Home again, painted in 1884 by Frederick McCubbin, is the major painting of the artist’s early work (fig. 1). Its whereabouts were unknown until it was discovered last year to be in the possession of the Bickley family, who had owned it since shortly after it was painted. The McCubbins and Bickleys, both families in the baking trade, had travelled on the same ship from England to Melbourne.
Home again, which gives prominence to a woman with responsibility for her family’s livelihood, is the first of McCubbin’s subject paintings, such as A bush burial 1890, On the wallaby track 1896, and The pioneer 1904, all of which also show the importance of the pioneering woman. The painting was first shown in 1884 at the 2nd Annual Student Exhibition of the Gallery School, and attracted favourable press comment on the popularity of its subject.1 L. Astbury, ‘George Folingsby and Auslralian Subject Painting’, Studies in Australian Art, Fine Arts Department, University of Melbourne. 1978, p. 50. Thirty-two years later, shortly before his death in 1917, McCubbin wrote:
If Art is of any value to the world at all it is as a precious document of the love and admiration of the workers for that which they express, and it is national insofar as it sympathises with the life and the beauty of the country it belongs to . . . I would suggest that one of the reasons why artists nowadays are so completely out of touch with the people as a whole is the fact that what they express has nothing to do with the life of the people. It does not inspire them with sympathy and love.2 F. McCubbin, ‘Some Remarks on the History of Australian Art’, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Lothian Press. Melbourne, 1916, pp. 82–95.
Throughout his career McCubbin had painted a series of canvasses which began with scenes from pioneering life, and which ended with landscapes with anonymous labourers working on the roads, in quarries or hauling timber.3 A Galbally, Frederick McCubbin, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1981, p.138.
Home again may be set in the McCubbin kitchen. Kitchen at the Old King Street Bakery 1884 by Frederick McCubbin is a complete view of the background of Home again, and was offered for sale at Leonard Joel auctions, Lot 62, November 1982. It is also the interior view shown in McCubbin’s Backyard, King Street, Melbourne, with Seated girl 1886, Australian National Gallery. Although it is not proved outright, these three paintings, and probably Old stables, National Gallery of Victoria, are all scenes round the McCubbin family’s residence and bakery in King Street, Melbourne, but except for Home Again, the titles have recently been ascribed to these paintings.
Home again is a careful record of a worker’s cottage: the unpolished floor, half-panelled timber walls, plain fireplace, the open shelf behind the door, the simple objects of livelihood and ornament. The young woman’s wash-basket, iron and watering can, with a vegetable basket above, indicate how she manages to live, after she believed herself abandoned or widowed, with a baby to care for. Her husband’s gun is high on the wall, above a vinegar jug, a stoneware jar of flowers, canisters and a coffee pot. Above the fireplace a silver dish-cover is given prominence as an ornament, while below it, surrounded by a decorative arrangement of utilitarian objects, is a small framed photograph. The husband, bursting through the door, has his swag over his shoulder. The light in the painting falls from each side, theatrically spotlighting the woman, and is a reminder of how McCubbin lost his first job in a solicitor’s office, when he was found making model stage sets. In 1878, after his father died leaving the family in financial difficulties, McCubbin had to run the family bakery in order to support his mother and four sisters. He attended drawing lessons at night, first at the Carlton School of Design, and later at the Gallery School, under O. R. Campbell and Eugen von Guérard.
When George Folingsby was made Master of Painting at the Gallery School in 1882 his paintings, Bunyan in prison and First meeting between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, were already in the Gallery collection. Folingsby, an Irishman, had studied at the Munich Academy, in Paris under Thomas Couture, and in Germany under Karl von Piloty. In Melbourne he established life classes, the technique of painting with bitumen (which often led to damaging paint movement), and informal or genre subject matter of dramatic, historical or psychological incidents. Like his teacher, von Piloty, he drew on literary and historical themes.
McCubbin translated Folingsby’s theories into a local contemporary setting. The popular press illustrated scenes of bush and everyday life; McCubbin worked as an illustrator, and perhaps the source of Home again was a story in a popular magazine, or in a play or a novel.4 Likely source suggested by Dr Ann Galbally; also Galbally op.cit., p. 26. L. Astbury, ‘Frederick McCubbin: The Spirit of the Pioneers’, Australia 1888, Bulletin 7, 1981. This is the first in the style of many student works painted for the Travelling Scholarship, which was established in 1885, and first won by Longstaff with Breaking the news. The simple interior, with light coming through an open door, and the dramatic story of the painting partly established by figures beyond or entering through the door, is a composition repeated for years by successive final-year students at the Gallery School. Such compositions are close to those of Folingsby.
Alexander Colquhoun sets out several reasons why McCubbin’s painting is important:
As senior student in the Folingsby school, McCubbin was associated with E. P. Fox, John Longstaff (winner of the first travelling scholarship), T. St. G. Tucker, J. J. Gibbs, and the present writer, of which group only two survive today.
The work of the school consisted primarily in drawing from the antique, then in painting still-life and portraiture in the studios, which were at that time temporary canvas erections in the Statue Gallery, and later on subject compositions, the earliest development of the scholarship picture.
The first of these compositions was painted by McCubbin under the title ‘Home Again’. It was in some respects an elementary performance, and the theme and arrangement presented no special difficulties – just a cottage interior with a woman engaged in some domestic duty and a man rushing in at the open door; yet its production cost the painter much thought and strenuous application before he succeeded in satisfying the fastidious Folingsby. The picture was shown at the second Gallery Exhibition, and it is worthy to be remembered as being the forerunner of the more matured and important performances of the ‘Down on His Luck’ period.5 A. Colquhoun, Frederick McCubbin A Consideration, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1920(?), (no page numbers).
The sunlit garden through the open door gives a glimpse of McCubbin’s later bright, high-key palette. The leaves, painted in broken brush strokes of blue greens on yellows, are more commonly associated with McCubbin’s style developed through his association with Tom Roberts, after Roberts returned from Europe in 1885. McCubbin’s use of this style of painting in one part of the picture, in contrast to the careful finish required by Folingsby for the figures and interior, indicates also the influence of Julian Ashton, who had left Melbourne in 1883. Ashton moved to Sydney where the young Charles Conder also went out painting with him, the Gallery’s Conder paintings of the farm at Richmond being amongst the results of this association.
Although an early example of the naturalistic and realistic paintings of late 19th-century Australian Art, Home again provides a clear statement about Folingsby’s teaching and the influence of the Melbourne Gallery School. It makes a humble local scene the subject of a serious work of art, where landscape and historical or morally elevated subjects had prevailed, and its light and daringly painted glimpse of the landscape is like a small prophecy of the changes in Australian art in the later 1880s.
Jennifer Phipps, Curator of Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1982).
1 L. Astbury, ‘George Folingsby and Auslralian Subject Painting’, Studies in Australian Art, Fine Arts Department, University of Melbourne. 1978, p. 50.
2 F. McCubbin, ‘Some Remarks on the History of Australian Art’, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Lothian Press. Melbourne, 1916, pp. 82–95.
3 A Galbally, Frederick McCubbin, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1981, p.138.
4 Likely source suggested by Dr Ann Galbally; also Galbally op.cit., p. 26. L. Astbury, ‘Frederick McCubbin: The Spirit of the Pioneers’, Australia 1888, Bulletin 7, 1981.
5 A. Colquhoun, Frederick McCubbin A Consideration, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1920(?), (no page numbers).