Born in Islington, London, the son of a Swedish father and English mother, the 'artist was within him' and he was wholly self-taught. Listed by Marriott as a daring yachtsman and St Ives artist, responsible for the concoction of Swedish punch, a mystic ceremony, for the New Year celebrations at the Arts Club where they met every Saturday night. He did more than any other painter to stamp St Ives as a British outpost of impressionism. He ran the Cornish School of Landscape, Figure and Sea Painting in St Ives, first with Louis GRIER and subsequently with Algernon Mayow TALMAGE.
In 1887 at the Nineteenth Century Art Society, which kept a small gallery at Dudley, West Yorkshire, 'Mr J Olsson shows a distinct poetic feeling in his treatment of March Twilight: Newlyn, Cornwall.' [AJ, 1887, p413]. This would seem to indicate that he had been in Cornwall earlier than was previously thought (at the age of 22-23 rather than 26 as previously listed for his arrival in Cornwall).
He and his wife, Kathleen (also an artist) designed and built their own home, St Eia, which contained many Arts & Crafts features (later an hotel). Students included Reginald Guy KORTRIGHT Emily CARR, Mary McCROSSAN and John Anthony PARK amongst many others. His influence as a teacher spread over a generation or more of young painters from Britain and overseas. He resided at St Ives for two decades until 1912, when he returned to London and shortly thereafter was elected an Associate of the RA. Olsson cruised with his yacht most summers.
The Studio commented: 'He knows the way from the Scillies to the Isle of Wight as most men know their way to the nearest railway station.' His work was in the late impressionist style of Henry MOORE. At the 1895 NAG Opening, Olsson exhibited two paintings, the largest Astray (a flock of sheep wandering over yellow towans), and the second, a seascape. His first sale of a painting at Newlyn was in 1897 and he exhibited regularly thereafter, selling Moonrise (1902), Off the Needles (1904) Summer Calm (1910). Other titles included Dunluce Castle, Gale Subsiding, A Moonlit Shore (1911, oils). Tovey describes well how immensely Olsson contributed to many aspects of creative and social life in St Ives, and how he remained supportive and connected to the art colony for the rest of his life. His old studio, the vast Number 5, Porthmeor Studios became STISA's first dedicated gallery space.
Olsson died of cardiac failure at St Heliers, Dalkey, Co Dublin in Ireland while on a visit to his sister-in-law's home. (Birth and death certificates/Bednar files)