James Brown, New Zealand's first caricaturist, was born in Scotland, and baptised at Linlithgow, West Lothian, on 10 October 1819. He was the son of James Brown, a calico printer, and his wife, Mary Campbell, and was brought up at Milngavie, Dumbartonshire, where he was apprenticed as a calico printer. He later became a designer for a Manchester textile firm, and married the owner's niece, Ann Newbegin, at Manchester on 30 May 1849; they were to have eight children. His reasons for emigrating to Otago are not known, but they may have included financial hardship or the social difficulties arising from marriage across class boundaries.
James and Ann Brown arrived at Port Chalmers on the Larkins in September 1849. Officially listed as a house painter, James Brown began to learn engraving, possibly in association with his friend Henry Graham, owner-editor of the region's first, and at the time, only newspaper, the Otago News. The superintendent of Otago, Captain William Cargill, engineered the collapse of this paper, and replaced it with the Otago Witness in 1851. Throughout the 1850s its crest used an engraved design by Brown. The 48 drawings on which his reputation depends belong to the same period; their content shows he rapidly caught the spirit of dissent among certain factions with respect to Cargill's settlement policy. None were published in Brown's lifetime, though small lithographed versions of six appeared, two years after his death, in James Barr's The old identities. Almost certainly Brown's drawings were done either as a hobby to amuse his wide circle of friends, or in the fond hope that eventually caricature would catch on as a natural adjunct of a free and civilised press.
After 1860 Brown began to emerge as a man of means. He is recorded for the first time as engraver at the baptism of his sixth child; advertised his engraving business; commenced tutoring in drawing; became an officebearer at First Church; and moved from a small house in Clyde Street to a more substantial one on what used to be the corner of London and Albert streets.
He also began an association with the short-lived, Dunedin based magazine Punch, or the New Zealand Charivari, although it is only the cover design of eight consecutive issues in 1868, and three cartoons, which bear his initials. It was not unusual, however, for cartoonists to work anonymously, especially when their identity was common knowledge, as Brown's evidently was.
As an artist Brown impresses as an averagely gifted draughtsman, who remained self-taught apart from the rudiments he would have received during apprenticeship. The weaknesses of his serviceable but rather lacklustre style are amply made up for by wit, sharp political insight, the accuracy of his likenesses, and his adroit handling of the international iconographic conventions of eighteenth and nineteenth century caricature. As a visual commentator on the Gilbertian world of early settler politics he is without parallel.
Brown died of heart disease at Dunedin on 12 September 1877, leaving an estate valued at almost £3,000. The obituary described him as 'beloved by all who knew him – a man of distinct idiosyncrasies, of simple habits, warm affections, earnest sympathies, unobtrusive and self-depreciative.'