Rupert Bunny

Rupert Bunny

In my last blog, I looked at the life and works of the Australian painter Agnes Goodsir, who had spent a large part of her life in Paris.  Today I am showcasing another Australian artist, Rupert Bunny, who also spent many years in the French capital and was one of the most successful expatriate Australian artists of his generation.

Self portrait by Rupert Bunny (c.1920)

Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny was born in St Kilda, Melbourne on September 29th 1864.  Rupert was the third son of a English-born, Eton educated, Brice Frederick Bunny.  His father had studied law and was called to the Bar in 1844, becoming a talented equity barrister in London.  The news of the discovery of gold in the 1850s in New South Wales and Victoria whetted Brice’s appetite and in October 1852 he arrived on Australian soil intending to make a quick fortune before returning to London.  However neither of his plans materialised, as after six months of prospecting he had nothing to show. However, the one bit of luck he had was when he emigrated to Australia he brought with him all his law books and so, after his failed prospecting period, he went to Melbourne and resurrected his legal career in October 1853.  In June 1856 Rupert Bunny’s father married German-born Maria Hedwig Dorothea Wulsten, who had followed him to Australia. They set up home in St Kilda, where he was active in the Municipal Council.  In 1873 Brice Bunny was appointed an acting County Court judge but his health started to deteriorate and he had to resign from the legal profession.  He died on 2 June 1885 at St Kilda, Victoria, leaving three sons, one of them a barrister, and three daughters. His wife, Rupert’s mother, died in 1902.

Hair Drying by Rupert Bunny (c.1908)

Rupert Bunny had three sisters, Alice and Annette who were five and two years older than him and Hilda who was three years younger.  He also had two older brothers, Herman and George and a younger brother Brice. Rupert attended the Alma Road Grammar School in St Kilda, and later the Hutchins School in Hobart.  In 1881 he enrolled at the University of Melbourne where he studied civil engineering.  He was not happy with the course and abandoned it.  At one time he decided he wanted to become an actor, but this future path was abruptly blocked by his parents.  Maybe as a compromise between his desires and those of his parents, he settled for joining the National Gallery Schools under British-born Oswald Rose Campbell and Irish-born George Frederick Folingsby, who was the director of the National Gallery and master in the School of Art.  Whilst there he became friends with his fellow students including Frederick McCubbin, E. Phillips Fox and Louis Abrahams.

The Descent from the Cross by Rupert Bunny (1898)

The painting was hung at the 1898 Royal Academy in London

In 1884, at the age of twenty, Rupert Bunny left Australia and went to London.  Once in the English capital he enrolled at St Johns Wood Art School where one of his tutors was the English painter, Philip Calderon. Two years later, in 1886, he left England and headed for Paris to study under Jean-Paul Laurens in his studio at the Académie Julian. He left Laurens in 1886 and went to study at the Académie Colarossi where he studied under the French painter, Pierre Paul Léon Glaize.  His studies here made him an accomplished academic history painting – paintings on a large scale, with complex compositions based on mythological, historical and biblical subjects, and the depictions would characteristically contain multiple figures. From 1888, now in Paris, Bunny exhibited at the Parisian Salon de la Société des Artistes Français (Old Salon).

The Tritons by Rupert Bunny (1890)

During the late 1880s he produced a series of large-scale, delicately coloured sea idylls peopled with mythological and pagan creatures including mer-folk. Having a German mother, Rupert remembered the German myths and legends. Bunny often drew inspiration from the German myths and legends that she would read to him and characters from these often appeared in his depictions.  These stories were balanced by his father telling his son tales from the bible and Greek and Roman mythology.  One such painting was entitled The Tritons which Bunny completed in 1890. The painting was exhibited in Paris at the Old Salon in 1890, and it was the first painting by an Australian to receive an honourable mention at the event. The painting depicts a group of tritons, who were legendary creatures that lived both on land and at sea.  They are enjoying a lazy moment in their calm surroundings.  Rupert Bunny, in this work, lays before us some of the features which would become characteristics of his work, such as an attraction he had for mythological subjects and the depiction of the mystery and glamour within an intimate setting. Look how he has expertly shaped a twilight atmosphere by the use of subtle colour schemes, as is the case where the pale blue, silvery ocean and pink-toned sky are quietly reflected in the flesh tones of the figures.

Pastoral by Rupert Bunny (1893)

His 1893 painting entitled Pastoral is a good example of the large-scale mythological works Bunny painted during his early years in France.  The painting is an allegory about the life-changing power of music. Before us we see youths and pagan beings who are all mesmerised by the strains of the pipes and soothed into a state of heightened consciousness.  The figures we see in the painting are contemporary youths and Rupert used their inclusion to show that Arcadia was not something we read about in days gone by but a state of mind.  There is a dream-like quality about the depiction and note the inclusion of vermillion poppies, a flower which symbolised sleep.

Madame Melba by Rupert Bunny (1902)

Rupert Bunny, besides being a great artist, was also a talented pianist and composer.   The love of all things musical probably persuaded him to paint a number of portraits of the Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba.  She had, during the latter days of the nineteenth century, moved to Europe to cement a career as a professional singer.  Rupert’s portrait of her entitled Madame Melba was completed around 1902.  Rupert had known her since the 1880s.  The painting, once completed, hung in the singer’s London home.  Later, she presented it to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.  The National Gallery of Victoria bought the painting in 1980 and later it was loaned to Government House in Melbourne Victoria.

Percy Grainger by Rupert Bunny (1904)

Bunny created portraits of a number of Europe-based Australian musicians and performers.  He was commissioned, by twenty-two-years-old Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger, to paint his portrait in the early days of his professional musical career.  Grainger became acquainted with Bunny through Nellie Melba. Whilst living in London Rupert Bunny attended gatherings at Grainger’s rooms at King’s Road where the guests would sing many of Grainger’s compositions.  In this portrait, the young musician is portrayed as a relaxed young gentleman in the tradition of what was termed the ‘swagger’ portrait, which aptly reflected Grainger’s own ambitions. In Grainger’s left hand is a sheet of music, a conscious reference to Grainger’s celebrated career.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by Rupert Bunny (c.1895)

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Jeanne Morel by Rupert Bunny (1902)

In 1892, Rupert Bunny met his future wife, Jeanne Heloise Morel who was a fellow art student.  It was love at first sight as Bunny was bowled over by her beauty.  John Longstaff, a fellow Australian painter who was living in Paris, remembers the first meeting between Rupert and Jeanne, saying:

“…I remember … the very night they met, and how he fell in love with her at first sight.  She was a regular Dresden china girl with a deliciously tip-titled nose…”

The meeting was to prove a turning point in Rupert’s life, not just with the romance which followed, but by his change in his artistic style.  A colleague of Bunny commented:

“…  Jeanne changed not only Bunny’s life but also his art, which now focused on subjects in which beautiful women played the central role, with Jeanne as his favourite model…”

Rupert Bunny was influenced by Morel and she became his favourite model who featured in his depictions of the idyllic and leisured lifestyle of the Belle Epoque. Her graceful form and sensuous features were seen in many of his works, embodying Bunny’s feminine ideal. Bunny was also greatly influenced by the English Pre-Raphaelite painters such as John Everett Millais.

 Portrait of Mlle Morel by Rupert Bunny (1895)

 Portrait of Mlle Morel by Rupert Bunny, which he completed in 1895, is the first, major full-length portrait by Bunny of Morel. It is a tender depiction of his then girlfriend that he painted and was submitted and accepted into the Paris Salon that year.  It was a painting which marked the turning point of Rupert Bunny’s art from the Allegorical to the Belle Époque.

A Summer Morning by Rupert Bunny (1905)

Jeanne Heloise Morel was born on July 29th 1871 in Paris.  Her mother was Marguerite Morel, an unmarried servant. Her father, who was never named on the birth certificate, was said by Jeanne to be Eugénie François Morel, who served as an officer in the French Navy.  Jeanne received training in Fine Arts at the Orphanage of Arts at 96 rue de Vannes in Paris.  In 1884, when she was thirteen-years-old, Jeanne made her public debut at the Société des Artistes and subsequently exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, working in oils.  Jeanne-Heloise Morel married Rupert Bunny in London in March 1902.

Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Idleness) by Rupert Bunny (c.1897)

The painting’s title means sweet idleness or the sweetness of doing nothing. Rupert Bunny would paint numerous similarly composed works featuring  groups of women relaxing, dreaming, dressing or undressing close by expanses of water.  The French art critic Gustave Geffroy was a great believer in Rupert Bunny and loved his work, Dolce Far Niente and in a review of the Salon of 1897 at which the painting was exhibited, he wrote:

“…To discover the promises and creations of newcomers, it is necessary to research, to go to canvases attracted by a soft radiance, a quiet force, a secret charm….I like the poetry of Dolce Far Nniente by Mr Bunny [of] women with graceful bodies, and beautiful and instinctive faces, who dream by the sea…”

Gustave Geffroy was a great advocate of Bunny’s work for the next three decades and in a 1917 review he wrote:

“He is a brilliant and spirited artist…at one and the same time, a realist and a visionary, an observer of truth and a poet of the world of dreams…”

Endormies by Rupert Bunny (c.1904)

Rupert Bunny’s 1904 painting entitled Endormies (Sleepy) portrays two female figures at the water’s edge relaxing and lost in a world of dreams. Rupert modelled the sleeping figure once again on his wife Jeanne Morel.  Her elegant and sensuous physical qualities enhanced many of his paintings.  In this depiction the artist has included a rose by the side of one of the sleeping women.  The rose was a traditional symbol of love and sensuous power.  The white swans we see in the background symbolise the attributes of grace and beauty. Rupert, like many artists also used the motif of a small dog, which often signifies marital fidelity.  In this painting Rupert has placed the animal sleeping at the feet of his mistress.

Summer Time by Rupert Bunny (1907)

In all Rupert Bunny’s depictions of his wife Jeanne and her friends there was an aura of beauty and elegance.  The clothes which adorned the females were typified in their fashionable trimmings and reflected the stylishness of the apparently endless summers that was La Belle Époque. The public loved these works of art and they became the most commercially and critically successful works of his career. Rupert Bunny’s 1907 work entitled Summer Time splendidly validates his skill as a draughtsman and his consummate treatment of large-scale works such as this one which measures 250 x 300 cms. It was exhibited at that year’s Paris Salon. It was his most ambitious work.

in situ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

The painting depicts a spirit of leisure and sensuality as we observe seven voluptuous women relaxing inside a bathhouse on the Seine. It is a floating swimming pool sealed off from public view where women could bathe modestly. We see 0ne of the women is undressing preparing to climb down into the water while another female, on the left of the painting, is getting dressed before she emerges into public view.

The Rape of Persephone by Rupert Bunny (1913)

Rupert Bunny was never afraid to shy away from changing his artistic style.  He had a refreshing willingness to keep reinventing himself and during his life, he simply kept an eye on what was the most fashionable style, so that his popularity would not wane.  Of the painting, The Rape of Persephone, one art critic, George Bell, described it as:

“…a glorious riot of colour from the finest imaginative Australia has produced…”

Fresque by Rupert Bunny (1921)

Rupert Bunny moved through successive styles and was strongly influenced by British pre-Raphaelites French primitives, symbolists and Post-Impressionists.  He was particularly influenced by Matisse and his love of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, an itinerant ballet company begun in Paris that performed throughout Europe between 1909 and 1929. 

Salome by Rupert Bunny (c.1919)

The paintings of Rupert Bunny around this time began to be ones of heightened colour and abstracted, rhythmical forms.

In 1933, Bunny returned to live in Melbourne where he continued to paint until his mid-70s. He died on May 25th 1947, aged 82.  Rupert’s forte was his ability to change with the times and he was always open to new artistic influences.  Throughout his life he had always been motivated when it came to his painting. He never tired of experimenting with colour combinations and was never afraid to take risks. He was a master colourist.

Much has been written about Rupert Bunny and this blog has just scratched at the surface of his life but I hope it will tempt you into reading more about this great Australian painter.


Agnes Goodsir

The subject of my blog today is the Australian portrait and still life painter Agnes Noyes Goodsir. 

Agnes Goodsir was born in Portland, in South-west Victoria, Australia, on June 18th 1864, and was the second daughter and fifth of the eleven children of David James Cook Goodsir, who held the post of Commissioner of Customs at Melbourne, and Elizabeth Archer, née Tomlins.  Goodsir enjoyed painting and sketching and concentrated on still life works.  She started formal art training at the Bendigo School of Mines around 1898.  Her tutor was the painter and educator, Arthur Thomas Woodward.  Woodward was born in Birmingham, England, and had received his art education at the Birmingham School of Art where Edward Richard Taylor was headmaster and one of his tutors.   Later he attended the South Kensington Art Schools, in London where he was a gold medallist. He emigrated to Victoria, Australia and in 1894 he was appointed Head of the School of Art and Design at the Bendigo School of Mines.  He was an excellent educator who was aware of the trends in European fine arts and introduced methods and syllabi based on it, including en plein air art classes and life drawing, thus offering the opportunity for his students to move to France, immerse themselves in French culture and enroll at French academies, where they would be able to study art internationally.  Agnes Goodsir was open to the idea of travelling to France and in 1899, aged thirty-five, she decided to increase her knowledge of art by moving half way round the world to Paris but to achieve that goal she needed money. This was achieved when a one-woman show of her paintings was held in Bendigo.  Sufficient money was raised by the sale of her work and in 1900 she set sail for France.

Self portrait by Agnes Goodsir (1900)

This self-portrait by Agnes Goodsir is hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.   It is dated 1900, around the time Agnes arrived in Paris.  It is a beautiful oil on canvas work.  It combines a formal representation with a dark sobriety that Goodsir presumably believed brought gravitas to the depiction.  At the time of the portrait Agnes would have been studying at Académie Delécluse and the Académie Julian and this could be the reason for this academic-styled depiction with its dark background providing an appropriate backdrop and contrast with the artist’s pearly features and beautifully depicted draped hand.  This signaled the starting point of her illustrious artistic career in France. 

The Letter by Agnes Goodsir (1926)

On arrival in the French capital Agnes enrolled at the Académie Delacluse, an atelier-style art school founded in the late 19th century and named after its founder, the painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse.  Later she would take courses at the Académie Julian, under Jean-Paul Laurens, where she was twice placed first in Composition, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where she won the 1904 silver medal for portraiture, and finally the Académie Colarossi.  Agnes made a number of visits to London and at the outbreak of the First World War she left Paris and went back to London.   While in London during the war, Agnes became close friends with Bernard Roelvink and his American wife Rachel. Rachel later divorced Roelvink and she reverted to her maiden name, Mrs Rachel Dunn, but to her friends she was known by her nickname ‘Cherry’.

A Letter from the Front by Agnes Goodsir (1914)

Once the Great War had ended Agnes and her beloved companion and muse, Cherry, left the English capital and moved to Paris where they set up home in an apartment at 18 rue de l’Odéon, which is in the sixth arrondissement of Paris on the Left Bank of the Seine, a short walk from the Luxembourg Gardens.  Agnes’ work was well received on both sides of the Channel and exhibited at the New Salon, the Salon des Indépendants and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Girl with a Cigarette by Agnes Goodsir (1925)

Paris in the 1920s was the centre of artistic activity, with writers, artists, performers and musicians from all around the world gathering together. Paris’ 6th arrondissement where Agnes and Rachel lived was in the heart of the “action” and was referred to as the Latin Quarter.  One of Agnes’ famous portraits of Rachel, which she completed in 1925, was entitled Girl with a Cigarette. Rachel is stylishly dressed, with a colourful wrap and chic accessories. It is the archetypal depiction of a 1920s flapper seen enjoying her coffee and cigarette.  She is both self-assured and relaxed within the cafe environment.

The Chinese Skirt by Agnes Goodsir (1933)

Agnes Goodsir and Rachel Dunn lived together  in Paris,  and Goodsir  often depicted Dunn as  the  unflinching  liberated  and trendy  woman that she undoubtedly was.  Once again in her 1933 painting The Chinese Skirt, like many of Goodsir’s works, the subject of the portrait is her lover, Rachel Dunn.  In this painting we see Rachel adorned in an elegant and fashionable Chinese-inspired skirt. To the right of her, on a table, are two ceramic figures the colour of which is echoed in the blue embroidery of her skirt, a couple of books in the bookcase seen in the background and the pot sitting atop this piece of furniture.

The Australian newspaper, The Australasian  newspaper described Goodsir’s work at the time as being:

“…a galaxy of beautiful, and even more beautiful women, doing feminine things: taking morning tea, posing before a mirror, reading, wearing blue hats or Chineseshawls…”

The Parisienne by Agnes Goodsir (c.1924)

Goodsir lived in Paris with Rachel during the period between the two World Wars.  France, like other participating countries of the Great War, had lost so many men in the fighting and with this lost generation of men the social life in the French capital was more a feminine affair, and the city between wars was a place for innovative women.  Paris was also a place for lesbian couples to live their lives publicly and in peace.  The Parisienne depicts Cherry in a modernist style. She is seen in masculine attire, wearing a cloche hat and high collar which encloses her face. Her hands are relaxed in lap, with a cigarette evoking an air of self-confidence and independence.

The Hungarian Shawl by Agnes Goodsir (c.1927)

Following a period of spending time in England, Agnes and Rachel settled down in their rue de l’Odéon apartment in Paris. Agnes painted subjects of the domestic interior of their apartment like a series of still life compositions, continually rearranging views of her everyday life, and often using them as a means to explore the expressive potential of colour combinations. Dunn repeatedly featured as Goodsir’s model, imaged in states of repose and gowned in flamboyant dress creating a sense of a domestic theatre that hovers between pretence and realism.  In her 1927 painting entitled The Hungarian Shawl it is all about colour.  The background is almost bare and uncluttered allowing us to concentrate on the figure.  It is all about the patterns on the shawl’s silky fabric design set against an almost monochromatic background. The depiction is instilled with the diffused interior light and almost resembles a small sketch-like work but at the same time conjures up a luminous sense of colour.

 Agnes Goodsir (left) and Rachel Dunn (aka Cherry) (second from left) at Valerie en Caix, c. 1930

In 1926, Goodsir was made a member of France’s Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, one of few Australians to receive the honour.

Portrait of Sunday Baillieu Quinn, Paris by Agnes Goodsir (1929)

Although Agnes Goodsir’s lifestyle was looked upon, during her lifetime, as being somewhat controversial, it was nothing compared to the colourful lifestyle of the sitter of a portrait Agnes completed in 1929.  The painting was entitled Portrait of Sunday Baillieu Quinn, Paris.  Sunday Reed who was born Lelda Sunday Baillieu in Melbourne on October 15th 1905,  who later with her second husband, became patrons of the arts and established in Bulleen, a suburb of Melbourne, the Heide Museum of Modern Art, also simply known as Heide .  She was the third of four children of Arthur Sydney Baillieu and Ethel Mary Baillieu (née Ham) and was a member of the very affluent Melbourne’s Baillieu family and the niece of William Baillieu, one of Australia’s richest men. She was the third of four children and after being home-schooled from a young age by a governess, completed her education at the prestigious boarding school, St Catherine’s School in Toorak.  In 1924 she accompanied her family to England, where she was presented at court during the débutante season. In 1926, when she was twenty-one, she married an American, Leonard Quinn and the couple left Australia and visited England and France.  In 1929, around about the time of the portrait Lelda, she was diagnosed with gonorrhoea and had to endure several operations including a hysterectomy which left her unable to bear children and causing deafness in her right ear.  Shortly afterwards, her husband deserted her in England and her father and brother had to travel to London to bring her home. By the end of the year the couple were divorced.  

John and Sunday Reed on their wedding day in 1932.

Whilst still convalescing in late 1930, Lelda met her second husband, lawyer John Harford Reed at a tennis party.  Despite the difficulty of obtaining a divorce, powerful family influence and connections prevailed and Sunday’s divorce was finalised in June 1931. She and Reid married in January 1932 in a civil ceremony.  In 1934 John Reid and his wife bought a former dairy farm on the Yarra River at Bulleen, Victoria, which became known as “Heide”.  The couple lived on the property until their deaths in 1981, a short time after, the property had become the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

In the Latin Quarter Studio by Agnes Goodsir (c.1922)

Goodsir’s reputation as a great portrait artist, coupled with her social connections, allowed her to complete portrait commissions of many famous people such as the Australian author and journalist Banjo Patterson, English actress, Ellen Terry, Mussolini, Tolstoy and the Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba.  Despite those portraits of famous people Agnes Goodsir will be remembered for her portraits featuring Rachel Dunn.

In a Paris Studio by Agnes Goodsir (1926)

Although Goodsir was fond of her Australian birthplace, it was Paris that she loved and where she would spend her final days with Rachel. Agnes Goodsir died in Paris on August 11th 1939, aged 75. All of Agnes’s paintings were left to Rachel. Rachel sent forty of her painting to Agnes’s family in Australia and others to Australian galleries. The Goodsir Scholarship of the Bendigo Art Gallery, one of Australia’s oldest and largest regional art gallery, is named in memory of her. Rachel died in 1950 and was buried in the same grave as her constant companion in a cemetery on the outside Paris.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 4.

                                                                            Hilda Rix Nicholas (1910)

Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries.   The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,

                                                                          His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth.  Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:


Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.

It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited,  for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.

            Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris.  It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers).  It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches).  Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration.  The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting.  The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist.   So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us?  Look at the female.  Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll.  Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress.  The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face.  She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner.  She pouts.  What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness?   On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress.  What was the artist’s reason for that?   Are they from her lover who she has now rejected?  Look at her gaze.  Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes?    So many unanswered questions.  Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!

When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:

“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”

The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.

                                               Le Bigdouen by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany.  Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition.  Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany

                                                      The Fair Musterer by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1935 )

At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland .  Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe.  Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright.  For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne.   In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix.  Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art.  Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.

                 The Shepherd of Knockalong by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1933)

Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate.  It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting.  The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child,  was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.

                                                    Rix – The artists son by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1948 )

Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today.  There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be.  His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.

                                                                     The Shearer by Rix Wright (1949)

Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.

Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her.  In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:

“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”

                   Rix Wright, son of Hilda Rix Nichols Wright

At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney.  It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.

Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 3.

The Pink Scarf by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1918)

In March 1918, Hilda Rix Nicholas left England on a sea voyage back to Australia.  She and her late husband’s brother, Athol Nicholas, arrived in Melbourne on May 10th. She needed to get her love of painting back on track and she did this through the city’s Women’s Art Club and the support of Henrietta Maria Gulliver, one of its founding members.  She was soon back in the groove and in November she was amongst the members of the Art Club whose works were displayed at the Athenaeum Hall.  The art correspondent of the Punch magazine (November 21st, 1918) wrote:

“…The dominating personality of the show is Mrs Hilda Rix Nicholas, who exhibits a charming profile of a young girl entitled The Pink Scarf which is painted in Mrs Nicholas’ most arresting manner…”

                                                        In Picardy by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1914)

When she travelled to Australia Hilda brought with her the sketches and paintings she had completed during her time in Europe and North Africa and over a hundred were exhibited at the Melbourne’s Guild Hall.  The exhibition was a great success and many of her paintings were sold including her 1914 work, In Picardy, which was purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.  The exhibition moved to Sydney and more of her paintings were bought by private collectors as well as several purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.

       Australian Official War Artists by George Coates (1920)

Hilda left Melbourne and moved to Mosman, a coastal suburb on the Lower North Shore of Sydney.  She continued to exhibit her portraits of Australian military men.   She painted heroic images of soldiers which accentuated the spiritual aspects of war and was in line with the thoughts of the day with regards Anzac mythology and the unashamed masculinity of the Australian nationhood.  The paintings were works of unapologetic patriotism.  They were loved by the public but more conservative critics were troubled by the modern and ‘masculine’ characteristics of the exhibition.  With the public liking her patriotic paintings she tendered for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library but was not chosen.  The mural commission was given to Harold Septimus Power.  An official portrait by George Coates in 1920 depicted the Australian War Artists. The group portrait includes the official War Artists; standing l-r: (Sir) John LongstaffCharles BryantGeorge LambertA. Henry FullwoodJames QuinnSeptimus PowerArthur Streeton, seated back l-r: Will DysonFred Leist, front: George Bell.  Note they are all male !

                                                A Man by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1921)

One of her patriotic works was her painting simply entitled A Man.  For her model Hilda chose a returned serviceman.  She must have thought about her late husband as she painted this work.  Look at the way that through her brushstrokes she has affectionately fashioned pockets, buttons, pouches for ammunition and creases in the sleeve.  This anonymous ANZAC hero is framed by stormy skies and with so many of the troops dying on the battlefield one realises that despite the uniform, the tin helmet and rifle they all failed to keep him safe.  Although this is a patriotic depiction it is also a portrayal of defencelessness as much as it is of military might.  Having failed to receive the commission for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library, Hilda abandoned her military portraiture work and began to concentrate on painting local landscapes and portraits.  

                                                                                         Australian Stamp issue

Hilda believed that the public’s taste in art had changed.  Despite the numerous Australian casualties in the First World War, estimated at 62,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. The Australian population wanted not just to think of their dead but consider the future and a reminder of this was to reflect on their beautiful land and the hard-working Australians who remained and were carrying on with their life.  It was not just in art that this desire to look forward was seen, as many writers of the time, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, penned stories who eulogised about the merits of pioneer life.

                               In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback by Hilda Rix Nicholas

In 1922, accompanied by her friend Dorothy Richmond, whom she had met in Sydney around 1919, Hilda set out to paint in rural New South Wales and one of the paintings she completed around this time was one depicting her friend on a horse.  The painting was entitled In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback.

                  Une Australienne (Dorothy Richmond), 1926 by Hilda Rix Nicholas

Hilda completed a portrait of her friend, Dorothy Richmond in 1926, entitled Une Australienne, Dorothy Richmond.  It is a strong portrait of her good friend.  Dorothy is dressed in the height of fashion.  She looks out at us with a forceful pose, one of belief in her self-importance, almost haughty but the look gives her a sense of empowerment.  She has posed with her head turned causing tension on her neck muscles.  This was one of eight pictures Hilda Rix Nicholas had exhibited in the Salon of 1926. The Salon judges were impressed with her work, and she was made an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as a result.

                                                         In Australia, His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

Around 1923, Hilda and Dorothy first travelled to Delegate on a painting trip.  The small New South Wales town was situated just a few kilometres from the state border between New South Wales and Victoria. The area was ideal for landscape painting.  The couple stayed in a property owned by the Wright family and soon Hilda became friendly with Ned Wright and his cousin Edgar.  It was during their stay at Delegate with the Wrights that she completed one of her most well-known works, In Australia, His Land.  The painting was a portrait of Ned Wright, the manager of the property at Delegate.  He is depicted on horseback, with his pipe clasped between his teeth.  His stance is casual, self-assured, and heroic, which was consistent with the up-beat nationalism of Australia at the time. The backdrop to the portrait is a panoramic view of an Australian pastoral landscape.  

             Through the gum trees, Toongabbie by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1920)

A similar setting can be seen in her 1920 work, Through the Gum Trees, Toongabbie. It is a commemorative depiction of the Australian landscape, which she held so dearly. For Hilda it was a way of paying homage to the land of her birth.  It is a painting full of light and for Hilda it was all about recording the beautiful landscape.  We can imagine the joy and pride she got from painting the scene as we look at the distant land through the trees which have cast giant shadows on the ground.  She commented on why she wanted to spend her time depicting the Australian landscape, giving her reason as:

“…show the people [of Europe] what is possessed in a land of beauty where the colour scheme is so different, and which sent so many gallant men to the struggle for liberty…”

                              The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1922)

Another of her paintings, Three Sisters, Blue Mountains of that time captured the spectacular view of the Three Sisters.  It is an unusual rock formation representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend were turned to stone. The character of the Three Sisters changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons as the sunlight brings out the magnificent colours.  The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and ‘Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe.  These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry.  As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.

 It was always in Hilda’s plans to return to Europe and take with her the collection of landscape works she had built up in the previous six years and so, after a successful exhibition of her work in Sydney in 1923 she packed up her things and was ready to return to France.  In 1924, Hilda, along with her travelling companion, Dorothy Richmond, set sail, on the SS Ormonde, for France, with the intention of exhibiting her work.  Also, aboard the vessel was the Australian Olympic team travelling to the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics and the Adelaide Chronicle of July 19th 1924 carried a fascinating story about an incident on the voyage:

“…The Australian artist, Mrs. Rix Nicholas, has been included amongst Australia’s aspirants for Olympic honours. This surprising information comes from a member of the team in a letter to his parents, received only this week. On the voyage home aboard the Ormonde it was noticed that one of the passengers paid particular attention to the athletes when they were on deck for daily training.  Day by day she continued to study every member at work. Eventually she summoned sufficient courage to approach the manager (Mr Merrett), with the request that the team be lined up. He agreed, and Mrs. Nicholas selected a certain member as a model. Although somewhat embarrassed, he agreed to pose. When the team arrived in Paris it was learned that an artists’ competition was to be held, in conjunction with the Olympic games, and it was decided that Mrs. Nicholas should represent Australia as the Olympic candidate. The painting, when completed, will be entered m the competition for artists.  It was on this account that she was included, and all were overjoyed at having a Woman representative…”

Hilda and Dorothy arrived in Paris in June 1924 and rented a studio in Montparnasse which had formerly been the home of the French painter Rosa Bonheur.  In 1925, Hilda’s works were exhibited at the Georges Petit Galerie in Paris, which was a popular alternative exhibition space to the official Salon.  Her paintings were much admired by the critics and public and the exhibition was deemed a great success.  Her success in Paris was recorded in the February 28th 1925 edition of the Sydney newspaper, The World News, a newspaper published in Sydney, Australia from 1901 to 1955.



Fashioned of the stuff that good and true women are built of, there is little wonder in the cabled news that Mrs. Hilda Rix Nicholas, the clever painter from, the southern Australian State, Victoria, has made good as an artist in Paris, one of the great art centres of Europe.  She is an intensely patriotic Australian, and, swayed by this fine feeling, recently gave an exhibition of her country’s typical scenery and atmosphere in a series of exquisite paintings that attracted the Parisian critics and the public. Notwithstanding that she was already represented in the Luxembourg National Gallery, the French Government purchased one of the group, entitled “In Australia,” for the same gallery, which has only two other Australian artists represented, viz.. [Arthur] Streeton and [Rupert]Bunny.

……………… be concluded.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 2. Morocco and many family tragedies

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

It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel.  Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists.  An example of this is her work entitled Morocco Marketplace with the Pile of Oranges.  It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.   

                            Men in the Marketplace by Hilda Rix (1914)

In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier.   It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation.  She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows.  We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light.  Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun.  She wrote:

“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”

                                                       Grande Marché, Tangier by Hilda Rix (1916)

Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils.  When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg.  Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes.  Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child.  The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work.  He further commented:

“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”

Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:

“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”

 Moroccan Market Scene by Hilda Rix Nicholas (crayon and pastel on paper)

The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West.  In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.

                           Moroccan Loggia by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1912-1914)

Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture.  It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:

“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”

Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient.  Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia.   There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her. 

                             Hilda Rix painting in Tangier market place (1914)

Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted.  Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic

                                         The Arab Sheep Market Tangier by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier.   The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds.  Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting.  Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.

                                Grandmère by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère.  It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background.  Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. 

                                           Hilda with her mother and sister during European trip.

Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples.  The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London.  If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies.  Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England.  Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home.  At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37.  Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news.   Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter.  For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings.  She remembered the time saying:

“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”

 Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.

Hilda and Matson after the marriage

Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne.   George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers.  Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher.  He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded.  Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post.   His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios.  Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.   

Major George Matson Nicholas charcoal and pastel drawing by Hilda Rix Nicholas drew this portrait of her new husband two days after their wedding on October 9th 1916

Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion,  He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.

                                           These Gave the World Away by Hilda Rix Nicholas, (1917)

Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live.  In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works.  One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.

                                               Central panel of Pro Humanitate by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1917)

Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas.  The work comprised of three panels.  The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity.  Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose.  The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero.  Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the  Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.

                                                           Desolation by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1917)

She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation.  This work depicts an emaciated woman crying.  She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us.  The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation.   The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work.  In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:

“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield.  The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”

Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.

…………………………….to be continued.

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! …”

………………… be continued.

Florence Ada Fuller

Florence Fuller (1867 – 1946)

The artist I am featuring today is the South African-born, Australian portrait and landscape artist Florence Ada Fuller.  She was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1867, one of several children of Louisa and John Hobson Fuller.  As a child, she emigrated with her family to Melbourne.  In 1883, aged sixteen years of age, Florence attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and for two years between 1884 and 1886 she worked part-time as a nanny.

Going Out with the Tide by Robert Hawker Dowling (c.1882)

During this period she received artistic tuition from her English-born uncle Robert Hawker Dowling, a painter of orientalist and Aboriginal subjects, as well as portraits and miniatures. He was Melbourne’s most sought-after portraitist of the early to mid 1880’s

Sir Henry Loch by Robert Hawker Dowling(1885)

One of his portraits was the 1885 one of Sir Henry Loch, later 1st Baron Loch of Drylaw, who was Governor of Victoria from1884 to 1889. This portrait was completed by 1885 and shown in exhibitions in that year.

Barak – last chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe of Aborigines by Florence Fuller (1885)

In 1885, through the good auspice of her uncle, Florence, then eighteen years old, received a commission from Ann Fraser Bon, the Scottish-born philanthropist and a formidable woman who fought strenuously to protect the limited rights of Aboriginal people.  She asked Florence to complete a formal oil on canvas portrait of William Barak, the leader of the Wurundjeri people, who was also an artist, and who became an advocate and leader in the wider Aboriginal community.  The work was acquired by the State Library of Victoria.  It is interesting to note how two art critics viewed the finished portrait.  One complimented the way in which Fuller avoided romanticising Aboriginal people while another critic said that in his opinion the portrait was an idealisation of the man rather than a truthful portrait.

Amy, the Artist’s Sister by Florence Fuller

In 1886, Robert Dowling, returned to England and Florence gave up her work as a governess and decided to concentrate on her art, opening up her own studio in Melbourne.  For all aspiring artists, to get a wealthy patron is an ideal start to their artistic career and Florence Fuller procured one by a strange turn of fate.  Her uncle who had completed the portrait of Sir Henry Loch had started on a portrait of his wife but had not completed it by the time he went on his visit to London.  Sadly, in 1886, aged fifty-nine, he died shortly after arriving in England.  Florence was then asked by Sir Henry Loch to complete his wife’s portrait, which she did and Lady Loch was so pleased with the end result, she became Fuller’s patron.

Dawn Landscape by Florence Fuller (1905)

Florence later received tuition from the Australian landscape painter, Jane Sutherland.  Sutherland, who had been born in New York, emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1864 when she was eleven years of age.  She was one of the founding members of the plein-air movement in Australia, and a member of the Heidelberg School, an Australian art movement which has often been described as Australian Impressionism.  Sutherland was also one of few professional female artists and had to constantly strive for equality and fought hard to further the professional reputation of female artists during the late nineteenth century.

Weary by Florence Fuller (1888)

In 1888, Fuller completed a pair of realism paintings featuring poverty.  They were entitled Weary and Desolate and both featured child poverty against the backdrop of a ship berthed at the docks in Melbourne. The powerful imagery of the painting, Weary,  depicting a homeless child was a potent declaration on the disadvantaged in sharp contrast to the booming economy of the Australian city and although similar paintings by English Victorian realist artists were common this artistic work of urban realism was a shaming of Australian society and its injustice and as such, was very unusual. Look how Fuller has included the tattered advertising hoarding, its message frayed and in shreds weathered by time and the elements almost making its messages unintelligible.  The title of the work is based on the poem, Weariness, by Longfellow with its opening lines:

“…O little feet! that such long years

Must wander on through hopes and fears,

Must ache and bleed beneath your load…”

Inseparables by Florence Fuller (1891)

At an exhibition of the Victorian Artists’ Society in 1889 Fuller won a prize for the best portrait by an artist under the age of 25. Another portrait of a child by Fuller which has a happier connotation is her 1890 work Inseparables which depicts a child reading her book.  The joy the child gets from reading is depicted in this warm painting.   One of the interesting things about studying a painting is our “take” on it.  A good example of this is how this painting was viewed by two very different experts.  The work was shown as part of The Edwardians exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia and the curator saw the depiction as a “love of reading”.  On the other hand, the Australian art historian Dr Catherine Speck looked upon the work as being all about “subversion” because it portrayed a young woman reading and by doing so “gaining knowledge” rather than the stereotypical role of a family and home maker.

Lady in a Wicker Chair by Florence Fuller

Another of Fuller’s paintings which focused on the enjoyment of reading was her work Lady in a Wicker Chair.  In the depiction, we see the lady leaning forward, as if someone is coming into the room where she is reading. She ensures that she doesn’t lose the place in her book by marking it with her hand. Look how Fuller has made sure the attention of the viewer is solely on the lady by darkening and blurring the detail of the background.

Sydney Harbour (View Across Double Bay from Darling Point) by Florence Fuller (c. 1920)

In 1892, she, accompanied by her married sister Christie, left Australia, and travelled to Cape Town to recuperate from an illness.  She and her sister were the guests of her uncle Sir Thomas Ekins Fuller, a member of the Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope and it was through him that she was introduced to Cecil Rhodes, the British businessman, mining magnate and South African politician, who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.   She left South Africa in 1894 but before she went she completed a painting depicting the home of Cecil Rhodes.  Fuller returned in 1899 and had a number of meetings with Rhodes in order to put together studies for five portraits of him.

Whilst Yet the Days are Wintry by Florence Fuller

In 1894 Florence travelled to Europe.  Her first port of call was Paris where she enrolled at the Académie Julian, where one of her tutors was William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  It was at a time when French art schools had just recently opened their doors to women.  This was not a popular move with many of the male artists, who felt threatened and the aspiring female painters were often held in contempt by some of the male tutors.  The female students at the Académie often suffered from lowly and congested conditions.  Whilst there, she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon in 1896 and again in 1897.  Her works were also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897 and later in 1904, as well as being hung at exhibitions at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Manchester City Art Gallery.

The Swan River, Perth by Florence Fuller (c.1904)

She returned to Australia in 1904 and for the next five years lived in Perth, where her sister Amy lived.  Fuller held an exhibition of 41 works in Perth in 1905, and the newspaper proprietor Winthrop Hackett described one of her paintings, Early Morning, which was later purchased for the Art Gallery of Western Australia:

“…it is probably the greatest success in the domain of pure impressionism … because of its pure tone, its admirable perspective and its strongly vivid reproduction of that mysterious and evanescent but always brilliant colouring that is momentarily lent by the sunrise…”

A Golden Hour by Florence Fuller (1905)

In 1905, she completed a painting entitled A Golden Hour.  When the National Gallery of Australia bought the painting in 2013 they described it as:

“…a masterpiece … giving us a gentle insight into the people, places and times that make up our history…”

The depiction is of a tranquil early evening, the end of a beautiful day.  The sun is slowly setting and it gives off a warm glow over the xanthorrhoea, grasses and wildflowers, and lights up the trunks of the white gum trees. In the midground we see a couple walking side by side through the wildflowers towards the valley. Look at the mountains and the sky in the background which have been painted in many pink tones, adding tranquillity to the scene.  If we close our eyes we can sense this calmness, this serenity, and soon our imagination even allows us to hear the sound of birds as they circle the gum trees.  The setting of the landscape is the Darling Ranges in Western Australia, and the couple we see in the painting are John Winthrop Hackett, businessman, philanthropist and owner of the West Australian newspaper, and his new wife Deborah Vernon Hackett, née Drake-Brockman, who had married Hackett in 1905, when she was just eighteen years of age, much to the horror of her family. When exhibited in October 1905 the art critic for The Western Australian newspaper called the painting the pièce de résistance of Fuller’s exhibition. Many of the art critics of the time were also complimentary with regards to the work, citing the expertly balanced composition and the masterful way Fuller had depicted the hills and sky but most of all praised ‘the wonderful light effects which they referred to as ‘the golden glories of late afternoon’.

Deborah Vernon Hackett by Florence Fuller (c.1908)

The lady depicted in A Golden Hour also appeared in another painting by Florence Fuller, entitled Portrait of Deborah Vernon Hackett, which she completed around 1908.  Hackett was born in West Guildford, Western Australia, in 1887, she was the daughter of surveyor Frederick Slade Drake-Brockman and heroine Grace Vernon Bussell and younger sister of Edmund Drake-Brockman.  On August 3rd 1905, at the age of 18, she married Sir John Winthrop Hackett who was forty years her senior much to the annoyance of her family. He was a newspaper proprietor, newspaper editor, and prominent Western Australian politician.  Fuller depicted Hackett compassionately.  The portrayal capturing the young woman’s grace and charm. But she also conveyed the complexity of the twenty-one-year old woman’s character through the contrast between the femininity of her soft, pale-blue dress and the dramatic black hat.  She gazes directly at us.  It is a somewhat piercing expression questioning why we are staring at her.

Girl with a Doll by Florence Fuller (1890)

Florence Fuller joined the local theosophy society in Perth in May 1905, after attending a talk given by the enigmatic theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater.  Fuller’s time was taken up by the local branch of the society variously holding the positions of secretary, treasurer, and librarian of the local branch.  She went on to paint many portraits of the leaders of the Theosophical Society.  In 1911, she travelled to London and three years later journeyed to India and visited Adyar, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society.

Florence Fuller in her Studio

Later that year Fuller returned to NSW and settled in Mosman where she mainly painted miniatures.  In 1920, the Society of Women Painters in New South Wales established a School of Fine and Applied Arts, with Florence Fuller appointed as the inaugural teacher of life classes.  Fuller began to suffer from mental illness, which deteriorated over time, and in 1927, at the age of sixty, she was committed to Gladesville Mental Asylum where she died nearly two decades later, on July 17th 1946, aged seventy-nine. She was buried at Rookwood Cemetery, New South Wales.

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