Eaglemont in the ’Eighties: Beginnings of art in Australia [16 October 1934]

[Editor: An article by Arthur Streeton, one of the leading figures of the “Heidelberg School” of Australian art. Published in The Argus, 16 October 1934.]

Eaglemont in the ’Eighties

Beginnings of art in Australia

By Arthur Streeton

It is difficult to set down the early history of Heidelberg as a centre of artistic interest without slipping into that which most of us try to avoid, namely, self-revelation. But, being the first painter to begin work at Eaglemont, and being the only survivor possessing the facts, I will attempt to give an unbiased account of the times in which interest has been reawakened by the plans in train to hold a Centenary exhibition of the work of artists who have lived and worked in Heidelberg.

The chief workers in what has been called the Heidelberg School were Roberts, Conder, and Streeton. All honour to the memory of Tom Roberts, who returned from Europe with the then new principle known as impressionism, at a time, 1886, when the painting master at the National Gallery school insisted upon studies being painted with a foundation of bitumen and vermilion, and when there was no sale whatever for Australian pictures excepting the superficial and trivial productions of Karl Kahler, Signor Rolando, and others now forgotten. Roberts arrived in Australia’s early period of artistic poverty, and showed us the first examples of plein air painting, or painting landscapes, &c., out of doors, directly from Nature, instead of indoors, and from memory.

An exhibition of paintings by Roberts, Conder, and Streeton, called the 9 by 5 exhibition of impressions, was opened at Buxton’s Gallery, Swanston street, on August 17, 1889. It was derided by the principal newspaper critic of the day. This criticism was so violent that we pasted it up at the street entrance to our exhibition. The people thronged the exhibition to view the dreadful paintings, and the exhibits, priced from one guinea to three guineas each, were almost all sold within two or three days. The pictures were framed in bulk by a timber merchant. The catalogues, with two original designs by Charles Conder, were priced 6d. each; but to-day they could scarcely be purchased for 10 guineas each. This triumph for painting in the open air was a turning-point in the history of art in Australia.

Three Eager Pioneers

Roberts, Conder, and Streeton were members of the pioneer band who re-formed the original Victorian Artists’ Society 48 years ago, and built the present gallery in East Melbourne. They were the foundation members of the original Australian Artists’ Association about 48 years ago. Roberts was the founder and first president of the Society of Artists in Sydney. He was also the first person, 48 years ago, to bring bunches of gum-tips to the city for the decoration of his studio. Gum-tips now come to the city in tons. Roberts was ever generous in helping any struggling and gifted young student.

Conder arrived from England early in the ’80s. He joined a surveyor’s camp in New South Wales as cook, and he became so extravagant with tins of preserved milk that he lost his situation. Moving[?] to Sydney, he joined B. E. Minns in illustrating a newspaper. His first paintings were influenced by a brilliant Italian artist of noble birth named Nerli, whose new[?] portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson were the only good portraits of the writer. Conder’s work at this time was known as belonging to his dark period, as witness his painting of the Orient in the Sydney Gallery. Roberts arrived in Sydney and went by appointment to take tea with Madame Roth, a woman artist. The hostess was not there, but Roberts found a handsome young man already seated and awaiting tea. He was Conder. After some conversation and their hostess not appearing, they departed, and their strong friendship began. After having seen Roberts painting Conder’s work altered at once, and his pictures ever afterward were painted in the simple, lighter tones of impressionsism. This is evident in “Richmond Farm,” lately in the possession of the veteran artist, Julian Ashton. This was probably painted after Conder’s meeting with Roberts.

A little, later Conder came to Melbourne and joined Streeton at Eaglemont during the summer of 1888-1889. At 21 years Conder was a man of the world. He had read extensively, was familiar with the art[?] lyric verse, had remarkable personal charm, and was altogether the most resourceful man as a painter that I have ever known. He left for London in 1890, and ultimately he earned a remarkable reputation in Europe as a distinctive decorative artist. His precious fans and other colourful designs on silk must now be very difficult to obtain, because of his individual and rare gifts as a colourist and designer.

Influence of Impressionism

There is no doubt that the new impressionism revealed by Roberts directly influenced and improved the works of Conder and Streeton. The published opinions of such competent authorities in New South Wales as Lionel Lindsay and Julian Ashton claim that the work of Conder had a strong influence upon the work of Streeton. Sir William Rothenstein, of London, states that Conder’s work was influenced by Streeton. However these opinions may stand, I feel that if my work reflects Conder’s influence I should feel pride, for he and Roberts were the most intimate and generous friends I ever had in our labours of last century. Also, Mr. Arthur Streeton, who, in the accompanying article, tells the story of the beginnings of art in Australia, giving many hitherto unpublished facts. I should like to put on record the following facts :— The following list of representative works of mine were painted and practically completed before Conder and I had met, or had seen anything of each other’s paintings :— 1, “Australian December,” 28 by 16; 2, “Pastoral, Box Hill,” 45 x 30; 3, “Selector’s Tent,” 40 x 30; 4, “Gorse in Bloom,” 40 x 25; 5, “Golden Summer,” 60 x 30; 6, “Twilight Pastoral,” 27 x 13; 7, “Still Glides the Stream,” 60 x 30; 8, “Spring Pastoral,” 60 x 30.

The first fine landscape painted in Victoria was painted by the pioneer, Louis Buvelot. It is called “A Summer Evening Near Templestowe.” It belongs to the National Gallery, although it has not hung on the walls for some years. It was my interest in this picture which caused me to walk from Heidelberg station to Templestowe, and paint a small canvas, later bought by Roberts for one guinea, a welcome price in those days. Returning with the wet picture, I met Mr. C. M. Davies and his sister. Mr. Davies was the owner or part-owner of the upland estate of 300 or 400 acres known as Eaglemont. He kindly gave me artistic possession of the old weatherboard homestead, with its 8 or 10 rooms, standing on the summit of the hill, and beautifully surrounded by a little forest of coniferous and other fine trees.

Beginning of Adventure

My first night there I spent alone excepting for the caretaker at the farther end of the house, a bottle of claret, a tallow candle, a plug of tobacco, and my boots and coat for pillow. I slept upon the floor, the rooms being bare of furniture. The whole place was creaking and ghostly. A long dark corridor seemed full of past visions, and out of doors the forest of pines presented a blurred rich blackness against the sharp brilliance of the Southern Cross and the neighbouring two grey smudges of nebulae. But tobacco and wine weighed healthily against the darkness and solitude. Some weeks later two students joined me — Lewellyn Jones and Aby Altson — but neither produced paintings that I can remember. During the long, hot afternoons of 1887 to 1888 I painted several canvases, among them “Golden Summer,” which was later taken to England by Conder. It hung in the Royal Academy of 1891. In 1892 it was hung in a centre of honour in the Paris Salon, where it was awarded “mention honorable,” the first distinction of the kind won for art in Australia. It was bought by Mr. Mitchell, of Armstrong, Whitworth, and Co., and it now hangs in the home of Commander and Mrs. H. P. MacKenzie, at Trawalla.

Many other pictures were painted, and then Conder and Roberts shared my solitary home. Our beds we made of corn-sacks nailed to two saplings, and supported by upright pieces to raise them from the floor. Our seats were old boxes, our dining table was a box with boards placed across it. Our leg of mutton, potatoes, and so forth were all cooked together in a large pail. Our illumination was tallow candles. Surrounded by the loveliness of new landscape, with heat, drought, and flies, and hard pressed for the necessaries of life, we worked hard, and were a happy trio. Only once was our delight clouded by a tiff.

Conder had been sick. The additional washing up and the fierce north wind led to some trilling difference between Roberts and myself. He was determined; I was merely obstinate. We did not speak for two days. Conder went to Robert’s room, and, seating himself on the bed, listened sympathetically to Roberts’s view of the dispute. Then, rising with a cigarette he was rolling, he said, “And now, Roberts; having run with the hare, I shall proceed to run with the hounds.” His witty observation on our trivial difference put an end to the matter instantly, and with laughter we sped down the long slopes to do our shopping in the village.

With our sugar-bag full of bread, meat, and potatoes, and our billycan of milk, we entered the Old England Hotel. We presented a dusty and dishevelled appearance — Conder, like a dreamy Bunthorne; “Smike,” with a lanky, half-starved aspect, and Roberts, the leader, with ardent brown eyes. “Three pints, miss, please.” This to the landlord’s beautiful daughter, conversing with a woodcutter at the farther end of the bar. With a haughty stare of her blue eyes, she replied, “Bring your pints out with you from Collingwood.” Conder and I gazed with mute adoration at her lovely profile. Roberts, whistling ballet music, marched about the corridors and soon found the landlord. A delay of five minutes and Roberts entered with the landlord. There were introductions all round, also pints of ale, and then more pints, and one for the woodcutter. We retired in graceful formation, and with a charming smile from the landlord’s daughter.

Conder and I conducted a class for landscape and still life, and I was a continuous resident for two years. Roberts, with a studio in town for portraiture, painted only a few small impressions at Heidelberg. Conder’s output was limited to four or five canvases of cabinet size, and some “impressions.” Walter Withers painted there for a few days, and then worked at Charterville, an old residence to the south-east, where a new colony of younger painters assembled. For a period I was on the pay-roll of the Brough and Boucicault company at the Bijou Theatre, and earning £ 1 a day assisting W. B. Spong as scene-painter. I worked till late at night, and usually mounted the dark hill-sides for home at 1 o’clock in the morning.

Those Were the Days

Picnics were a frequent diversion in fine weather. The students from the National Gallery and their friends arrived in great numbers. Present at some of our festivities were the older artists of Melbourne — Paterson, Ball, McCubbin, Withers, Walton, Lourevio, Annear, John Sandes, one of the original contributors to the “Passing Show” column of “The Argus,” and many others. The large gatherings entertained themselves with singing and dancing, the old game of rounders, flirtations, and general festivity. They were guided back to the Heidelberg station in the late evening by me, bearing a large chinese lantern. It is remarkable that our sylvan head-quarters, Eaglemont, possessed no building 46 years ago but the old ruin we lived in. It is now covered with homes and gardens. It is only 6½ miles from Melbourne Post-office. The history of painting and Heidelberg dates from that particular chance meeting with Mr. C. M. Davies and his kindness to his artist friends at Eaglemont.

Upon the departure of Conder for London and Paris, Roberts and I gave up Heidelberg, and went to live and paint in Sydney. So our activities at Heidelberg ceased in 1890. The impressionism brought by Roberts from overseas has influenced the work of most of the best Australian painters. Conder’s original vision is exemplified by a small canvas, “The North Wind,” a semi-nude figure advancing along a hillside. Before the figure the earth is covered with green growth. The figure’s hair and garments are warm-coloured in orange and reds, and all the vegetation the figure has passed through is parched and dry and desolate. I was the first artist to hold a “one-man show” in Australia, and in 1885 I imported from Boston (U.S.) the first photographs or representations of the work of Corot to be seen in Australia.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Tuesday 16 October 1934, page 49

[Editor: Three words in the article are unclear and have been marked with a question mark in square brackets: “Moving[?]”, “new[?]”, and “art[?]”.]

Speak Your Mind