Jessie Traill?s ''Afternoon in Collins Street 1911''.

Jessie Traill's ''Afternoon in Collins Street 1911''.

STARS IN THE RIVER: THE PRINTS OF JESSIE TRAILL

At the National Gallery of Australia. Closes June 23.

This exhibition makes a convincing claim that Jessie Traill was the finest etcher to emerge in Australia in the first half of the 20th century and a more challenging and interesting etcher than her male contemporaries Lionel Lindsay, Norman Lindsay or Sydney Long.

Jessie Traill's ''Good night in the gully where the white gums grow 1922''.

Jessie Traill's ''Good night in the gully where the white gums grow 1922''.

A theist and do-gooder with a strong social conscience, Traill did not get involved in art politics to the extent of her male counterparts, nor did she have the foul temper and huge ego of the prominent woodblock artist who was her exact contemporary in the Sydney art scene, Margaret Preston.

Traill was also a painter and watercolourist, but it was in her etchings that she made her most significant contribution.

Jessie C.A. Traill was born at Brighton, a bayside suburb of Melbourne, into a well-to-do family of a merchant banker in 1881.

She grew up in a cultured milieu for which overseas travel was frequent. Family friends included Tom Roberts and other artists associated with the Heidelberg School. As a woman, she was to lead a colourful and privileged life which allowed her to remain single and pursue her twin passions of travel and art.

In 1903, Traill joined John Mather's Austral Art School, where she was introduced to the techniques of etching within the general Whistlerian tradition, while already attending the National Gallery School, where she studied painting under McCubbin and Hall.

By 1906 she was back in Europe. There, the following year, she embarked on a study of etching with Frank Brangwyn in London and then in Belgium. Brangwyn's style, with its deeply bitten lines and rich plate tone, was having a significant impact on British printmaking in the opening decade of the 20th century.

After a brief and unsatisfactory experience of the Academie Colarossi in Paris, she returned to work with Brangwyn in London and was back in Melbourne in 1909.

In contrast with most of the etchings which were being produced in Australia, Traill's etchings were outstanding in scale, their dramatic sense of presence and their imagery.

Much of the Australian printmaking revival followed in the footsteps of Whistler and Haden, where the etchings were small, light, delicate and with a very precious and heightened quality of a personal touch. In England it was Brangwyn who most markedly challenged these conventions. His etchings were large, dark and dramatic, and to critics of the day seemed to ''violate the medium''.

While praised on the continent and internationally, Brangwyn's etchings attracted criticism at home in England. Similarly, Traill's work frequently did not find a receptive audience in Australia in the context of the Australian Painter-Etchers Society, while at the same time she was awarded medals internationally and included in prestigious exhibitions abroad.

Traill's etchings were primarily concerned with two themes, the Australian bush (often rendered with a note of environmental protest) and a celebration of contemporary industrial progress, as an expression of the spirit of nationalism within the context of Federation.

In some of her bush imagery, including the wonderfully lyrical Good night in the gully where the white gums grow, 1922, many of the ingredients of the Brangwyn manner have been brought together with the bold deeply bitten image, the use of a brown ink (Brangwyn printed with a combination of raw sienna, burnt sienna and French black) and the use of buff paper. This is an image of poetic resonance, in which the truncated saplings in the foreground lead into an area of dark and mysterious aquatint.

Almost in contrast to her bush imagery, Traill also embraced industrial progress, the building of bridges and grand building projects. Like Brangwyn, who has been called the ''master of scaffolding'', Traill was attracted to the raw building blocks of modern industrial society and her etchings dealing with building sites surrounded by scaffolding, the building of Victoria's Yallourn powerhouse, the testing of a turbine at the new Red Cliffs pumping station (an etching included in the exhibition of Australian Art in London in 1923) and the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge occur throughout her career.

The industrial imagery becomes more prevalent after her enforced break from art during the First World War, when she was preoccupied with her nursing duties in France. Traill's striking images of the building of the bridge consist of a suite of six etchings from the project's beginnings through to its near complete state in 1931.

Again her etchings find parallels with Brangwyn's prints. Traill in such etchings as Building the Harbour Bridge IV: The ant's progress, 1929, does not privilege the labourer, but rather explores the majesty of the whole concept with the bold abstracted masses shown silhouetted dramatically against a pale aquatint background.

Traill wrote about her experience of being allowed to view the construction from the top deck in 1929: ''What we see is a solid mass of concrete and intricate lacework of iron made more intricate by the play of light and shade; something that giants might play with as a child would with his Meccano Set…''

Traill's Sydney Harbour Bridge etchings subsume the complexity of the descriptive narrative into a boldness of design and created some of the most effective and memorable images ever made of the industrial project which captured the nationalist imagination of many Australian artists.

This is a great exhibition which reasserts the supremacy of Jessie Traill as one of the great Australian artists of the 20th century.