Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 1.

                          Hilda Rix Nicholas (circa 1910)

The other day, I was looking through a list of famous nineteenth and twentieth Australian artists.  The compiler of the list believed that the greatestAustralian painters were Sidney Nolan, Peter Booth, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Frederick McCubbin, and John Olsen. I had heard of a number of these but what surprised me about the list was that it contained no female artists and so I decided to focus this blog on one such painter.

                                   Henry Finch Rix

Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas was born on September 1st 1884, in the Australian city of Ballarat, some twenty-five miles north west of Melbourne.  Her father, Henry Finch Rix was born in Woolwich, Kent on January 12th  1848, and her mother, Elizabeth Sutton, was born in Manchester, England in 1853.  They had both emigrated as children with their families in the middle of the nineteenth century and the pair met and married in 1876. The couple had their first child, Elsie Bertha in 1877 and Hilda was born seven years later.  Henry Rix was a mathematics teacher, an amateur poet and talented sportsman.  He was a teacher at Bendigo, Ballarat and at Carlton. After a brief stint teaching in Ballarat, he was a mathematics master at Wesley College Melbourne for ten years between 1874 and 1884. He played for Carlton’s Australian Rules team and later became Inspector of Schools.  In the book, A History of State Education in Victoria, Henry Rix was described as:

“…Of the men who have labored and passed away since 1900, Mr. H. F. Rix deserves to be especially remembered. Working under the result system, he foresaw the new day and strove to make it possible. His enthusiasm, his industry, his initiative, his research, and his sympathy made him a great inspector and a leader in educational reforms…”

Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as being an accomplished singer, helped run a successful music business in Ballarat.  She played an active part in the Austral Salon, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of women journalists in Melbourne in 1890 as a club for women writers. It then developed into a club whose aim was to introduce aspiring young musicians to an interested audience.  She was also a talented amateur painter and had her own studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Street.  Hilda and her sister Elsie being brought up in a musical household both learnt musical instruments and would perform at local shows.  Elsie, like her mother, had a beautiful voice and performed at the Austral Salon.  Hilda, as a small child, developed a love of drawing and painting and she and her sister would often design advertising posters for events at the Austral Salon.

                      Frederick McCubbin -Self-portrait, (1886)

Hilda attended Merton Hall High School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar School and although she was not an exceptional student she did excel in art under the tutelage of a Mr Mather. On leaving Merton Hall in 1902, eighteen-year-old Hilda enrolled on a three-year course at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where one of her teachers was the foremost Australian Impressionist, Frederick McCubbin.  Notwithstanding his standing in the art world, Hilda was critical of McCubban’s teaching style which she referred to as being “vague persuasions”.  However her biographer John Pigot, in his 2000 book, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art, writes that the creativity of individuals rather than imitating the style of any one school of painting; he (McCubban) modelled the importance of nationalistic ideas and subjects that would become so prominent in her later painting and McCubban’s work emphasised the painting’s subject over technical considerations.

                                                 An early sketch by Rix Nichols

Hilda Rix’s work was so good that, although still a student, she had some of her drawings shown at annual exhibitions at the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Austral Salon.   To earn herself some money she worked as a professional illustrator submitting her work for inclusion in textbooks and periodicals.  Hilda was always with pencil and sketch pad and in her early days would persuade extended family members to sit for her whilst she sketched their portraits.  Studies in two sketchbooks from her early years in Melbourne are now held at the National Library of Australia and in 2012 one of Rix’s early sketchbooks survives and pages from it were reproduced in Karen Johnson’s book, In Search of Beauty: Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Sketchbook Art

                                         Poster for the Salon des Beaux Arts (1913) by Hilda Rix

For most would-be artists who lived away from Europe such as Americans and Australians the Holy Grail was to visit and study art in Paris and London.  Hilda’s father Henry decided to offer her a chance to sample the European art world and, in 1906, planned a family trip to England which, being as he was an educator, would also afford him the opportunity to study British education reforms.  All his plans came to nought as Henry died that year, on February 27th aged just fifty-eight.  His death at such a relatively young age precluded his widow from receiving a pension.  After many discussions the family managed to cobble together money from an inheritance, money earnt from their rental income from their home, and finally money Hilda and her mother raised by selling off their many works of art and  they were able to set sail for England early in 1907.

                             John Hassall in his studio, 1909

For Hilda, going to Europe to study art was only part of the solution to her improving her artistic skills, she needed to find a good teacher who was willing to tutor her.  Before she left Australia, she spoke to Arthur Streeton, the Australian landscape painter who was the leading member of the Heidelberg School, which was also referred to as Australian Impressionism.  He suggested that on arrival in London she contacted John Hassall, an English illustrator, who, in 1901, had opened his own New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington.  When Hassall looked at Hilda’s work he was impressed by its quality and agreed to mentor her.  She remained with him until the end of 1907 at which time, she, her mother and sister left England and travelled to Paris and rented an apartment in Montparnasse

                                                                 The Ferry by Emanuel Phillips Fox

In Paris Hilda made many friends who were involved in the art world, such as fellow Australian, Emanuel Phillips Fox.  Fox had arrived in Paris in 1896 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he gained first prize in his year for design.  The following year he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts where two of his tutors were William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who were considered the greatest artists of their time. He returned to Australia in 1890 but returned to London after receiving a commission to paint a scene of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia, which had the strange caveat that he must paint the work abroad.

               The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 (1902) by Emanuel Phillips Fox

The 1902  painting, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770,  depicts a wholly European perspective on the inauguration of relations between the British visitors and the local Aboriginal men of Botany Bay. In a post-Federation display of nationalistic projection, it shows Captain Cook stepping onto Australian land as part of a shore party, heroically interceding between the threatening local men who brandish spears and his own marines who aim to shoot them. 

                      Portrait of Ethel Carrick, c.1912. 

Hilda Rix also met Fox’s wife, Ethel, an English-born Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.

In Paris Hilda enrolled at the Académie Delécluse, operated by academic painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse.  It was an atelier-style art school which was very supportive of women artists, and, in fact, it allotted more space to women students than to men.  Men and women were trained separately, and it had two studios for women and only one for men.  It was an extremely popular place to learn, especially among English and American women artists. At the height of its popularity, it was one of the four best-known ateliers in Paris.  From this artistic establishment, Hilda moved to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where one of teachers was the Swiss-born illustrator Théophile Steinlen.  She also studied at Académie Colarossi. It was around this time that Henri Matisse had a studio in the French capital and, as was the case with other professional artists, he also sometimes attended Colarossi’s to gain access to their models which he could use, free of charge, for his work.  Matisse would also open the door of his studio to aspiring artists whom he would offer tuition and have them experiment with the techniques of Post Impressionism.  It could well be that this is where Hilda first met Matisse.

Retour de la chasse by Hilda Rix Nicholas, (1911)

Whilst living in Paris, the family would travel to Italy and other parts of France including Étaples, the fishing port in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France which was so popular with artists.  In 1909 Hilda Rix met and became very friendly with a Dutch architecture student Wim Brat.  Their initial love ended when Hilda realised how her fiancé was a “mother’s boy” and was completely dominated by her, a woman who strongly disapproved of Hilda.  Inevitably, Hilda broke off the engagement.  Notwithstanding this personal setback, Hilda continued with her painting and exhibited her work at the 1911 Paris Salon.  The painting, Return of the Hunt, was completed by Hilda in 1911 and depicts a woman on horseback in chocolate brown leather gloves with a large hare slung over her back.

                                                                     Three friends by Hilda Rix (1912)

Hilda Rix, accompanied by her sister and mother, took up residence in the rural art colony of Étaples the summer of 1910.  Here she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established American artist in France, who was viewed as one of the leaders of the Étaples artists’ colony and a member of the art organization, the Société Artistique de Picardie.  It was not just France and Italy which seduced artists, many started to cross the Mediterranean to paint and sketch in North Africa.  Hilda Rix made two painting trips to the African continent.   The first was in January 1912 when she travelled with a group of artists, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his wife, who were visiting Morocco via Madrid, Cordoba, and finally Algeciras, they had hoped to take a boat to Tangiers but the weather was too bad, which forced the travellers to Gibraltar for what proved a rough crossing to the Moroccan port.

Morocco, marketplace with pile of oranges by Hilda Rix painted during one of her two trips to Tangier

Tanner being an African American and Rix being a female made them unconventional and exceptional travel and work companions on this journey.  They stayed in Tangier and the northern port town of Tétouan.  Matisse and Hilda Rix stayed in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France for most of February and March. They both painted views from the windows of their rooms at the hotel.   Both of them worked on portraits and would use the same models and utilised an unused room in the hotel which the owner allocated to them.  The room became a temporary studio space. 

                                                          Hamido sleeps by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

An example of the similar portraiture was Hilda’s painting, Hamido Sleeps and Matisse’s work, Moroccan Amido.  In both cases the young model was a stable-hand at their Tangiers hotel.

Moroccan Amido by Matisse (1912)

In Matisse’s painting the young man stands easily and naturally, his slim long-legged form is emphasised by the narrow canvas format the artist has used.  In the painting, Matisse captures the dark skin, the bright white shirt, the pure colours of the waistcoat and short trousers.

                                               Through the arch to the sea by Hilda Rix Nichols (1914)

Hilda loved Tangier and spent hours sketching and painting in the open-air markets.  She wrote home about how she loved Tangier and its market, writing:

“…Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work…”

                                       Hilda Rix painting in Moroccan marketplace

Hilda Rix was fascinated by the buying and selling in the marketplace as well as the multitude of colours of the clothes worn by the people.  In a letter home, dated February 12th 1912, she wrote:

“…”See how most of them are covering their faces – They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers – (tight at ankle) – Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]…”.

In a postcard she sent home a week later she wrote:

“…’Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely – Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh I do love it all! …”

…………………..to be continued.

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:


Frederick McCubbin. Part 2 – The Box Hill Artists’ Camp and the 9 by 5 Art Exhibition

F.McCubbin, SelfPortrait (1913)
F.McCubbin, SelfPortrait (1913)

When I left off Frederick McCubbin’s life story in my last blog the year was 1884 and he was twenty-nine years of age and attending the National Gallery of Victoria School of Art.  His original tutor at this establishment had been Eugène von Guérard, but on his retirement at the end of 1881, the Master of the School of Art was George Folingsby.  Folingsby had been born in Wicklow, Ireland and had studied art in New York and Munich and had won many medals for his works in America and Europe.   He was eventually persuaded to come to Australia by the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria by offering him a lucrative painting commission and the post as examiner of art teachers.  Later, in June 1882 he accepted the post of ‘Master in the School of Painting’ at the National Gallery School and that September, Folingsby became director of the National Gallery.  Folingsby would go on to have a great influence on McCubbin’s art. 

One of Frederick McCubbin’s closest friends at the time was fellow artist Tom Roberts whom he had met whilst studying at the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria in 1874.  Roberts was also to influence McCubbin’s art for he had been brought up close to Studley Park in the Kew suburb of Melbourne and he and McCubbin would often go exploring the area and would paint en plein air in this beautiful and wild part of the country.  However painting plein air was not everybody’s favoured style. McCubbin’s tutor Folingsby had been strictly a studio painter and saw no merit in plein air painting.  He never stopped his students working in the open air but was adamantly against such a practice and in James MacDonald’s book, The art of Frederick McCubbin, he quotes Folingsby’s as saying:

“…the man who paints landscape in the open air is a fool…”  

McCubbin and Roberts were apart for four years between 1881 and 1885 when the latter went to London and enrolled on a three-year course at the Royal Academy Schools in July 1881.  Whilst away from Australia, Roberts had also taken the chance to travel around Europe visiting Spain and Venice.  On Tom Roberts’ return to Melbourne in April 1885 the two friends resumed their friendship.  It was also a time when the two artists decided to continue with their great artistic love of outdoor painting and between them they hatched a plan to set up an artist’s camp in the wilderness where the surroundings would become their artistic inspiration and so, in the summer of 1885/6, their plan came to fruition. 

Obstruction, Box Hill by Jane Sutherland (1887)
Obstruction, Box Hill by Jane Sutherland (1887)

The site they chose for their camp was Box Hill some nine miles east of Melbourne and there in the paddock of land owned by David Houston at Damper Creek they pitched their tents.  Although their camp was in the “bush”, less than a mile away there was a nearby railway station, which had opened three years earlier, and it made the journey from Melbourne easy and soon a number of other young artists joined Roberts and McCubbin’s weekend and summer camps.  One such visitor was Jane Sutherland, the New York-born Australian landscape painter and pioneer of the plein air painting movement in Australia.  She was to become a vociferous champion of female artists and fought hard to have them accepted and for them to have equal professional standing with their male colleagues. Whilst at the Box Hill Artists’ camp Roberts and McCubbin produced numerous works although Roberts was by far the most prolific. So, what was it like at this artists’ camp?  There is a letter in the archives of the National Gallery of Victoria from a Mme. Nancy Elmhurst Goode, a visitor to the camp, who describes what she saw:

“…In the vicinity of the Homestead belonging to the Houstons was a patch of wild bush, tall young saplings with the sun glistening on their leaves and streamers of bark swaying, groups of tea–tree, dogwood and tall dry grasses. A fire was lighted and we were invited to share an alfresco lunch, The Don (Abrahams) earnestly frying eggs on a piece of tin, the Prof (McCubbin) busy with billy tea, and the Bulldog (Roberts) joyously cutting bread and butter and taking full command…”

The Artists' Camp by Tom Roberts (1886)
The Artists’ Camp by Tom Roberts (1886)

Tom Roberts captured life at the camp in his painting entitled The Artists’ Camp, which he completed in 1886 and can now be found in the National Gallery of Victoria.  In the work we see Frederick McCubbin seated by their tent drinking his billy tea while Louis Abrahams is bending over the camp fire grilling chops.  There is a relaxed and intimate atmosphere about the scene and we cannot doubt the happy camaraderie that was felt between the artists. 

Lost by Frederick McCubbin (1886)
Lost by Frederick McCubbin (1886)

One notable work produced by McCubbin during this time was entitled Lost, sometimes referred to as The Lost Child.     The painting by McCubbin is based on a true event of a twelve-year old girl, Clara Crosbie, being lost in the bush.   The Argus newspaper reported the incident in May 1885:

“…In the almost trackless wilds of the Lilydale district, intersected by reedy ferns, like an Indian swamp, Clara Crosbie, a girl of 12, was lost nearly a month ago … A town-bred girl of warm affections and quick impulses, she pined in the unaccustomed solitudes of the bush, and she resolved to find her way, though she did not know her way home…”

Clara Crosbie was found alive after being lost in the bush for three weeks.

The young girl we see in the painting, although she has lost her way home, seems fixated by the mistletoe she has collected and which is now held in her apron.  There is no sense of fear about her demeanour.   Maybe she has yet to realise that she is lost and is still fascinated by the wilderness all around her.  I particularly like the way McCubbin has depicted the peeling bark on the trees.  There is a light and airiness about the depicted location which gives one no sense of foreboding about the possibility of having got oneself lost.     The girl in McCubbin’s painting was his younger sister, Mary Anne, affectionately known as “Dolly”.  This is a beautiful work of art which brings out the ingenuousness and vulnerability of the young girl who finds herself alone in the wilderness.   People who viewed the work were reminded of the dangers of straying into the bush and becoming disorientated and in some ways reinforced the belief of people, who had left their home back in Britain, that life in colonial Australia was a challenge.

Moyes Bay, Beaumaris by Frederick McCubbin (1887)
Moyes Bay, Beaumaris by Frederick McCubbin (1887)

All the time the two were together McCubbin was learning from Roberts especially when it came down to the effect the changing light had on the landscape, à la Impressionism.   The following summer (1886/7) McCubbin, Roberts along with two other young artists, Louis Abrahams and Arthur Streeton, rented a cottage near Mentone, a small town  which lay about fifteen miles south-east of Melbourne.  This was a small picturesque coastal town, which had derived its name from the French Riviera seaside resort of Menton.  It was here in 1887 that McCubbin completed his beautiful work Moyes Bay, Beaumaris, sometimes known as The Shore, which is now housed in the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth.  The site of the painting was often referred to as Moysey’s Bay after James Bickford Moysey and his wife Susannah, who, in 1845, were the first European settlers at Beaumaris, (named after the North Wales coastal town, close to where I live).  When the painting was exhibited the art review of the October 7th 1887 edition of the Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, commented:

“…There is a breezy out-of-door feeling about Mr McCubbin’s ‘The Shore’, the tone of the picture strikes us as not warm enough for the season indicated by the attire of the figures. Although the work is impressionist in its general character, the execution of the broken rock, shingle, herbage, and pools of water in the foreground betokens attention to detail…”

Despite the “Impressionist” tag it was given the reviewer is quick to draw our attention to the detail McCubbin has incorporated into his painting.   It is full of features, such as the rock pools and the various sea grasses, which we see in the foreground, as well as the well-crafted reflection of the two main characters depicted in the painting, the woman and the boy.

Windy and Wet by Arthur Streeton (1889)
Windy and Wet by Arthur Streeton (1889)

In 1889 this band of artistic friends decided to hold an exhibition of their work.  Many put their names down as willing to exhibit but as the date of the exhibition neared, many potential contributors dropped out.  This then put pressure on the main protagonists, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Conder who between them exhibited almost 150 pieces.   Frederick McCubbin, was a minor contributor putting forward five of his works for the exhibition. The majority of the works were plein air landscapes but there were also a few cityscapes, still-lifes, portraits and genre pieces.  The month before the exhibition opened was chaotic with Roberts, Streeton and Conder having to hurriedly complete more works to fill the gaps caused by the withdrawal of some of the other artists.  The problem of course was that July in Victoria was a wet period of the year and so many of the exhibited works had a “rainy” feel about them, such as Charles Conder’s aptly named work, Windy and Wet.

The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition catalogue cover
The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition catalogue cover

The location of the exhibition was the Buxton Rooms gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne and the title given to the exhibition, which opened on August 17th, was the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition.  There were 182 paintings in all on display.  The title of the exhibition derived from the size of the works (9 inches x 5 inches), which were exhibited, most of which had been painted on cedar cigar-box lids. On the title page of the catalogue was a quotation from the French painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme:

“…When you draw, form is the important thing; but in painting, the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour…”

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the cover of which was designed by Charles Conder, there was an explanation of the style of the work on show:

“…An effect is only momentary … Two half-hours are never alike … it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain the first record of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character…” 

All the oil sketches on display had been swiftly painted en plein air.   What the artists had been aspiring to was a ‘truth to nature’ feel about their works.  They had initially made quick sketches and then added the oil paints and this they believed would encapsulate instantaneous impressions of what they observed.  In some cases they had an unfinished appearance about them but the artists involved maintained they were simply impressions but were completed works.  The public loved what they saw but the press critics were divided.   The art critic of the The Evening Standard was enthused by what she saw and urged people to attend, saying:

“…These daring young Impressionists, who are making an effort to engage amateur art-lovers by presenting, for the first time in Australia, a series of their ‘impressions’, aim at conveying in their pictures a broad effect of tone and colour without the eye being attracted by detail. Some of the ‘impressions’ were caught and painted in a quarter of an hour…Persons interested in art should not fail to visit it. If they have no other satisfaction it will be again to have ocular demonstration of what an artist’s ‘impression’ means…”

However more critical of what he saw was James Smith, the leading art critic of the time and the art critic of The Argus newspaper.  Not only that but he was also a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria. His vehement and vociferous condemnation of the works on show was brought about because of his belief that they were unfinished works and he was affronted by the artists involved for trying to pass them of as the finished product.  Of them and the artists, he wrote:

“… The modern impressionist asks you to see pictures in splashes of colours, in slap-dash brushwork, and in sleight-of-hand methods of execution leading to the proposition of pictorial conundrums, which would baffle solution if there were no label or catalogue. In an exhibition of paintings you naturally look for pictures, instead of which the impressionist presents you with a varied assortment of palettes. Of the 180 exhibits catalogued on the present occasion, something like four-fifths are a pain the eye. Some of them look like faded pictures seen through several mediums of thick gauze; others suggest that a paint-pot has been accidentally upset over a panel of nine inches by five; others resemble the first essays of a small boy, who has just been apprenticed to a house-painter…”

There is the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and the artists decided to use James Smith’s statement to their own advantage and even had it posted at the entrance to the exhibition.  It worked just as they had hoped as people poured in to see these so-called “slap-dash” works that had been so heavily criticised.  Furthermore the artists wrote an open letter to the editor of The Argus defending themselves and their exhibition work, in which they ended up by saying:

“…It is better to give our own idea than to get a merely superficial effect, which is apt to be a repetition of what others have done before us, and may shelter us in a safe mediocrity, which, while it will not attract condemnation, could never help towards the development of what we believe will be a great school of painting in Australia…”

The 9 by 5 exhibition which caused such controversy and so many diverse views is now looked upon as one of the most famous exhibitions in the history of Australian art.   It was also around this time that McCubbin decided to focus his attention on the Australian bush and the struggle that pioneer settlers had in establishing a home on this virgin territory.  In my third and final blog about Frederick McCubbin I will conclude his life story and look at some of his works featuring the pioneering spirit including his most famous painting, the triptych, simply entitled The Pioneer.

     …………………….to be continued.

Frederick McCubbin. Part 1 – The early years

Self portrait by Frederick McCubbin (1886)
Self portrait by Frederick McCubbin (1886)

A couple of years ago I was in Northern Queensland, Australia on holiday and I had hoped to get an insight into Australian art.  Unfortunately, because we were in the far north of the country, most of the art on display was indigenous art and I have since been told that to get an insight into Australian art of the nineteenth and twentieth century one would have had to be in the major cities of the south such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.   The other week however, whilst in London, I took the opportunity to attend an exhibition of Australian art which is currently running at the Royal Academy and finally I came face to face with the art I had been searching for.  The Royal Academy exhibition could be divided into three parts – the indigenous art, the more modern art and the 19th century art, the latter being what I was most interested in.  In my next few blogs I want to introduce you to one of the greats of 19th century Australian art, Frederick McCubbin. 

Frederick McCubbin was born in Melbourne on February 25th 1855.  He was the third of eight children of Alexander McCubbin, a master baker who, along with his English wife of four years, Anne, née McWilliams, had immigrated in April 1852 to Australia from the Ayrshire coastal town of Girvan, Scotland.  He had two older brothers, William John and James Alexander and one younger brother, Robert.   He also had four younger sisters, Mary-Anne, Harriet, Wilhelmina and Helen.   Frederick McCubbin went to the William Willmott’s West Melbourne Common School and later to St Paul’s School in Swanston Street.  So what kind of child was Frederick McCubbin?  In a book written by a family friend, Recollections of Elizabeth Colquhoun, the author wrote:

“…He had a gentle presence, and the air of a poet and dreamer. He was kindly, sincere and single-minded in his outlook. He was energetic, fun, warm and gregarious—and would gesticulate freely with his arms and hands. He was a thinking man, and he liked to make others think and laugh; an extensive and discriminating reader, particularly of biography and high fiction, he enjoyed talking on a wide range of topics.  It was his habit to memorise what he read and to deliver it to the first receptive friend he came across—whether at the opening of an exhibition or at a chance meeting on a tram…”

Although Frederick McCubbin’s early life was a happy one he was constantly aware of the hardships endured by his parents in this new land as they would often talk about the better life they had had back “home”.  There is a manuscript held by the Australian Manuscript Collection entitled Autobiographical reminiscences of Frederick McCubbin and in it is his recollection of those early days at home:

“…Everybody who was grown up spoke of Home, the old Country—Memories of strings of immigrants—coming up from the wharves—talks of ships and the sea—boarding houses … innumerable boxes—with titles such as not wanted on the voyage—sailors—and the maid servants—who told us stories of old Ireland and sometimes Scotland, then people from Home staying with us each bringing their quota of romantic stories of the Old World.  …people said this was a dreadful country and why did they ever come to such a dreary land—and then—the awful Hot Winds that blew in summer—and the fearful dust storms—and the dreary monotonous bush—all the same—no variety, so sad—and sombre—They were a Home sick people…”

McCubbin remembered these times well and the struggle people had to make to survive in this new land.  These thoughts were to remain in his mind when he first started painting some years later.  Frederick never remembered with fondness those early years at school and he left school in 1868, at the age of thirteen, when his father got him a job as a clerk working in Wither’s solicitor’s Melbourne office.  His father had some hope that his son would take an interest in the workings of a solicitor’s office which would then lead him on to training to become a solicitor.  However this employment did not last long as young Frederick found the work boring and uninteresting and spent his time idly sketching instead of working, which eventually caused him to lose his job.    Although his time during the day had been taken up working at the solicitor’s office, his mother was determined to nurture her son’s interest in art, and so in 1869, she arranged for his enrolment at the evening classes at the Artisans School of Design in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton.  It was here that he was tutored in figure drawing and landscape work.  Those who taught him included the school’s drawing master, Thomas Clark, the London-born artist and art teacher who had immigrated to Australia in 1852 and Abram-Louis Buvelot, a Swiss-born émigré landscape painter.  This was Frederick’s first formal artistic training. 

Following his dismissal from the solicitor’s office, he returned home and went to work for his father, driving the baker’s horse and cart around town and the surrounding countryside delivering bread.  Although there may not have been anything edifying about making daily deliveries of bread, young McCubbin was amazed by the countryside scenery around the Yarra River area he saw whilst making deliveries and knew that one day he would put all his memories down in paint on canvas.  

Falls Bridge, Melbourne by Frederic McCubbin (1882)
Falls Bridge, Melbourne by Frederick McCubbin (1882)

Frederick McCubbin may have been contented gaining artistic inspiration during his bread delivery round but his father was neither happy with the way his son’s future was panning out nor was he comfortable with his son’s lack of ambition so he decided to take control of the situation.  In 1871, when Frederick was sixteen years of age, and unbeknown to him, his father signed his son up for a five year apprenticeship with Stevenson and Elliot, a firm of coach painters and wheelwrights.  Frederick’s father felt no guilt about his underhand action as he had convinced himself that he had merely aided Frederick’s artistic ambitions.  Alas, Frederick did not appreciate the gesture and found the work monotonous albeit he did marvel at the craftsmanship and skill shown by his fellow workers.

In 1872, at the age of seventeen, McCubbin, whilst still working at the firm of coach painters, enrolled for twice-weekly evening classes at the School of Design at the National Gallery of Victoria, which had been formed five years earlier.   It was here that he was tutored in draughtsmanship, figure drawing and plein air sketching.  One of his tutors, the school’s drawing master, was once again Thomas Clark, who had moved to this new establishment in 1870.  When Clark retired from teaching in 1876, McCubbin studied under Oswald Rose Campbell, who, like Clark, his predecessor, had only arrived in Australia in 1852, having been born on the Channel Island of Jersey and who had received his artistic training in London.   The Australian artist Tom Roberts enrolled at the school in 1874 and he and Frederick became firm friends. 

In 1877 McCubbin and Roberts attended the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Painting which had been formed in 1867.  However Frederick’s artistic studies were suddenly put on hold in May 1877 with the sudden death of his father, Alexander.  The cause of death was given as severe apoplexy which had been triggered when he fell down a flight of stairs.   The McCubbin household was in shock and the future of the bakery business was suddenly in jeopardy.  Frederick’s older brother William was fully occupied as a miller and the next eldest brother was not at home having joined the navy.  It thus fell to Frederick to return home and concentrate all his time on helping his mother run the family bakery.  After a short while the bakery business was once again on a firm footing and Frederick withdrew his help and returned to the National Gallery’s School of Painting.  The McCubbin family was to suffer a further family tragedy four years later, in 1881, when the eldest son William was killed in an industrial accident at the family flour mill. 

View near Fisherman's end by Frederick McCubbin (c.1880)
View near Fisherman’s end by Frederick McCubbin (c.1880)

From 1880 to 1882, McCubbin was taught by the great Eugène von Guérard, an Austrian-born artist and then by his successor, the Irish-born and Munich-trained, George Frederic Folingsby and it was he who, in 1883, organised an annual student’s exhibition.  McCubbin exhibited some of his works and won the first prize of £30 at the inaugural event and followed this up in 1884 by winning second prize and £20 the following year.  McCubbin, who was always searching for artistic inspiration, also attended the Victorian Academy of Arts which was formed by a group of like-minded professional and amateur artists in 1870.  McCubbin attended classes here, and exhibited in their annual exhibitions from 1876. He sold his first painting, View near Fisherman’s Bend at the Academy’s 1880 exhibition. 

The Illustrated Australian News
The Illustrated Australian News

During his days as an art student between the late 1870’s and the early 1880’s, Frederic McCubbin earned much-needed money by submitting black and white illustrations for inclusion in two popular Melbourne periodicals, the Australasian Sketcher and the Illustrated Australian News.  These black and white sketches, which featured depictions of public and social life of the both Australia and New Zealand, were the forerunners to photgraphy.  The periodicals were well read by the local middle-classes who wanted to keep up to date with the never-ending progress of the fledgling colony and who wanted to see the latest “new-builds” such as buildings, bridges and the thriving port and railway system.  But it was not just modernity which was depicted in these journals as articles often focused on settlers moving ever-further inland into the new frontier lands as well as the inhabitants who already lived on this new land, the Aboriginal people. 

An Old Politician by Frederick McCubbin (1879)
An Old Politician by Frederick McCubbin (1879)

In 1879 McCubbin, whilst at the National Gallery’s School of Painting, completed a narrative work entitled An Old Politician.  The work depicts George Elliot who had part owned the firm of coach builders which Frederick had earlier worked for.  In the painting McCubbin has bestowed an aura of wisdom upon his sitter and although he was never a politician, McCubbin is pictorially informing us that George Elliot was a wise and well read man who had all the qualities which would have made him an excellent politician.

The Letter by Frederick McCubbin (1884)
The Letter by Frederick McCubbin (1884)

In 1884 Frederick McCubbin produced a wonderful painting which featured one of his younger sisters, Harriet, who was always known by her nickname “Polly”.  The painting which is housed at the Art Gallery of Ballarat is entitled The Letter.  The setting, which is thought to be on the up-stream banks of the Yarra River could well have been painted en plein air by McCubbin who then added the figure of his sister later.  Harriet, who was six years younger than her brother Frederick, also studied art and she would often model for him. 

A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts (1886)
A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts (1886)

She also modelled for Frederick’s friend, Tom Roberts.  In one of Roberts’ most endearing paintings entitled A Summer Morning Tiff, which he completed in 1886 we see her as the female involved in the aftermath of a lover’s quarrel.  It is a hot sunny day and tempers have flared.  In the background we can just make out a man with his horse heading into the woods.  He and the girl have had a falling-out and he has stormed off, leaving her to follow him.  When the painting was first exhibited at the Australian Artists’ Association in 1886 it was accompanied by a label, on which was written this poem:

Only a word at the splitter’s track
A thoughtless blunder.
She is fair and haughty and answers bade,
So they part asunder.
With a jerk he loosens the fastening rein –
And she turns her back with a fine disdain
Ah me! sigh the saplings in sad refrain
As she passes under.

In my next blog I will continue with Frederick McCubbin’s life story and look at some of his art which featured the struggle people faced to survive in this new frontier land.

                                                                         ……………….to be continued