Florence Ada Fuller is an artist scarcely recognised today. However, as illustrated in The paper boy, 1888, a recent gift to the NGV by Krystyna Campbell-Pretty AM and Family, Fuller was a highly gifted portrait painter who had an innate ability to capture the qualities of her sitter with great naturalism. This depiction of an unknown child approximately twelve years of age celebrates the talent of an under-acknowledged artist and recalls a history of adolescent workers active in Melbourne during the time Australia prepared to celebrate its centenary.
Florence Fuller was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1867 and, at an early age, immigrated with her family to Melbourne. Her parents encouraged artistic pursuits and two of her sisters, Amy and Christie, became singers of note. By the age of thirteen Fuller had commenced painting lessons with the Impressionist Jane Sutherland and briefly attended the National Gallery School, but the tutor that influenced her the most was her uncle Robert Dowling. In early 1884, Dowling had returned to Australia as the country’s most distinguished living artist following a successful twenty-seven years working abroad. His international standing and association with leading artists of the time made him a senior figure in Melbourne’s artistic circle and the city’s most sought-after portraitist. Dowling employed his niece as a governess and made available to her the large and highly fashionable studio on Collins Street, Melbourne, which he adorned with exotic furnishings collected from the time he spent in Egypt. Throughout her life, Fuller was plagued by ‘very delicate health’1‘Miscellaneous’, The Herald, 5 Mar. 1891, p. 4. and at times was unable to sustain work but prospered from the benefit of her uncle’s support and guidance.
In early 1886, Dowling suddenly passed away in England, where he was visiting. In need of new circumstances, Fuller opened her own modest studio at Planet Chambers at the top of Collins Street, a popular address with artists including her neighbour the French- trained Monsieur De la Crouée who Fuller credited as being a lasting influence. Success at the Melbourne exhibitions began to follow; first, was her portrait of Dowling and then a posthumous collaboration with her uncle when she completed his unfinished portrait of Lady Elizabeth Loch, wife of the Governor of Victoria.
Fuller went on to exhibit four works at the inaugural Victorian Artists Society (VAS) exhibition in May 1888 held at the National Gallery, where she was awarded the prize for ‘Best portrait in oil’. Unfortunately, the lack of historical descriptions or a continuous provenance has meant that the title of this recent work to enter the NGV Collection is undocumented. However, a likely possibility is that it is number twenty-three from the VAS catalogue, The Herald Boy, which The Age declared a ‘capital study of a street boy’.2‘The Victorian Society of Artists’Exhibition’, The Age, 30 Apr. 1888, p. 6. Before joining the NGV Collection the painting was owned for nearly a century by a family who referred to the work as The paper boy and this remains the title.
Between 1888 and 1889, Fuller produced a group of portraits that addressed the theme of disadvantaged children; The paper boy is an early example of this. Most of the works were painted in a sentimental genre style and illustrated in tragic settings, but this delicate study is a dignified portrayal that subtly alludes to the hardship of the sitter’s circumstances. His rough-cut hair, avoidant stare and heavy clothing purposely invoke a sympathetic response. The weathered face of boyish features are modelled with small square brushwork, vigorous and direct in application, qualities that Fuller attributed to the influence of De la Crouée.
Newsboys were a prominent part of Melbourne street life. In the late-nineteenth century they were enlisted from the vast disadvantaged and neglected youth who were a by-product of the rapid economic and urban expansion of the post gold rush era. Papers were purchased at 8 pence per dozen and then sold as individual issues for minor profit. Working the busy Melbourne streets until late in the night meant the children were open to exploitation and criminal influences. Most boys were under the age of fifteen with no education certificates or alternate options. Some supported single mothers, their siblings or survived independently in an attempt to avoid reform schools. Others were parentless, but not necessarily orphaned, and either slept on the streets or when able, stayed at boarding houses, such as the Model Lodging House located in King Street. This establishment alone supported over 53,000 lodgers in the first half of 1888.
The increasing concern for the plight of aimless and unattended children led to the formation of the Herald Boys’ Try-Excelsior Classes – first established informally in Fitzroy by a Mr William Groom and separately in Toorak by Mr William Forster, who would become the Try movement’s figurehead. Forster later established the City Newsboys society in 1893 which exists today as the Newsboys Foundation. The classes provided temporary relief and motivational activities for the boys in a controlled social environment. These attempts at social reform were in part prompted by the death of Major-General Charles George Gordon whose passing created an outpouring of public grief and memorial activities to acknowledge his support for disadvantaged youth of London. In 1885 Forster added a dedicated Try-Excelsior Class for the Melbourne Herald boys; he was motivated by concerns over the perils of temptation that boys experienced during idle times while waiting for the evening editions.3‘Our Melbourne Letter’, The Horsham Times, 2 Oct. 1885, p. 3. The class headquarters were initially located in Little Collins Street in the same block as Fuller’s studio and close to Treasury Gardens where a Memorial statue of Gordon was soon erected and remains today. A small entrance fee was requested and although an evening lecture was given, the class primarily functioned as a club with the boys electing their own council. Donated reading material, games and gymnasium equipment attempted to stimulate the adolescent workers and encourage a path to self-improvement. A reporter visiting the Herald boys’ class described them as ‘hungry ragged little mortals with bare elbows, many barefooted and clothes either too big or too small’.4‘An evening among the Newsboys’, The Herald, 4 Jul. 1887, p. 4 An earlier visit to a Try class also noted ‘… many wore a loosely-tied comforter or pocket-handkerchief around their collarless necks’5‘Boys in the Slums’, Weekly Times, 18 Oct. 1884, p. 4., the same as worn by the sitter in Fuller’s painting.
The boys started a fund that meant penniless members could still attend class and later a system to provide relief income for the boys in times of illness. By 1887 there were 200 members of the Herald boys’ class, which was later renamed the Newsboy Try-Excelsior Class.6‘Newsboys’ Try-Excelsior Class,’ The Herald, 25 Jun. 1887, p. 4 In the same year, the Neglected Children’s Act of 1887 authorised the detainment of vagrant or neglected children, which placed additional pressure on the Try-Excelsior movement. Fortunately, the refining influences of the classes were soon publicly celebrated and admiration peaked when the Herald boys reciprocated the public’s support by hosting concerts to raise funds for affected families and orphaned children from Australia’s worst mining accident at the Mount Kembla Mine in Bulli, New South Wales. In return, the financial support allowed for the construction of a new facility called The Gordon Institute, built to feed, bath and, in part, house the unfortunate urchins of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’; the founding stone was laid, while Fuller’s Herald boy was being exhibited at the VAS.
Fuller continued to receive portrait commissions and produced narrative compositions, landscapes and still lifes to ongoing acclaim. In 1896 her success enabled a chance for international travel, returning first to her birthplace of South Africa and a year later to study in Paris and London. For several years she lived in lean circumstances and would exhibit at both the Salon, Paris, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, with favourable mentions in the press. By 1904 she had established herself in Western Australia and became heavily devoted to the Theosophical Society – an eastern-influenced religious movement formed in the late-nineteenth century. Fuller would relocate to the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, India, and later resided at their Mosman residence in Sydney while her professional practice somewhat sidelined. Health continued to be a problem, limiting her output and, to a degree, her career until eventually she required permanent institutional care where she spent the final two decades of her life. She passed away, having chosen not to marry, but pursuing a life much travelled, eventful and self- determined through her own means.
This beautiful portrait is a rare example of Florence Fuller’s early Melbourne work and a significant institutional acquisition of an important female artist. The morally minded Fuller purposely chose a sitter who could offer no payment other than the image of his circumstance. We know nothing of the child other than he was born without privilege, was motivated to work and presented himself as best he was able – in his white neck comforter. In 1888 the path of this Newsboy and Florence Fuller probably crossed only momentarily. The painting survives as an important reference to the social diversity in Melbourne’s past.
‘Miscellaneous’, The Herald, 5 Mar. 1891, p. 4.
‘The Victorian Society of Artists’ Exhibition’, The Age, 30 Apr. 1888, p. 6.
‘Our Melbourne Letter’, The Horsham Times, 2 Oct. 1885, p. 3.
‘An evening among the Newsboys’, The Herald, 4 Jul. 1887, p. 4
‘Boys in the Slums’, Weekly Times, 18 Oct. 1884, p. 4.
‘Newsboys’ Try-Excelsior Class,’ The Herald, 25 Jun. 1887, p. 4