In Response: Think with me a little, back

To our friend – Louis ‘The Don’ Abrahams (1852–1903)

Through the inclusion of letters and sketchbooks, the exhibition She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism provides new insight into the relationships between key artists in the Australian Impressionism movement, with glimpses into the artists’ lives, their processes and personal relationships. More than one hundred years later, Australian author Michelle Wright responds to one of these correspondences, a letter from Frederick McCubbin to Lillie Roberts in January 1904 to tell her artist Louis Abrahams had committed suicide in Melbourne in December 1903.

By Michelle Wright

The Argus gave the news today – our poor old ‘Don’ is dead. A December morning at eleven o’clock, in the basement of Drewery Place, the revolver still in your hand. And though we read and reread the words, we could not form an image of you there.

The night before, at your home in Burnett Street, the ‘Prof’ said you were down, as often you could be, but saw no sign you’d set your mind to this.

There, in the airless dark, did you still feel the afterglow of those happy times we shared? The soft, slow days together. Our tent in the bush. Or the cottage by the beach, when all was light and air. When the heat of a December day would daub us all in pink and gold and seep beneath the skin. The sun’s sweet grasp – too sharp, too hard. We would tilt our heads, pupils pricked against the glare, and marvel that, above the shimmer and the white-gold glaze, the sky distilled its distant blues. And all below, the heady, giddy incantation of the bush. Walking among the spattered, speckled ti-trees and the flickering breeze through wild-grown grass. Splintered, shattered light like isolated notes of a piano chord, each colour pure and clear, and the air at once alive and still.

We’d gaze up at the crowds of green-grey leaves atop the slender saplings. Bark draped and strung from branches like the streamers that New Year’s Eve. The fallen gum leaves in crimson curves, fading to a sunburnt blush. And there a circle of smooth grey trunks, pink and mauve in their twists and whorls – like the skirts of peasant women in Pissarro’s joyous dance. In the midday heat, we would lie still and watch the shifting, glancing light; each momentary image lived as one in place and time.

After long parched days in the sun-seared air, the lingering warmth – a slow and steady sigh. Cobalt blue shadows spread out beneath the trees, hidden in a lilac haze. We’d bathe in the evening cool, as a breath, reed-fresh and green, crept quietly up from the creek.

And as the light fell, we would tramp back, and you would char our chops and cook potatoes in the embers. And later, while our billy tea grew cold, we’d sit around the dying fire, the smoke from our pipes (and always your cigar) curled around our heads. And our words would wander far and wide, but always spoke of art.

And now, we only have your face in the portraits that we painted. So often with your heavy quiet eyes, the wearied bowing of your lips. We think of the characters you portrayed for us – men broken by grief, down on their luck. And we wonder – had we looked more carefully, might we have glimpsed your suffering all along?

If only you had said, dear Don. If only we had known.

Forever your friends: ‘The Prof’ McCubbin, ‘Bulldog’ Roberts, ‘Smike’ Streeton and ‘Kay’ Conder.

Michelle Wright is an author who lives in Eltham. Her short stories have won many awards in Australia, the US and UK, including her short story collection Fine (2016). Her novel, Small Acts of Defiance (Allen and Unwin) will be released in June 2021.