State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 24 October 1979


The Art of Frederick Mccubbin and The Impact of the First War

The experience of the first war had a pervasive, almost inescapable influence upon the mythmaking process in the writing of Australian art history. The Art of Frederick McCubbin (published by T. C. Lothian and Co. in 1916) was a product of the war years and played a significant role in initiating and perpetuating myths regarding the Heidelberg School. Some valuable insights into how and why such erroneous interpretations arose, may be gleaned from a closer study of the circumstances under which the book was written.
In 1914 Fred McCubbin announced the forthcoming publication in a letter to his friend, Tom Roberts: ‘its a brave attempt and I hope there is enough patriosum [sic] to find necessary subscribers … if it succeeds it will be I think a good [thing?] for Australian efforts.'1 Ironically it was the same nationalistic impulse which caused the departure overseas of the book's first editor, J. S. MacDonald, who went to war leaving the manuscript incomplete. This necessitated the introduction of a second editor who (as the preface of the book states) was ‘almost wholly responsible for the Biographical Section though in every case where he has found it possible, he has made use of the notes left by Mr. MacDonald.'2
The identity of the writer of the biographical section was not given.
A handwritten manuscript of the biogrophy recently discovered in the papers of the Lothian Publishing Company held in the La Trobe Library now establishes that the second author was none other than McCubbin's own son, Alexander.3 After leaving school, Alexander McCubbin (1893–1948) had joined the Lothian Company. He was probably the logical choice to succeed MacDonold in writing the biography and his anonymous authorship is understandable.4
Certain advantages must have accrued from Alexander's close collaboration in the book. For instance, both Alexander and MacDonald had access to McCubbin's earlier memoir which is published for the first time in this issue of the La Trobe Library Journal and, as a result, some incidents described in The Art of Frederick McCubbin have the veracity of a first hand account.5 The implications for the writing of Australian art history were more far reaching. In paying a warm, personal tribute to his father in the biography, Alexander created a nostalgic, romantic view of the past. Some of the opinions expressed in the book reflect Fred McCubbin's own retrospective judgements of the Heidelberg era; these judgements, in turn, were influenced and shaped by the nationalistic fervour of the war period.
The account of the ‘eighties in The Art of Frederick McCubbin appears clouded by a later consciousness of the development of a ‘new school of Australian Painting’, for instance—‘It was as though this land of ours was stirring its limbs as it emerged from a long period of physical activity and struggle, and opening its eyes to the beauty and glory of its spiritual side. This awakening, this premonition of great glorious things to come …'6
In a similar vein, Alexander tends to minimize the significance of ‘outside’ influences upon his father's artistic development and thus highlights McCubbin's individual achievement. Nowhere is this more evident than in ht romantic image of McCubbin working in ‘complete solitude’ during his Macedon period: ‘The painter was absorbing the bush, imbibing its spirit as perhaps no other Australian painter has ever done’7 Alexander's description of McCubbin's trip to Europe in 1907, though based on letters McCubbin wrote home, is sometimes narrowly selective in its interpretation of the facts.8 He claims that McCubbin ‘came away from Paris with no more distinct recollections of it than that of the fountains playing in the garden of Versailles.'9 The statement may possibly indicate McCubbin's later recollection of events but it is certainly contradicted in a letter he wrote to his wife from Paris: ‘Puvis de [Chavannes] … a dream of quiet tender colour … the impressionists some of them very very fine Manet and Monet… [Sisley] very fine.'10
Perhaps Alexander's greatest sin of omission occurs in his treatment of McCubbin's Brighton period from 1895 until 1901. He chose not to make specific reference to an interesting passage in MacDonald's notes: ‘He [McCubbin] had not been long in Brighton when Fox and Tucker who had been studying in Paris returned in a manner somewhat like the return of Roberts for they brought back new ideas which much impressed McCubbin and caused him to break away largely from the usual style of work he was up till then doing … McCubbin had anticipated the refraction of colour theory brought back triumphantly from Paris by Fox and Turner … [McCubbin] himself says that the desire to test the limits of high key which these new notions permitted brought his work dangerously near being anaemic in colour … [Tucker] preached the gospel of broken colour with Monet as its prophet’.11 The suggested influence of Fox and Tucker upon the formation of McCubbin's style during this period warrants consideration by today's historian.12
The Art of Frederick McCubbin concludes with a chapter, ‘Some Remarks on the history of Australian Art’ attributed to McCubbin himself. The chapter is in fact an edited version of a lecture McCubbin delivered at the National Gallery of Victoria on 25 August 1915.13 A manuscript of the original lecture, written in McCubbin's hand, indicates that allusions to the war were deleted when Alexander re-wrote the piece for publication.14 For McCubbin, the war was a traumatic and moving experience; four months before he delivered his lecture, ‘A plea for Australian Art’, his son Hugh (1895–1976) had been wounded at Gallipoli. In a letter to Roberts he confessed that ‘It knoked me a bit and I had a bit of a break down’.15 The pronounced nationalistic bias of McCubbin's interpretation of the Heidelberg era becomes more comprehensible given his intensely patriotic feelings towards the war.16
The earlier colonial period—that of artists like Eugene von Guerard and Nicholas Chevalier — is diminished in McCubbin's opinion by comparison with the Heidelberg period. He perpetuates the myth that these colonial artists viewed the country through ‘foreign eyes’: ‘There was something Alien in the thought of a greater number of them something derivative of European memories and experience … the thing that strikes an Australian student in a good deal of their work is the lack of understanding of local colour’.17 One can detect in embryo here a later cliched view of the ‘native’ Heidelberg artists as the painters of the intense heat and light of the Australia bush.
From the distance of 1915, McCubbin now remembers the 'eighties as something of a golden age — ‘a period of great enthusiasm’ when ‘a people [were] just beginning to express themselves’. Alexander's interpretation is clearly indebted to his father's nostalgic reflections upon a distant, untroubled past. In contradistinction to the account in his earlier memoir, McCubbin now locates in the 'eighties the birth of a ‘New School … [whose members] had their war cry in the Idea of related values and the necessity to paint everything on the spot’. The famous 9 × 5 exhibition is selected as the culmination of the ‘movement's’ endeavours: ‘An Exhibition held in Melbourne at that time called a Impressionist Show met with very severe comment by one of our leading dailies. But still this group of painters held fast to their Ideals … ’ Significantly, for today's historian, McCubbin identifies the aims of the 9 × 5 exhibition with the pursuit of ‘relative values’ in art, an artistic credo which stemmed from the open air realism popularized by Jules Bastien Lepage and not from the French Impressionists.18
McCubbin's lecture suggests the impetus the war gave to a narrow, insular interpretation of Australian art: ‘unless a Student can express himself with some individuality of character for [he] is not likly [sic] to do so merly [sic] by a few years experience of Europe’. Such an attitude is clearly at odds with existing evidence of McCubbin's profound desire to visit Europe and the great impact it made upon him when he finally did so.19 Admittedly, McCubbin avoids postulating a stereotyped ‘true’ vision of the Australian

Frederick McCubbin's painting ‘What the little girl saw in the bush’ 1912 (or 1913) The present location of this painting is unknown.

landscape. He is careful to point out that ‘light and [atmosphere] are not the exclusive property of Australia’, that the country ‘offers an infinite variety of motives for pictorial illustration.’ and he acknowledged the distinctive contribution made by individual artists like Walter Withers, David Davies and Streeton.
When discussing Streeton's Purple Noon's Transparent Might, thoughts of the war impinge upon and direct McCubbin's judgement: ‘a poem of raidint [sic] light so steeped in the feeling and [atmosphere] of Australia a picture that points to our motto Advance Australia … a land of a free people of [stalwart] men and noble Womanhood of liberty loving institutions … this land so far from the Motherland … this picture of raident [sic] light and beauty may be a symbol of our future’.20 In his deliberate association of the painterly description of the landscape with abstract ideas of nationhood, McCubbin anticipates later nationalistic interpretations of Streeton's art, both by Streeton himself and other artists like Lionel Lindsay. McCubbin also contributes to the heroisation of Streeton as the ‘untutored genius’ of Australian art in praising Purple Noon's Transparent Might for ‘the brilliancy of light and colour that the French Impressionists … endeavour to obtain by a somewhat mannered convention and on a large scale a monstourus [sic] tecenique [sic]’.21 There is more than a note of irony here when one considers McCubbin's own long studentship and his professed admiration for French Impressionist paintings.
The central contention of ‘A plea for Australian Art’ may be summarized in McCubbin's words that the existence of art ‘as National assert [sic] will depend upon its being an unconscious expression in some form of the Ideals of the people among which its was made’.
The expression of national ideals is manifest in McCubbin's overtly nationalistic paintings like On the Wallaby Track (1896) and The Pioneer (1904–5). However, a similar purpose may inform a painting such as What the Little Girl Saw in the Bush of 1912 (or 1913?) whose subject ultimately derives from European fairy tales.22 Here, McCubbin takes the commonplace fairy tale theme of enchantment in the woods and translates it into a specifically Australian setting. The Australianization of European fairy tales was a task to which McCubbin and his nationalistically inclined artistic contemporaries willingly contributed. They included Henry Lawson, Atha Westbury, Ethel Pedley and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite who illustrated many children's fairy tales early this century.23
In his lecture, McCubbin dismisses as ‘fashions’ contemporary European art movements such as Cubism and Futurism. His arbitrary dismissal of them stemmed from his overriding committment to the significance of the subject in art.24 Without a ‘genuine’ subject there could be no meaningful expression of a national ideal: ‘If you want a new art of that kind you must get a new human Nature a new Morality and a new Literature’.
McCubbin's failure to accept the viability of new art movements is prophetic of the retrogressive, anti-modernist attitudes that adulation of the Heidelberg School was to encourage in Australian art by the nineteen twenties.
Leigh Astbury


Frederick McCubbin to Tom Roberts, 9 January, 1914 in Letters to Tom Roberts ms. Mitchell Library, Sydney. The Art of Frederick McCubbin (Melbourne, T. C. Lothian and Co., 1916) was issued as a limited edition with subscribers paying two guineas a copy.


cf. an unsigned duplicate of a letter dated 14 June 1916 (presumably by T. C. Lothian) addressed to James MacDonald's army camp in Egypt. In Lothian Papers Box 6. La Trobe Library, Melbourne.


Lothian Papers Box 57, La Trobe Library. A handwritten note at the beginning of the document, signed and dated by McCubbin's son, Louis, identifies Alexander as the author.


Personal information from McCubbin's daughter, Mrs. Kathleen Mangan; Alexander's name appears in the Minutes of the Director's Meetings of T. C. Lothian and Co. on 26 July 1915 (information courtesy of Mr. Louis Lothian) and again on 30 April 1917; cf. Letters addressed to ‘Mr. McCubbin’ dated 14 September 1916 and 28 April 1917 in Lothian Papers Box 6, La Trobe Library.


Specific incidents recounted in McCubbin's memoir are repeated in Alexander's and MacDonald's manuscripts; Alexander established his own publishing company and published Frederick McCubbin: A Consideration written by Alexander Colquhoun (a fellow student of McCubbin at the Gallery School) in 1919; see also Colquhoun's article on McCubbin in the Age, 26 November 1932.


Frederick McCubbin op cit. pp 60–61.


Ibid p. 65.


Pages 73–75 of Frederick McCubbin are in fact an edited version of letters to be found in the McCubbin Papers, La Trobe Library; see also typed letter dated 11 July 1907 in Lothian Papers, La Trobe Library.


Frederick McCubbin op cit p. 76.


Undated letter, evidently from Paris, in McCubbin Papers, La Trobe Library.


Lothian Papers Box 31, La Trobe Library. The typewritten manuscript is unsigned and annotated in Alexander's hand, but gaps left in Alexander's draft for the biography correlate with specific passages of this document and clearly indicate that MacDonald was the author; cf. Frederick McCubbin op cit. pp. 62–3.


For the influence of Fox and Tucker, see Ruth Zubans, ‘The Early Works of Phillips Fox: France and Australia’ in C. B. Christesen (ed.) The Gallery on Eastern Hill (Melbourne, Victorian Artists' Society, 1970).


cf. Victorian Artists' Society 1 July 1915 and the Age 26 August 1915 p. 9 for a newspaper article on McCubbin's lecture.


‘A plea for Australian Art’ in Lothian Papers Box 57. La Trobe Library.


McCubbin to Roberts, 16 October 1916. Letters to Tom Roberts Vol. 2. Mitchell Library.


cf McCubbin's letter to Roberts, 9 September 1914. Vol. 2. Mitchell Library: ‘We must crush those German dogs’.


‘A plea for Australian Art’ op cit. Following quotations in my text derive from this manuscript: cf. Frederick McCubbin op cit. pp. 83–4.


cf. Frederick McCubbin op cit. p. 57, 59–60.


Much evidence is to be found in letters written by McCubbin to Roberts, both before and after his trip, in Letters to Tom Roberts. Mitchell Library.


In the manuscript, McCubbin had crossed out the lines which followed: ‘ … we may contrast with the blood stained Tyranny and blackened Horror of a country that our beloved children are laying down their lives to destroy’.


cf. Frederick McCubbin op cit. p. 89.


The painting may be that referred to in The Age 1 May 1913 — ‘bush subject, Fairies Away’. The subject of fairies existed as an independent genre in Victorian and Edwardian painting. See Jeremy Maas, Victorian Painters (London, Barrie and Rockliff, 1969); Alexander, in Frederick McCubbin (p.38) suggests the McCubbin saw the well-known pantomine ‘Babes in the Wood’ when he was a schoolboy. The pantomine was still playing in Melbourne as late as 1915. See Table Talk 2 September 1915.


Henry Lawson, ‘The Babies in the Bush’ in The Bulletin 8 December 1900 and the prose story of the same name in Joe Wilson and His Mates (1901); Atha Westbury, Australian Fairy Tales (London, Ward Lock, 1897); Ethel Pedley. Dot and the Kangaroo (London, Burleigh, 1899); and Outhwaite's illustrations for Mollie's Staircase (Melbourne, Hutchinson, 1906) and Before the Lamps are Lit (Melbourne, Robertson. 1911).


McCubbin says of the old masters: ‘It never entered their heads that the method of expression was more important than the thing to be expressed’; see William Moore Studio Sketches (Melbourne, William Moore, 1906) pp. 15–16.