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INSIGHTS

Image above:
Frederick McCubbin

(Picnic at Studley Park) (detail) 1885
oil on canvas
82.5 x 122.3 cm
Private collection, Melbourne

Introduction

Image: Frederick McCubbin The city’s toil 1887

Frederick McCubbin
The city’s toil 1887
oil on canvas
76.0 x 136.6 cm
Famdal Collection, Sydney


 

The dynamic new art movement, Australian Impressionism, emerged and flourished in Melbourne in the 1880s. Many factors – the city’s booming economy, the surge in the sense of national identity, the increasing cultural sophistication of the city, the rise in leisure time and activities and the connection the artists had with the latest international art and ideas through trade and travel – created the context in which Australian Impressionism developed. The artists painted the life they saw around them in the city and the bush and coastal sites they could reach easily on the suburban rail network. The story of Australian Impressionism is closely linked with the story of Melbourne.

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Marvellous Melbourne: boom and bust

Image: Tom Roberts Allegro con brio, Bourke St West (c.1885-86)

Tom Roberts
Allegro con brio, Bourke St West (c.1885–86)
51.2 x 76.7 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased, 1918

 

Image: The Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880

The Melbourne International Exhibition:
The Opening Ceremony,
1880. La Trobe Picture Collection -
State Library of Victoria

 

Image: The Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880

The Melbourne International Exhibition:
arranging pictures in the fine arts gallery,
1880. Wood engraving, Australasian
Sketcher,
11 September 1880.
La Trobe Picture Collection -
State Library of Victoria

 

Image: Charles Nettleton, Bourke Street Melbourne, Bourke St c.1880

Charles Nettleton
born England 1825,
arrived Australia 1854, died 1902
Bourke Street Melbourne, looking west
from Swanston Street, showing
south side of the street c.1880
albumen silver photograph
La Trobe Picture Collection -
State Library of Victoria

In the decade between 1881 and 1891 Melbourne’s population almost doubled, growing from 268,000 to 473,000. Although large numbers of immigrants continued to be drawn to the Colony in the wake of the gold rushes of the 1850s, for the first time the Australian-born population outnumbered the immigrant population, leading to a surge in national feeling in the 1880s. The booming economy created a mood of optimism in the city. Large amounts of money were made by land speculators in the 1880s and there was a massive increase in building activity. Significant buildings constructed in the decade included Joseph Reed’s Exhibition Building (opened in 1880), the General Post Office (1885), William Wardell’s Gothic Revival bank, today the ANZ bank in Collins Street (1883-84) and the Princess Theatre in Spring Street (1886). Richard Twopeny, an Englishman who visited Melbourne in 1883, observed that ‘there is certainly no city in England which can boast of nearly as many fine buildings, or as large ones, proportionately to its size, as Melbourne.’

 

Melbourne’s economy was also boosted by trade. Ships arrived laden with an extensive range of goods, including fabrics designed by the London firm, Liberty, fine porcelain and art journals. On the return trip they were weighed down with wool bales, sacks of wheat and the export of beef and mutton was made possible by the development of mechanical refrigeration plants. Melbourne, the ‘Queen City of the South’ boasted the busiest port in the country. The energy and optimism of the city led to it being christened ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, by the visiting English journalist, George Sala.

 

The city’s pride in its achievements culminated in the Centennial International Exhibition that opened in the Exhibition Building on 1 August, 1888. Technological inventions filled a significant proportion of the huge display space (over 33 acres). A large collection of fine art from England, Europe and Australia was also shown. In the first week of the exhibition over 80,000 people poured through the doors. The celebration of one hundred years of European settlement in Australia gave Melbourne’s population a sense of permanence in their new home. The achievements of the city were celebrated in leather-bound volumes, such as Alexander Sutherland’s Victoria and its Metropolis (1888) and the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.(1886–88)

 

The booming economy that made Melbourne marvellous in the 1880s crashed in the 1890s, beginning with the collapse of the property market. The economic depression of the 1890s resulted in Australia’s first widespread strikes. Shearers were the first group of workers to unionise and to strike against their low pay and poor conditions. Australia’s Great Maritime Strike of 1890 involved 28,000 workers walking off the job and another 60,000 demonstrating in support of them. The widespread industrial unrest and the unionisation of workers created fertile conditions for the emerging labour movement, which was consolidated with the formation of the Australian Labour Party.

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Melbourne – the ‘darker’ side

The rapid growth of Melbourne’s population, without the necessary accompanying infrastructure, had a darker side. Shortages of accommodation and overcrowding led to the growth of inner-city slums. Although the city centre of Melbourne was laid out on a grid plan, uncontrolled building led to confusion between urban and rural activities. Stray cows and goats continued to be a nuisance in the city throughout the 1880s. Unsealed roads became dustbowls in the summer and muddy mires in the winter. Open drains and, most significantly, the lack of a sewerage system prior to 1897 contributed to outbreaks of typhoid. Twopeny described the situation in 1883:

 

Image: Frederick McCubbin, (Girl with a bird at the King Street bakery) 1886

Frederick McCubbin
(Girl with a bird at the King Street bakery) 1886
oil on canvas
40.7 x 46.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased, 1969

There is no underground drainage system. All the sewage is carried away in huge open gutters, which run all through the town, and are at their worst and widest in the most central part, where all the principal shops and business places are situated. These gutters are crossed by little wooden bridges every fifty yards. When it rains, they rise to the proportion of small torrents, and have on several occasions proved fatal to drunken men. In one heavy storm, indeed, a sober strong man was carried off his legs by the force of the stream, and ignominiously drowned in a gutter.Twopeny, R 1973, Town Life in Australia, p.5.

 

Night carts were introduced to deal with the problem, trundling through the street to collect pans of sewage from outside toilets and depositing their contents in ‘outer’ areas, like Sandringham. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ became known by some as ‘Marvellous Smellbourne.’

 


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Transport and technology

Arthur Streeton
Between the lights – Princes Bridge 1888
oil on canvas
84.0 x 155.0 cm
Private collection, Sydney

 

Image: Tom Roberts, Evening train to Hawthorn (1889)

Tom Roberts
Evening train to Hawthorn (1889)
oil on cedar panel
14.2 x 22.9 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Edward Stinson Bequest Fund, 1991

In the 1880s most people travelled in horse-drawn ‘cabs’, omnibuses or they walked. As the decade progressed the rail network expanded. By 1880 trains ran to Sandridge (Port Melbourne), St Kilda, Brighton and Williamstown and the first cable tram ran from Spencer Street to Hawthorn in 1885. The rail line to Box Hill opened in 1882 and by May 1888 the artists could travel to Heidelberg by rail. In 1880 a telephone network with 43 subscribers was added to the telegraph wires that existed. At night the city was lit with gas lamps and by 1891–92 a system of electric street lighting had been installed in Melbourne.


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Cultural life

Culturally Melbourne was far more active and sophisticated than its rival city in the colonies, Sydney. European musicians visited Melbourne regularly, many drawn to Melbourne for the International Exhibitions of 1880 and 1888. Major choral societies, such as the Royal Philharmonic Society and the ‘Leidertafel’, flourished and performed regularly. Amateur choral societies also thrived and the city produced the internationally famous opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931). The first theatre production to be staged at the Princess Theatre was Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’, in 1886. The Buonarotti Society to which many artists, writers and musicians belonged, was founded in 1883. They met fortnightly at a venue in the city, such as the Bourke Street Coffee Palace, to hear readings of new poems, to participate in musical performances or to see informal displays of plein-air paintings. Melbourne writers and poets included Marcus Clark (1846–81), and Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833–70).

 

The importance of the arts was recognised with the opening of the purpose-built artists’ studios, Grosvenor Chambers on Collins Street, in 1888. Artists’ associations, such as the Victorian Academy of Arts (VAA), the Victorian Artists’ Society (VAS) and the Australian Artists’ Association (AAA), mounted regular exhibitions of their members’ work, some of which were held at Buxton’s Rooms, a five-storey building on Swanston Street, with a gallery on the first floor. It was the venue chosen by the Australian Impressionists for the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in 1889.

 

Image: Collins Street Improvements : the Café Gunsler, 1889

Collins Street Improvements : the Café Gunsler,
Fletcher’s Art Gallery 1879
La Trobe Picture Collection -
State Library of Victoria

The galleries of numerous art dealers flourished in Collins Street, the most prominent of which was Fletcher’s of Collins Street, where, according to Pickersgill’s 1885 tourist guide, ‘unquestionably the finest collection of high-class oil paintings and watercolour drawings in the Southern Hemisphere’ could be seen. The fashionable Café Gunsler and Mullen’s subscription library, ‘a recognized resort and place of meeting for the residents in the fashionable suburbs lying south of the Yarra, as well as a haunt of the intellectual classes’ shared Fletcher’s building, making it a drawcard for visitors and locals alike. The active art scene was kept in the public eye with reviews by the critic, James Smith, appearing regularly in the Melbourne newspapers, The Age and The Argus. The artists read international art journals such as Century Magazine.

 

At a more official level the National Gallery of Victoria had been founded in 1861. It was housed in the same building as the Museum and the State Library, today’s State Library of Victoria. The Gallery’s expressed mission was to educate and raise the level of taste in the Colony. The National Gallery School, which opened in 1870, provided training for a new generation of Australian-born artists and artists associations.

 

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The artist in society

Early in their careers, none of the artists represented were able to support themselves through their art alone. Roberts worked as a photographer’s assistant and Streeton as a junior clerk prior to his apprenticeship as a lithographer. Conder initially trained as a surveyor in New South Wales and he supplemented his income working as an illustrator for The Illustrated Sydney News. Paid employment was not considered appropriate for middle class women and, although she later taught, Jane Sutherland was supported by her large liberal, artistic and musical family.

 

Image: Frederick McCubbin, Old stables 1884

Frederick McCubbin
Old stables 1884
oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1932

Frederick McCubbin’s father ran a bakery in King Street and McCubbin worked in the family business as well as a stint as solicitor’s clerk and working as a coach painter during his art training. On his early morning bread delivery rounds he saw the variety of workers in the city, the ‘carters and carriers, dealers and merchants, pie men and builders, boatmen and river pilots, lightermen and sailors, shinglers and night men emptying the city’s human waste’. He recalled his days driving the horse drawn bakers cart: ‘I shall never forget the mud in winter-time down on the swamp – the tracks round the Gas Works, the timber laying about and the narrow shaves from being capsized en route, and Bully Browns cook, how he swore. And sometimes we got stuck in the mud…’

 

In their nationalistic pictures Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Sutherland portrayed the working people of the bush, shearers, swagmen, pioneer settlers, splitters, bee-keepers and miners, as heroic figures, exemplifying the egalitarian spirit and identity of the emerging nation. The artists themselves, however, while they saw themselves as ‘bohemian’, were at the centre of a milieu of musicians, academics, doctors and lawyers – the educated middle class. Their more sketchy impressions were bought by young, educated professionals and Roberts cultivated ‘well-heeled’ patronage, painting ‘society’ portraits in his rooms at Grosvenor Chambers. He was a frequent theatre goer, known for his crush hat and dress cape lined with red satin. Ironically the artists responded more to English poets, such as Robert Herrick (1591–1674), and Romantic poets such as Percy Byssche Shelley (1792-1822), John Keats(1795-1821) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850), than the Australian poets Henry Lawson(1867–1922) and Banjo Paterson (1864–1941).

 

The artists’ bohemian way of life was expressed in the ‘Smoke nights’ held at Grosvenor Chambers, open studio afternoons and the summer evenings spent at Heidelberg, reading poetry, discussing art and drinking red wine late into the night. The camaraderie shared by the artists is evident in the nicknames they had for each other: Roberts was known as ‘Bulldog’, Streeton was ‘Smike’, Conder, ‘K’, and the learned McCubbin was referred to as ‘the Prof’. Although Jane Sutherland had a studio at Grosvenor Chambers, Victorian propriety excluded the women artists from the spending more than a day at the artists’ camps.

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The fashionable life

Image: Charles Conder, A holiday at Mentone 1888

Charles Conder
A holiday at Mentone 1888
oil on canvas
46.2 x 60.8 cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
South Australian Government grant
with the assistance of
Bond Corporation Holdings Limited
through the Art Gallery of
South Australia Foundation,
to mark the Gallery’s Centenary, 1981

Melbourne, where there were more balls and parties than in the other cities and where horse racing, the theatre and musical performances were popular was the ‘fashion capital’ of Australia. ‘In dress’, wrote Richard Twopeny, ‘ the Melbourne ladies are too fond of bright colours, but it can never be complained against them that they are dowdy – a fault common to their Sydney, Adelaide, and English sisters – and they certainly spend a great deal of money on their dress, every article of which costs about 50 per cent more that at home.’ Promenading in the area of the Block Arcade, a ritual known as ‘doing the Block,’ was an opportunity for ladies and gentlemen to ‘be seen’ in their fashionable finery. Fashion illustrations and catalogues may have inspired the inclusion of well-dressed figures in paintings such as Conder’s A holiday at Mentone, 1888.


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Leisure: the beach and the bush

Image: Frederick McCubbin (Picnic at Studley Park) 1885

Frederick McCubbin
(Picnic at Studley Park) 1885
oil on canvas
82.5 x 122.3 cm
Private collection, Melbourne

As an antidote to the increasingly crowded, dirty and industrial city, people sought healthy respite in the sea air of the coast and the tranquillity of the bush on the outskirts of Melbourne. The contrast between the freedom associated with rural life and the oppressive restrictions of city office work, the theme of Banjo Paterson’s poem, Clancy of the Overflow, was increasingly felt by city dwellers. Banjo Paterson’s character longs to escape the ‘ceaseless tramp of feet’, and ‘the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street’. Nature, whether the beach, the river or the bush, with its fresh air and peacefulness, was seen as restorative and these places became the site of leisure activities for tired urban dwellers. Studley Park, on the Yarra River, conveniently close to the city, was reserved from sale as an area of public leisure and was popular for picnics, boating and swimming. The health giving properties of sea air and of sea bathing were promoted in the Melbourne newspapers. ‘A holiday tour round Port Phillip,’ published in The Illustrated Australian News in 1886, promoted excursions to the bayside settlements, travelling by steamboat or train. Mentone, a newly developed beachside suburb which could be reached on the recently opened railway, was described by developers as the ‘Riviera of the South’. Bathing took place behind the walls of enclosures such as the baths visible to the right in Conder’s A holiday at Mentone.


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Nationalism

Image: Frederick McCubbin, Down on his luck 1889

Frederick McCubbin
Down on his luck 1889
oil on canvas
145.0 x 183.3 x 14.0 cm (framed)
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of
Western Australia, Perth
Purchased, 1896

Image: Tom Roberts, A break away! 1891

Tom Roberts
A break away! 1891
oil on canvas
137.3 x 167.8 cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Elder Bequest Fund, 1899


 

During the 1880s the sense that Australians were ‘Australian’, with their own history and national character, gathered momentum. The Colonies were not united as one nation until 1901, but the process had begun with the establishment of the Federal Council in 1885. The case for federation was persuasively argued in Banjo Paterson’s editorial for the Bulletin, ‘Australia for the Australians’, Henry Lawson’s, ‘United Division’ and Henry Parkes’s, ‘Tenterfield Oration’, 1889. A rush of centenary celebrations and jubilees – the 1870 centenary of Cook’s arrival in Australia, the Centennial Exhibition of 1888, celebrating one hundred years of British settlement, the Golden Jubilees of Victoria (1884) and South Australia (1886) – confirmed the emerging sense of national identity. Illustrated publications such as The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia gave the population an image of themselves and their achievements in their new country.

 

Even though ‘Australia’ was still a ‘geographical concept’ rather than a ‘political reality’, the people living in the Colonies increasingly identified with their Australian heritage. They were interested in their own Australian history and they wanted stories and paintings that told stories of life in this country. Melbourne now had fifty years of history, documented in publications such as Garryowen’s, Chronicles of Early Melbourne’, 1888. More anecdotal histories were recorded in anthologies such as Bush Yarns, Past and Present Australian Life, and On the Wallaby. The experience of life in the bush – pioneer settlers, drovers, shearers and mountain horsemen – was portrayed in poetry and stories of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.

 

The idea of the truly national character became identified with the bush ethos. Even though Australia was a highly urbanised society, with two-thirds of the population living in the cities by 1891, ‘Australians increasingly located their origins in the bush’. The emerging ‘national’ character was expressed in the resourcefulness, resilience, stoicism, independence, egalitarianism and larrikinism associated with the lives (lived in the bush) of pioneer settlers, shearers, swagmen or the bush horseman. The ‘typical’ Australian was not afraid of hard work, liked the freedom of the open air and to be ‘his own man’.

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Sydney

Image: Arthur Streeton, The Point Wharf, Mosman Bay 1893

Arthur Streeton
The Point Wharf, Mosman Bay

1893
oil on canvas
38.0 x 25.5 cm
Private collection, Sydney

Image: Arthur Streeton, The railway station, Redfern 1893

Arthur Streeton
The railway station, Redfern 1893
oil on canvas
40.8 x 61.0cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Gift of Lady Denison, 1942


 

Roberts and Streeton joined the increasing numbers of Melburnians who headed to Sydney during the 1890s in search of new opportunities. Sydney also experienced the effects of the economic depression and industrial unrest caused by reduced wages and conditions. Prices for wool and wheat fell dramatically and many people lost their money when the banks collapsed. The campaign for the right of women to vote gained momentum in the 1890s and was finally successful in NSW in 1902. Sydney, which had been settled at the time of the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, (Melbourne was founded in 1835) and had not experienced the building boom of the 1870s and 80s, had quite a different character to Melbourne. Like visitors today, the artists responded to the beauty of the city’s natural setting on the harbour. The artists were captivated by Sydney’s beaches, the coves on the harbour, the blue of the water and the activity of a busy maritime city. The American writer, Mark Twain, who visited Sydney in 1895, was impressed by ‘the crooks and turns of the spacious and beautiful harbour – a harbour which is the darling of Sydney and the wonder of the world’. The harbour, and Sydney’s climate, provided perfect conditions for outdoor recreation – boating, picknicking, fishing and sea bathing. Like Melbourne, an extensive rail network was already established, complemented by the ferries that plied the harbour.

 

The black and white illustration industry flourished in Sydney in the late 1880s, where the images were reproduced in such publications as the Bulletin, the Illustrated Sydney News, the Sydney Mail and Andrew Garran’s Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.Some artists, such as Conder, found employment as illustrators, and others were influenced by images that appeared in the popular press.

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References and Further Reading

  • Brown-May A 2007, ‘The City’s Toil: Impressionist Views of Marvellous Melbourne’ in Lane,T (ed) 2007, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
  • Davison, G 2004 (2nd ed) The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.
  • Twopeny, R 1973, Town Life in Australia, Penguin Books, London.

 

AARDVARK
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ANTELOPE
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ANTIPASTO
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ANTIPODEAN
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