A knowledge of the techniques and materials used by Frederick McCubbin throughout his career, together with a careful examination of the artist’s paintings, reveals McCubbin’s late work to be as technically complex and fastidiously constructed as his early work. The apparent spontaneity of the paintings is misleading. Throughout his life, discussion of the craft of painting filled McCubbin’s letters and writings, which make only fleeting reference to the narrative element in his work. It is intriguing to note the number of commentators in the 1890s – and even the 1990s – who contrive plausible story-lines to accompany the paintings, while McCubbin’s own writings, and the works themselves, point strongly to an artist increasingly interested in the emotional resonance created by the painted surface itself.
This is well demonstrated in Autumn morning, South Yarra, 1916 (National Gallery of Victoria), where the painting has been patiently built up over a period of time (fig. 1). The paint layer has been allowed to dry before being rubbed back to reveal layers of colour beneath. Very little brushwork is apparent, the paint having been manipulated with palette knives, the handles of brushes and even cloth. Experimentation with the construction of the painting was clearly of far greater interest to McCubbin than was the subject itself, of which he had painted a similar, smaller version, Winter sunlight (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide), in 1908. An examination of the works shown in the 1991–92 National Gallery of Victoria exhibition The Art of Frederick McCubbin provides further evidence of McCubbin’s fascination with the painted surface, and reveals his lifelong interest in different techniques and in the use of a variety of materials.
The supports chosen by McCubbin are diverse. They range from canvas and board to wooden panels. Like his contemporaries he largely used canvases and boards prepared by artists’ colourmen (the manufacturers and suppliers of artists’ materials). He was not exclusive in his patronage; stencils from three Melbourne companies have been noted on his supports, though his daughter suggests a preference for W. & G. Dean.1 Mrs Kathleen Mangan noted in conversation with the authors her father’s preference for W. & G. Dean products, which predominate in his work from the early 1900s onwards. The earliest W. & G. Dean stencil sighted on a McCubbin painting appears on The pool, London, in 1907, though the company was established in 1854. Up to the turn of the century, materials from the Artistic Stationery Co. predominate in the artist’s oeuvre. Materials from E. W. Cole appear in 1906. McCubbin may have introduced Deans to the French canvas supplier Rubens Déposée, since a stencil for this company appears on the reverse of the canvas of The Pool of London (private collection) (fig. 2), painted in London in 1907, and later reappears, with a Deans stencil, on The pool, Heidelberg (private collection) in 1910. This confirms that Deans imported prepared canvas from England and Europe and re-stencilled it in Melbourne.2 C. Asquith Baker’s Roses, also in the Gallery’s collection, and McCubbin’s Golden Sunlight, 1914 (Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum), carry the stencils of both Winsor & Newton and W. & G. Dean.
The texture of supports appears to have been a consideration for McCubbin. In early works such as Lost, 1886 (National Gallery of Victoria), where the paint layers are thin, a finely woven canvas has been used. The later Lost, 1907, also in the Gallery’s collection, uses a coarse canvas to assist in the development of texture in the paint layer.
Throughout his career McCubbin explored the function of priming in the picture making process. Its contribution to colour and texture were of obvious interest. The artist’s use of colourmen’s prepared materials has already been noted and the ground layers of prepared colourmen’s canvases have been documented elsewhere.3 For an invaluable source of information on the materials offered by artists’ colourmen in the nineteenth century, see L. Carlyle, A Critical Analysis of Artists’ Handbooks, Manuals and Treatises on Oil Painting Published in Britain between 1800–1900, with Reference to Selected Eighteenth-Century Sources, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 1991.
McCubbin’s early use of cotton canvases is curious, however. Two paintings – A Winter evening, 1897 (National Gallery of Victoria), and What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904 (private collection) – are on cotton canvas without the conventional preparation of sizing and priming. Here the artist has put aside traditional methods and appears to have applied oil paint directly to the support. Though this approach is traditionally thought to be bad practice, these two paintings are well preserved.
It is this absence of grounds in some of the early works on cotton canvas and wooden panels – together with the reworking of the ground layers on prepared canvases, as has been noted in a number of paintings – which characterises McCubbin’s interest in technical innovation. He writes of the importance of additional white in the later works, but when we look at the paintings we can see that even in the early Lost of 1886 additional lead white has been used to create texture before the building up of the coloured surface: ‘I have been working on a bit of canvas unprimed but I first gave it a thick coat of white. I like it you can get luminous quality in white grounds’.4 Frederick McCubbin, letter to Tom Roberts, 8 January 1906, Roberts correspondence, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, ML.A 2479. The ground used for the central panel of The pioneer, 1903–05 (National Gallery of Victoria), has been covered with a further layer of lead white to add both luminosity and texture. Under raking light, the brushmarks in the stiffer lead white paint may be seen to show through the later layers.
McCubbin did not always use his grounds to give added layers of texture to his paintings – in some instances in the later works he rubbed back the ground to create a smoother surface. However, what is always evident in the paintings is the constant consideration and manipulation of the materials before the application of the pictorial layers.
It is also important here to note the use of tonal blocking-out in the early stages of McCubbin’s paintings. A sienna-coloured definition of spaces is apparent – and to be expected – in the early works (fig. 3), which carry over the academic teaching of George Folingsby (1828–1891). But this approach can also be noted in much later paintings, such as Lost, 1907 (fig. 4).
There is a curiously small body of drawings – whether preliminary studies or complete works in themselves – from an artist who spent years as a drawing teacher. This may reflect McCubbin’s own sense of painting as drawing. In a letter to fellow artist Tom Roberts in 1906 he wrote: ‘The Millais brushes arrived all right I used the big one this morning. Beautiful brushes, but it will be some time before I can draw with them’.5 ibid.
An example of conventional underdrawing (possibly in pencil) occurs under the paint layer of Still life of roses, 1884 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 5), and pencil drawing is also evident in Lost, 1886.
A notable feature of McCubbin’s paintings is the recurrence of pentimenti, highlighting his concern with the evolution of his images through constant reworking. In Self-Portrait, 1886 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), the hand of the artist has been shifted – from the workmanlike position of resting his brush on the palette (fig. 6) to the more casual pose seen in the final version. In On the wallaby track, 1896 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), the head of the woman has been turned away from its original position facing the viewer.6 We are grateful to Paula Dredge of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for making available an infra-red photograph of On the Wallaby Track, and for drawing our attention to the pentimento in the Self-Portrait. The changes to the background of the final panel of The Pioneer have been noted elsewhere,7 See B. Whitelaw, The Art of Frederick McCubbin (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1991, cat. no. 29. but serve as further evidence of the artist’s preoccupation with developing his compositions through a constant reworking of forms. Even in the second version of Lost, a work that continues McCubbin’s interest in the theme of the lost child, large branches that originally formed a strong diagonal emphasis in the composition have been overpainted. Substantial changes, amounting to the removal of a tree and a figure, occur in Autumn morning, South Yarra, which is again a reworking of an earlier subject.
These changes in McCubbin’s paintings from various stages in his career reveal two important aspects of the artist. Firstly, they demonstrate the passage of time in the construction of the paint layers. Secondly, they document the development that takes place on the canvas itself: the images, though carefully constructed, are still worked out during the process of painting.
Two features stand out in McCubbin’s paint layers: the underlying structure of the paintings, and the constantly evolving methods used to manipulate paint. Three ‘periods’ become evident in an overview of these aspects of McCubbin’s work.
The early works are characterised by careful compositions, modelled forms with blended tones, and a predominant use of brushes but a playing down of surface texture (fig. 7).
The large story pictures form a second group, the works in which are characterised by an economy of means. In these paintings, the structure is still carefully composed and articulated with underpainting. The details, particularly flesh tones, are applied with considered modelling, though the brushwork is less subdued than in the earlier works. The surfaces are otherwise filled with loosely applied paint, creating a sense of a profusion of detail, a consequence of paint being scumbled over impastoed textures (fig. 8). A growing interest in texture is notable in these works.
For the third group we refer to the paintings executed after 1907. These are works where the development of the story is secondary to the development of the surface. These paintings return to a domestic, drawing-room scale and are increasingly laboriously constructed by building up and then rubbing back the paint (fig. 9). As a result, they often take on the misleading appearance of having been severely compressed during their lining, or abraded during cleaning. They are accompanied by small sketches, which are spontaneous and sometimes made only with palette knives and cloth, without the use of brushes. These sketches not only form the basis for compositional devices but also provide references for ways of manipulating paint in order to achieve specific effects.
The colouring materials and binders in McCubbin’s paints are characteristic of the manufactured materials available at the time through local suppliers such as the Artistic Stationery Co. and W. & G. Dean. These firms imported brushes, palette knives, paints, mediums and prepared canvases from English and European suppliers. Analysis of the pigments and binders used by McCubbin has not yet been undertaken. However, examination of the works themselves has revealed a great variety in the methods used to apply these paints. Observation of The pioneer under raking light clearly shows that a palette knife has been used to dab paint onto the surface. The radiograph of Study, South Yarra, 1910 (National Gallery of Victoria), shows a paint layer made without the use of brushwork and indicates the application of paint with cloth (fig.10).
McCubbin’s palette (fig. 11), along with the artist’s easel, came into the Gallery’s collection from the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in the 1960s. A brief analysis has been carried out on a range of the pigments on the palette.8 The analysis was carried out by Deborah Lau-Greig, using an Energy Dispersive X- ray Analysis in a Scanning Electron Microscope.
The black is an ivory black, the blues are ultramarine and Prussian blue, the bright red is a red lead, the white is lead white, the rich yellow is lead yellow and the patch of very bright yellow is barium yellow. There is a range of earth pigments, all characterised by the presence of elemental iron. A crimson lake is also present.
It is worth drawing attention to some specific features of the palette. The arrangement of colours corresponds closely to that on the palette shown in the Self-Portrait of 1886. Both palettes begin with white, and move through yellows and earth browns into reds, crimson, blue and then black. What is noticeably absent is a manufactured green pigment. There is green on the Gallery’s palette, however, in the area between Prussian blue and ivory black. This suggests, at least in the case of the works painted from this palette, that McCubbin’s greens were mixed from other colours. (There is a general green cast to the mixing area of the palette, reinforcing the notion that the greens were mixed there.) Given the amount of green in some of his paintings, this is interesting.
Also noticeable on the palette, but predictable given the extensive use of white in the artist’s paint layers, is the degree to which white has been introduced to each location of colour. It is also interesting to note the areas of built-up paint that occur between the mixing area and the patches of individual colour; these mixtures of colour are similar in combinations of pigment, and in texture, to McCubbin’s paint layers themselves.
Five of the twelve colours on the palette are earth pigments. (We note Venetian red, raw umber, burnt sienna, burnt umber and raw sienna, located in that order between red lead and lead yellow.) There is an interesting contrast here with the French Impressionist palette, which tended away from earth pigments. Bone (or ivory) black was, however, the Impressionists’ preferred black.
Though the analysis of McCubbin’s palette has not been exhaustive, it is interesting to note the simplicity of the colouring materials chosen. We do not see an array of the complex ‘modern’ colorants that were available at the time. Instead, we have a group of simple, stable colours that have a long history of use and from which McCubbin developed a dazzlingly complex mixture of subtle colour.
The earliest work in the Gallery’s collection that we note without a varnish layer is Still life of roses, 1884. Another major work that was not varnished by the artist is Lost, 1886, which came into the collection in 1940 and has not been the subject of extensive restoration treatment. Other paintings noted without varnish layers are: What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904 (private collection); Williamstown, 1915 (private collection); and Sketch for frosty morning, 1910, Frosty morning, 1910, Shelling peas, 1912, and Forest camp, 1914 (all National Gallery of Victoria). Given the absence of varnish on works from all stages of his career, it is difficult to make assumptions about the approach McCubbin may have had to varnishing his paintings, or about whether he intended them to be varnished at all.
The paintings of Frederick McCubbin are seldom in frames that are contemporary with their date of execution or of their initial display. This is a common situation with popular artists, whose works are often reframed when they are made available for sale, or when they enter the home of a new owner. It is regrettable to consider how quickly a frame, which is an artifact in its own way as well as a component in the presentation of a painting, can be lost. The accounts ledger of the Melbourne picture framing company of John Thallon provides some insights into the frames chosen for McCubbin’s paintings in the years from 1888 to 1902.9 We are grateful to Jarman the Picture Framer for making available the ledger of John Thallon for the purposes of this study. Whether these frames reflect the taste of the artist or the taste of the owners of his pictures is not always clear. What is clear is the frames’ consistency of style and diversity of finish. Two paintings in the Gallery’s collection are in their original frames: Autumn morning, South Yarra, whose frame retains its original finish (fig. 12), and The pioneer, whose frame may have been resurfaced.
While this analysis has not been exhaustive, it provides evidence of McCubbin’s innovative techniques in painting. His approach is all the more remarkable when one realises that he had not seen at first hand any of the European masterpieces which we might otherwise have taken to be the stimulus for his interest in the physical nature of the painted surface. Until 1907 all his technical experiments were based on information and ideas from colleagues and from journals. His inexhaustible energy in relation to the surface of the painting makes him all the more remarkable as a painter and sets him apart from his contemporaries. ‘The honest methods of true artists’ was a phrase McCubbin employed later in life to describe the dedication of artists he admired who pursued their own styles and techniques, ‘unseduced by the froth or surface of art’ or by ‘the fads and fashions of the extremists’.10 F. McCubbin, ‘Some Remarks on the History of Australian Art’, in J. S. MacDonald, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Lothian, Melbourne, 1916, p. 92. McCubbin’s paintings reveal an artist in a constant but controlled state of change. There is in his work an evolution of painting style and technique that is both structured and experimental, leading from works based in nineteenth-century academic painting traditions to apparently spontaneous but highly refined compositions filled with colour and light.
Bridget Whitelaw, Curator of 19th Century Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1993).
John Payne, Painting Conservator, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1993).
Gillian Leahy, Art Foundation of Victoria Development Conservator of Painting, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1993).
We would like to acknowledge the members of the Photographic Department of the National Gallery of Victoria for the very considerable part they have played in the documentation of McCubbin’s paintings and in providing material for this study. Among professional colleagues who have provided valuable insights into the work of Frederick McCubbin, Jane Clark and Jacqueline Macnaughtan rate a special mention.
1 Mrs Kathleen Mangan noted in conversation with the authors her father’s preference for W. & G. Dean products, which predominate in his work from the early 1900s onwards. The earliest W. & G. Dean stencil sighted on a McCubbin painting appears on The Pool, London, in 1907, though the company was established in 1854. Up to the turn of the century, materials from the Artistic Stationery Co. predominate in the artist’s oeuvre. Materials from E. W. Cole appear in 1906.
2 C. Asquith Baker’s Roses, also in the Gallery’s collection, and McCubbin’s Golden Sunlight, 1914 (Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum), carry the stencils of both Winsor & Newton and W. & G. Dean.
3 For an invaluable source of information on the materials offered by artists’ colourmen in the nineteenth century, see L. Carlyle, A Critical Analysis of Artists’ Handbooks, Manuals and Treatises on Oil Painting Published in Britain between 1800–1900, with Reference to Selected Eighteenth-Century Sources, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 1991.
4 Frederick McCubbin, letter to Tom Roberts, 8 January 1906, Roberts correspondence, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, ML.A 2479.
6 We are grateful to Paula Dredge of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for making available an infra-red photograph of On the Wallaby Track, and for drawing our attention to the pentimento in the Self-Portrait.
7 See B. Whitelaw, The Art of Frederick McCubbin (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1991, cat. no. 29.
8 The analysis was carried out by Deborah Lau-Greig, using an Energy Dispersive X- ray Analysis in a Scanning Electron Microscope.
9 We are grateful to Jarman the Picture Framer for making available the ledger of John Thallon for the purposes of this study.
10 F. McCubbin, ‘Some Remarks on the History of Australian Art’, in J. S. MacDonald, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Lothian, Melbourne, 1916, p. 92.