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John (Jules) Billington (1900 – 1972)

Untitled (probably “Secret Garden”), 1941, tempera and mixed media on panel, 20 x 36 inches, signed and dated lower right, partial exhibition label verso; probably exhibited at the San Diego Watercolor Trends Exhibition and the Los Angeles County Museum, 1941 (see Watercolor Trend Show at San Diego, The Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1941 “Secret Garden, a romantic moonlight picture by Jules Billington of Whittier, which recently took a Los Angeles County Museum prize, here won the special $50 award.”)


About the Painting

John Jules Billington’s Untitled (probably Secret Garden) is a wonderful example of the creativity and unique vision that California artists explored during the period between the world wars. Being far away from the traditional American art centers of New York, Philadelphia and Boston allowed many California painters to develop unique modernist approaches. As The Los Angeles Times art critic, Arthur Miller noted approvingly in 1939, Billington’s work could be “bizarre.” Like his southern California contemporary Edward Biberman, Billington blends traditional American Scene subject matter, in this case a rural California farm, with a riotous palette of pinks, greens and blues. Billington also employs a purposefully naïve approach to drawing which simplifies his forms down to their essence. Untitled (Secret Garden) is related to Billington’s 1940 Men Dreaming (pictured below) which was exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition and is now in the collection of The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University in Orange California. The two paintings share the same theme of a romantic, idealized notion of rural California farm life, as well as a similar approach to drafting and coloration. And both are dreamscapes which tie the works to the broader magic realist aesthetic which was emerging in pockets around the country. Based on its date, the partial exhibition label and the description from The Los Angeles Times, this untitled work is likely Billington’s Secret Garden which was exhibited at the San Diego Watercolor Trends Show and Los Angeles County Museum in 1941, where it was a prize-winning entry.

About the Artist

John (Jules) Billington was one of the most unique and visionary artists working in Southern California during the Depression Era. His compositions often combined American Scene subject matter with a bold and vibrant palette which often resulted in strikingly modernist, sometimes magic realist works. Born in Meadville, Missouri on Feb. 17, 1900, Billington studied at the University of Missouri, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Students League in New York City. He worked as an instructor at the Grand Central School of Art. By the 1930s he had settled in Whittier, California, and in the 1940s was a technical illustrator at Lockheed Aircraft. He exhibited widely during the 1930s and 1940s including at the California Watercolor Society, 1938-47; Laguna Beach Art Association, 1938 (prize); San Francisco Art Association, 1939-42; Palos Verde Community Arts Association, 1940 (honorable mention); Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1940; New York World's Fair, 1939; American Artists Congress, 1940 (prize); Riverside Museum, 1940; Art Institute of Chicago (1940); San Diego Fine Arts Society, 1941 (prize); Los Angeles County Art Museum (1941) (prize); Douglas Aircraft Company, 1943 (prize). In 1939, Los Angeles Times art critic, Arthur Miller, favorably reviewed Billington’s work entered at the 19th Annual Exhibition of the California Watercolor Society at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“Others whose work this reviewer especially relished are . . . Jules L. Billington (bizarre but certainly gives you the flaming sun heat on the beach.”)) Billington died in Los Angeles on January 12, 1972. Billington is listed in Who was Who in American Art and other standard references.

(shown in original decorated frame by the artist)

(Men Dreaming, 1940, oil and tempera on panel, 38 x 22 ½ inches, signed and dated lower right; Exhibited: 1) Exhibition of Work by California ArtistsGolden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, California, from May 25 through September 29, 1940 (label verso and listed in catalog); and 2) National Art Week, c. 1940s, unknown location and date (label verso), collection of The Hilbert Museum of California Art, Chapman University, Orange, California (acquired from CW American Modernism LLC in 2022) - not offered for sale)


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