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