Elsternwick, Melbourne to Annie (née Montgomery) and James Cant (mining engineer). He was their only child and inherited both his parents’ names. The family moved to Sydney when James was two years old – and his father died when James was only six.
James’ Early Studies
As a child, James went to several schools. This included two short terms at the Sydney Grammar School. He also studied art at a Saturday morning class under Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. Later, he studied at the East Sydney Technical College and at the Sydney Art School under Julian Ashton, a well-known artist and illustrator who had emigrated from London – perhaps to escape the damp climate since he suffered from asthma.
Exploring new ideas in London
Then, in 1934, James himself travelled to London. Here, he connected with Roi de Maistre, who had also studied at Julian Ashton’s school of art in Sydney. Roi de Maistre introduced the young man to London’s stimulating modern art scene.
And it was here in London that James created some of his most interesting artworks.
Between 1935-39, he painted “Still Life” and “The Merchants of Death”, where his interest in the late cubist styles of Picasso and Braque are evident. In 1939, his surrealistic and strangely powerful painting “The Deserted City” was created.
His most avant-guard works were sculptors and assemblages – “Found Objects” and “Constructed Objects”, exhibited in London in 1937 and 1938. We have photographs of some of his work of this period. His ”Surrealistic Hand” did survive. He also had exhibitions with Paul Klee, Max Ernst and de Chirico.
James also went across to France and Spain (in a time of some turmoil just before the second world war, where he met Picasso, Braque, Magritte (who was an influence on his surrealistic work), and other artists.
James returns to Australia
Just after war broke out, Cant returned to Sydney in October 1939.
He enlisted in the Royal Australian Engineers in New South Wales and Queensland, where he was involved in designing camouflage. The British camouflage, while excellent in Europe, was not ideal for the Australian landscape. In Australia, the colours are more clearly visible at a distance and the shadows much darker – and it was the shadows which typically guided the aircraft. So the camouflage needed a new look so as not to be seen.
James was discharged on 18 May 1944, having risen to warrant officer rank. During this time, he married Noeline Woodard. But divorced her three years later.
After the war years
James felt the need for a change in direction. He needed a break for the chaos of world events and the strange surrealistic world. He became interested in a more realistic and humanist metier. At this time, James gained inspiration from Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Orozco, although he remained a surrealist in his heart.
His second marriage and social realistic works
He, with others, established the Studio of Realist Art in 1945. His social realist works for this time include “The Lunch Hour” – and appropriately “The Bomb”. He married for the second time to another artist, Dora Cecil Chapman, and the two of them joined the Communist Party of Australia.
Oenpelly Influence and a trip to London
James was now painting the dry, austere Australian landscapes – and naturally was influenced by the art of the Aborigines. He even created some reconstructions of Oenpelly rock art at the suggestion of Charles Mountford. Oenpelli, in the northern territories is the site of cave art and bark art depicting elongated human figures and animals. In 1949, James and Dora took some of these paintings to London to show. They stayed there for the next five years.
He designed fabrics for Silk and Textile Printers Limited. The “Orcades” passenger liner, which plied between Britain and Australia and New Zealand, used his fabrics.
Here, in Britain, James was influenced by the paintings of Lowry, with their multitude of small people, dark on light backgrounds. James was able to make his pictures of street scenes and industry glow by using a wax-encaustic technique. This involves heating beeswax and adding coloured pigments The liquid or paste is then applied to a surface—usually prepared wood or canvas. Although beeswax is usually used, there are many variations available.
They return to Adelaide
The couple returned to Adelaide in 1955, then moved up to Sydney before finally settling in Adelaide, where Dora taught at the South Australian School of Art. Indeed, it was Dora who supported them financially for the most part. Once again, the grey British scenes were replaced by sunny Australian scenes, highly textured. James produced some fine close-ups of brush and grasses like “The Bird in the Bush”, and “Dry Grass”, These were exhibited around Australia with some success.
Cost of his works
While the highest price paid for one of James’s painting was A$24,000 and an average value would be around A$1,017. And for a print or graphic, around A$805.
His final years
James developed multiple sclerosis in the 1960s. Despite this, he did produce some tree scapes but by the early 1970s, work became impossible for him and he died in 1982 at Fullarton. Dora survived him but they had no children. He was buried in Willunga cemetery.
In 1984, the Art Gallery of South Australia held an exhibition of his work and there are examples to be found in the National Gallery of Australia and other State galleries.
James Montgomery Cant seems to have travelled around picking up ideas from other artists and designs which reflected the times and the places where he lived. These ranged from the rather drab English industrial scenes to the much warmer Australian landscapes and the incorporation of Australian Rock Art, as well as the surrealistic and cubism, showed a versatility which makes his paintings, sculptures and fabric designs interesting and is a reflection on the times in which he lived and travelled.