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.