Frederick McCubbin. Part 3 – The later years and The Pioneer

The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin (1904)
The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin (1904)

In my last two blogs I have looked at the life of the Australian painter, Frederick McCubbin.   I looked at how he started painting and how, in his twenties, he became an accomplished artist who had begun to exhibit some of his work.  I talked about the influence some of his tutors had on his art, such as Eugène von Guérard, Thomas Clark and George Folingsby and how he had been influenced by his contemporary artistic friends, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder.   However in this third and final blog about McCubbin I want to introduce you to another person who was to have such a great sway on his life and inspire him to even greater things. The person in question was Annie Lucy Moriarty who he had met in 1884 at an artist’s picnic which was being held in Blackburn, an eastern suburb of Melbourne. 

Annie Lucy Moriarty was ten years younger than McCubbin.  She was born in August 1865 in Melbourne but came from an Irish family who had immigrated to Australia from County Clare.  She was described as a striking young lady with long dark brown hair and soft smiling brown eyes.  However it was not just her exquisite looks that attracted McCubbin.  It was her intelligence, her vivaciousness and her “full of life” attitude which appealed to Frederick.  She was always very supportive of Frederick. She was frugal and had a great organisational skill, all of which would be qualities needed to support her artist husband and their large family.  Frederick and Annie courted for four years and at the end of their courtship, on March 5th 1889, they were married in the Jesuit church of St Ignatius, Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne.  McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Tom Roberts was the couple’s best man.  At the time of the wedding Frederick was thirty-four years old and Annie was twenty-four.  The happy couple would, during the next seventeen years, go on to have seven children, four boys, Louis Frederick, Alexander, Hugh Montgomery and John (Sydney) and three girls, Mary, Nora Sheila and Kathleen.  Mary sadly died a week before her third birthday when she fell out of her push chair and hit her head on the cobbled street.  The first-born child, Louis, named after his father’s friend and fellow artist,  Louis Abrahams, was born in March 1890 and became an artist in his own right and would later become Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and their last-born child was Kathleen who arrived in November 1906 when her father had reached the grand-old age of 50.  One can just imagine what a spirited household it was and an insight into the McCubbin happy family life was given by Frederick’s youngest daughter’s 1988 book Autumn Memories: A McCubbin Family Album, by Kathleen Mangan (née McCubbin).  In it she wrote:

“…The McCubbins were a lively and ebullient family, each one of them with their own distinct characters. Louis, the eldest, was ‘conscientious and good natured’, ‘the most responsible member of the family’. Alexander was ‘emotional and creative’, with dark complexion and hair. Hugh was ‘practical and serious’, while Sydney was ‘an inventor, with a head full of crazy ideas, who liked to laugh a lot’ and was called ‘Ginger’ because of his hair. Sheila was ‘sensitive, creative and kind hearted, an artist who did not always defend herself against the harshness of the world…”

Frederick and Annie were extremely happy and this was commented on by his friend Arthur Stretton in a letter, dated December 1896, to Tom Roberts in which he recalls a visit he made to the McCubbin’s New Street house in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton:

“…I walked over to the Proff McCubbin’s yesterday & had tea with him in his garden—Mrs Proff in a harmonious yellow gown—all the little Proffs buzzing round—the garden of fruit trees & the haystack—The Prof[f] is a married man very happily & securely married…”

“The Proff” was the nickname Frederick McCubbin had been given by his friends during his student days at the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, because of his frequent bouts of philosophising, while Tom Roberts was nicknamed ‘Bulldog’. 

On the Wallaby Track by Frederick McCubbin (1896)
On the Wallaby Track by Frederick McCubbin (1896)

Around this time McCubbin focused a lot of his work on people’s struggle for survival.  His paintings were both narrative and social realism works, which told of the struggle new immigrants, had in order to gain a foothold in society. 

Mother and Son - detail from On the Wallaby Track painting by McCubbin
Mother and Son – detail from On the Wallaby Track painting by McCubbin

One such painting was entitled On the Wallaby Track, which he completed in 1896.  Around this period in the history of Melbourne there was the only too familiar story of “boom and bust”.  By 1880 the population of the city was two hundred and eighty thousand.  Because of the vastness of the wilderness around the city, it was continually expanding outwards which meant that the area of the city made it one of the largest in the world.  Trains and trams criss-crossed the city.  Everybody wanted to live in this prosperous area and within ten years the population had almost doubled.  Speculators made their fortune on land deals and the banks were lending money out willy-nilly, some would say irresponsibly as if there was no tomorrow and as we have recently found to our own cost, the good life doesn’t last forever.  The Melbourne “boom” had to end and indeed it did in 1891 when a dramatic financial crash hit the economy.  Thousands of people who had invested unwisely lost their savings, businesses collapsed and throughout the 1890’s it was thought that the Melbourne unemployment was around 20%. 

The title of the painting derives from the term “on the wallaby” or “on the wallaby track” which fifty years earlier, referred to routes migrant workers took through outlying areas in search of seasonal work.  These were the underclass of society, who sought casual work on farms, travelling about on foot, carrying their swag, their bundle of personal belongings, on his back.  These were the swagmenWhen the financial crash hit Melbourne more and more people had lost their jobs and were searching for employment and it was not unusual to see the swagman “on the wallaby”.  In this painting we see a swagman brewing some tea in a billy can over an open fire.  His wife, with their baby, lies on the ground, propped up against a large tree.  She is exhausted after the long journey during which she had the added burden of having to carry their baby. 

The setting for the painting was the forest area close to the Melbourne suburb of Brighton where McCubbin and his family lived.   Of all the artists McCubbin studied, his favoured landscape painter and the one who influenced him the most was the French artist, John-Baptiste Corot and it is believed that there are traces of the Frenchman’s style in this painting.   Frederick’s wife, Annie, posed for the painting and the baby, who lies asleep across her legs, was Frederic’s son, John who had been born the same year as the painting was completed.  The swagman was modelled by Frederick’s brother-in-law, Michael Moriarty.

Down on his luck by Frederick McCubbin (1889)
Down on his luck by Frederick McCubbin (1889)

Another of McCubbin’s works I really like is one entitled Down on His Luck, which he completed in 1899.  The setting for the work was their Box Hill Artist’s camp and in the work we see a very despondent, down-on-his-luck gold prospector sitting by his camp fire.  McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Louis Abrahams posed for the painting.  The prospector sits on a fallen tree and stares into the fire.  His search for gold had proved fruitless and he is ready to “throw in the towel”. 

In Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw’s 1985 book Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond they quote an 1889 review of this work in which the art critic had written about the character we see before us:

The face tells of hardships, keen and blighting in their influence, but there is a nonchalant and slightly cynical expression, which proclaims the absence of all self-pity…”

The National Gallery of Victoria in its description of the painting believed that the work was of great cultural importance and they wrote:

“… For city workers, living and working in crowded, dirty conditions, McCubbin’s image of the prospector offered an alternative to the oppressive poverty experienced in the slums of Melbourne. Although the bushman is ‘down on his luck’, he has a certain nobility. He is his own man, independent of the demands of a ‘boss’, he breathes the fresh air of the bush and is free to make his own decisions…” 

The McCubbin family had moved about around the Melbourne suburbs.  They started married life in a rented property in Hawthorn.  As the family expanded there was a need to move to a larger house and so, at the end of 1893, with Annie pregnant for the fourth time, they moved to a larger rented place in Blackburn.  Shortly after the tragic death of their daughter Mary, the family moved to an even larger property in Brighton.   Annie McCubbin was taken ill with bronchitis in 1900 and this quickly deteriorated into pneumonia and it was on her doctor’s advice that Frederick, that summer, during the Christmas holiday break, took his wife and family away from the polluted atmosphere of Melbourne city life to a small town of Woodened, forty miles north west of Melbourne, where they rented a cottage for a few weeks.  Here his wife was able to reap the benefit of the clearer, cleaner air of the Mount Macedon area.

One day, whilst the couple relaxed and explored the area near to the summit of Mount Macedon, they came across an idyllic old-fashioned cottage with its red gabled roof and attic windows, which at the time was known as “Dillon’s Summer Residence”.  They fell in love with it and its four acres of land and before the end of 1901 they had bought it for five hundred pounds.  For them, this was a dream come true and, from that day on, they lovingly referred to their first owned home as Fontainebleau.  The one problem they had with this purchase was that it was too far for Frederick to commute by train on a daily basis to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where he was Master of the School of Design, and so he spent weekends and holidays at Fontainebleau but during the week he went to live at The Rose of Australia hotel which was being managed by his mother and his two sisters Wilhelmina and Helen. 

Above Fontainebleau in the bush land of Mount Macedon, there was the estate of Ard Choille, (Gaelic words meaning high wood), which was also the war cry of the 16th century Clan McGregor.  It was here that his neighbour William Peter McGregor had built his Ard Choille estate, which was laid out like one of the great estates of Scotland, with its man-made lakes trout amd salmon hatcheries.  McGregor had raised deer, pigs and goats as well as importing the finest highland bulls from Scotland and to look after all this he had a number of cottages built for his workers.  Frederick McCubbin loved the setting of his new home and the surrounding area and it was here in 1904, on the bush lands of Mount Macedon, just a little above his home that he produced one of his greatest works, The PioneerMcCubbin painted the work en plein air.   The setting for the work is a view of land, Ard Choille thatwas once owned by William Peter McGregor, who died in 1899. 

Left-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin
Left-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin

The man in the left hand panel of the work, presumably the husband of the lady in the foreground, is making some tea on the open fire.  Behind him we see the covered wagon that the couple have travelled in during their search for their piece of land.  The decision has now been made.  This is their land.  In the foreground, the wife sits on the ground.  She is lost in thought.  I wonder if she is contemplating their move.  Has she some reservations about moving to this unconquered God-forsaken territory?  Is she worried about the isolation?  Frederick’s wife Annie, who was thirty-nine at the time, was the model for the wife in the painting and Patrick Watson, a local gardener was the model for the husband.  The baby in the painting was Frederick and Annie’s fifth child John (Sydney) who had been born in June 1896, the year that the painting was completed. 

Middle panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin
Middle panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin

In the middle panel of the triptych, the setting is still the forest area of the bush but instead of the covered wagon in the background we now have a small whitewash cottage with smoke emanating from the chimney.  The scene is a step forward in time for the two intrepid colonists.  They have staked their claim on the land and built themselves a cottage. The cottage in the painting was one which was actually on McCubbin’s neighbour’s property.  It was the cottage which belonged to McGregor’s manager, who looked after the estate’s prize bulls.  Although we have jumped ahead in time, the three characters we see in this middle panel are the same ones who featured in the left hand panel – the free selector, his wife and son.  The free selectorin this painting was modelled by James Edward, a professional commercial artist, who was known to McCubbin.   He is sitting on a tree, which he has just felled, and the area seems more open, highlighting the clearance work the free selector had accomplished.  Annie McCubbin once again modelled for the free selector’s wife and as a sign of the passage of time, the baby we saw in the left hand panel has now grown to a young boy which we see her holding.  The boy was modelled by Jimmy Watson, the nephew of Patrick Watson who posed for the husband in the left-hand panel.  The wife in this middle section seems more relaxed and maybe all her worries she had when we saw her in the lefthand panel have now proved to be unfounded.  There is a very relaxed and contented aura about the depiction seen in this middle panel.  The couple had come to the bush, seen it and conquered it. 

Right-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin
Right-hand panel of The Pioneer by McCubbin

The right hand panel of the triptych is more of a mystery.  Time once gain has passed since the depiction in the middle panel.  In this painting there is just a solitary figure kneeling before a wooden cross in the ground.  Patrick Watson once again modelled for this figure.  It seems as if he is touching it lovingly.  McCubbin would never explain the meaning of this last panel so it is up to us to form our own ideas.  Could it be the son we saw being cradled by his mother in the first two panels returning to his mother’s or father’s grave or it could it be earlier in time and it is the free selector we saw in the other panels come to pay his respects to his late wife.   All we do know is that a lot of time has passed since the depiction in the middle panel for where there was once a solitary cottage in the background, there is now a vista of a city to be seen through the trees.  The minute cityscape had not been in the original work when it was exhibited in his one-man show in 1904.  The painting did not sell and McCubbin’s friend, Walter Withers suggested to McCubbin that if he painted a view of Melbourne in the background of the right-hand panel then it may find a buyer.  

Melbourne - detail from McCubbin's painting The Pioneer
Melbourne – detail from McCubbin’s painting The Pioneer

McCubbin added the view of Melbourne and, sure enough, the painting sold.  The buyer was the National Gallery of Victoria.  The fascinating fact for me about this work is that to paint it outdoors, McCubbin had to dig a trench in his garden, into which he lowered the huge canvas. 

In May 1907, a year after his last child, Kathleen, was born, McCubbin set off on a trip to England where it gave him a chance to be reunited with his brother James.  James, who was a ship’s purser, was killed eight years later in May 1915 whilst serving on the passenger liner, S.S.Lusitania, when it was torpedoed by German U-Boats.  Frederick also met up with his artist friend Tom Roberts who was based in London and the two of them toured the city’s art galleries.  McCubbin was impressed with what he saw, especially the works of Turner which would influence his later works.  He returned home in November.  A month after returning to Melbourne, whilst still retaining their family home of Fontainebleau, he rented Carlesberg, a colonial-style house in South Yarra which had a vast garden which culminated at the banks of the Yarra River.

The lime tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra) by Frederick McCubbin (1917)
The lime tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra) by Frederick McCubbin (1917)

McCubbin continued to paint either at his home in South Yarra or at Fontainebleau as well as retaining his position as Drawing Master at Melbourne’s National Gallery.  However at the end of 1916 his health began to fail, due to frequent asthmatic attacks and he had to take a six month leave of absence from the Gallery.   This bout of ill health did not stop him painting and his last paintings which he completed in 1917 was The Lime Tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra).  Kathleen McCubbin wrote about the painting and the setting for the work.  She wrote:

“…I always remember the name of this work as The Lime Tree and it really has a lot of sentimental value for me because it was painted from the side verandah of our house in South Yarra, overlooking the quarry. That has all disappeared now. In those times there were quarries beside the Yarra and an old stone crusher in Richmond, opposite our place. This particular painting is also of very great sentimental value for me because it was the last painting my father ever painted and it was not long after its completion that he died...”

In Andrew Mackenzie’s 1990 biography of McCubbin, entitled Frederick McCubbin 1855-1917: ‘The Proff’ and his art, he quotes Kathleen Mangan (née McCubbin) reminiscences:

“…I remember coming home from school and I used to walk up Rockley Road with school friends and take the short cut across to our place, across the paddocks. I would see my father sitting on the verandah in his dressing-gown and black velvet beret, which he always put on when he went outside at that stage of his life, and he would be painting this picture of The Lime Tree. He was really in very poor health at that time, but he persisted and he kept on painting it until it was finished. This was the last painting he ever painted, and it was sold. I remember it being sold to Thomas Lothian, the publisher, but then he sold it and I lost track of it…”

Frederick McCubbin died on December 20th 1917 of a heart attack, thought to have been brought on by his frequent asthmatic attacks and pneumonia.  He was just 62 years of age.  Frederick’s wife of twenty-eight years, Annie, was devastated at her loss and their daughter Kathleen remembered her mother during that sad time and wrote:

“…She was pale and listless and sat around for a good part of the day, just staring into space. She was truly lost without him…”

I hope you have enjoyed my last three blogs charting the life of this great Australian artist and that I have somehow enticed you to visit the Australia exhibition at London’s Royal Academy where you will be able to stand before the amazing painting, The Pioneer.

I have used many sources to put these blogs together but the two main ones which give you a much fuller look at McCubbin’s life were:

Artist’s Footsteps:


Happy beyond Life by Anne Gray: