Frederick McCubbin is acknowledged as one of Australia’s finest artists.
Frederick’s parents Alexander McCubbin and Ann (McWilliam) McCubbin arrived in Australia in 1852, at the height of the gold rush. They set up a bakery in Melbourne. Frederick McCubbin was born in 1855. From a very early age Frederick loved to draw. At the age of 14, on his first job, he was caught sketching in work hours. His employer sacked him.
In his Notes by Frederick McCubbin, we get a glimpse of him as a young boy, the beginnings of a great artist;
When I was about thirteen years old I was sent to a lawyers office, Mr. Withers, Eldon Chambers, Bank Place and after being there about two months or so I was often for days together left alone to conduct the business of the office. Well to while away the time I used to make paper theatres. So one day another boy joined me in the office and I recollect he showed a scene I had just made to Mr. Richard Hardwood who recognised the attempt. He, Mr. Hardwood being represented as the Pirate chief in the Burlesque The Bride and Abydos or the bounding bricks of Williamstown. Well an end came to my career as a Lawyers Clerk. One day my father inquired how I was getting on. Mr. Withers took him to my desk and showed him all my efforts in the way of art. I shall never forget the talking to I got on that occasion, I was sent there to improve my writing and instead I wasted my time on this rubbish. If I had shown a taste for letters I believe he would have pushed me for a University career but painting, nothing in it, so I became for about three years a bakers carter. Dad gave me a round in North Melbourne and Emerald Hill and also taking bread down on the Melbourne swamp, and being down on the wharf to serve the Old Geelong boat the Express that left at four o’clock. We were up at six and packed our carts, harnessed the old moke I drove, old Tom, and off, 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 some times we got stuck in the mud, and the routine day after day, and the never-done feeling of it all. Across the dreary track of Philistine surroundings there was a young man who drove for dad named Harry Lynot. He worked all day and studied Cobbetts method of learning French at night.
We had brave times together he lent me the Iliad and the Odyssey and introduced me to the Genius of Napoleon. I also devoured Telemachus by Fenelon. He used to go to the Library odd nights. Dear old Harry he went before the masts afterwards and I only saw him once again on his return from Melbourne to Calcutta a born rover. How much genuine instruction I owed him that I can never repay.
Frederick also recounts his early experiences in the art world;
This is an endeavour on my part to put down the memory of events that occurred in my lifetime during the last thirty eight or forty years.
The chief point of interest in these memoirs is the recording of the struggles of a number of my fellow students and myself in our endeavours to follow the fascinating career of artists, in a country that was newly settled by an immigrant population who had just come from the old land all in pursuit of fortunes. Ah me how few realised their wishes in that respect.
The people were keen on material success everybody wanting to get back to the old land, with long purses. About the time that I consider made an event in my life that I shall never forget, that is the year 1873, Melbourne had more or less settled down to the inevitable conclusion that it was just as well to make the most of the country that we were, most of us, born in. And so about a year previous to the date above mentioned, the newly formed Technical Commission opened in all the suburbs and leading provincial towns a number of schools designated Schools of Design.
I remember reading about these Schools occasionally in the press, also meeting a school mate who had put in a quarter at them he said they were no good. However just a few months before meeting this young man the worthy pastor of the church we went to was talking to my good mother about my fondness for drawing. So he kindly asked me to come and see him. I felt terribly shy about it. I think it was positive torture to go to the parsonage, his gracious kindly manner and old world courtesy and the atmosphere of refinement about the place all made me feel very out of place and self conscious.
However he gave me some lithographs to copy and lent me a copy of the lives of English painters by Allen Cunninghan he wanted to encourage me to study landscape drawing. I remember copying these prints just as a duty but felt no enthusiasm of them.
I was then apprenticed to the wheelwright trade, working in a shop full of shavings from seven in the morning to six at night.
So the drawings were copied in the evening. Well, one day while I was painting an old dray in red and blue it flashed across my mind that I would like to join one of the Schools of Design and learn to draw figures. The fee per quarter was two shillings so the following Friday evening saw me off to the Trades Hall School of Design, Lygon Street, Carlton, sitting on the stairs of the old wooden building waiting for eight o’clock when the school opened. They asked me what class I wished to join I said figure drawing. I had a pencil and drawing book so I was soon settled in a seat, and a venerable old gentleman, with a head the counterpart of the bust of Socrates, made an outline drawing of a head which we spent the evening copying carefully in our drawing books and then at half past nine we were dismissed but before leaving we were allowed to select a lithograph of a study to take home and copy. I will never forget my first copy it was a study of two angels. I found many years afterwards it was a fragment of one of le Sueur’s pictures. Well I was in seventh heaven, I had really got into the palace of Art. It was a joy all day while trying to knock out rusty bolts and help to tire wheels and paint and putty the same to let my mind wander over the charms of painting.
Fredericks complete notes can be read here.
His father then decided Frederick should work with him. Starting in the wee hours of the morning Frederick delivered bread by horse and cart. This was followed by his apprenticeship to a coach builder. In the evenings he took drawing classes at the Carlton Artisans School of Design. He later followed his drawing master to the National Gallery School in Melbourne. After his fathers death in 1877, McCubbin returned to the bakery to help his mother and suspended his art studies. However, he was determined to become a painter and a year later at the age of 22, he was able to return to the Gallery School, as a full time student.
McCubbin was intrigued with the tales of the pioneers, the fossickers and adventurers. He was also drawn to other painters who were beginning to portray the everyday hardship of the early settlers who struggled through the harsh terrain of the Australian bush to clear enough land to build a timber hut, graze a few cattle and raise a family.
McCubbin met Tom Roberts in 1885 and with Louis Abrahams they founded the first artists’ camp at Housten’s farm, Box Hill (Victoria, Australia), which laid the foundations of the Heidelberg School. They recognized that the early Australian artists, newly arrived from the European landscape were superimposing their own views of the green rolling hills of England, turning gum trees into oaks, changing the burnished browns and golds of Australia into a European landscape. Moreover, the first colonists, the settlers, saw themselves as exiles from Britain rather than as Australians. They saw little beauty in the landscape of their newly adopted country.
These artists had a growing interest in painting the Australian landscape as being something entirely new to British and European eyes. They saw that the Australian landscape provided a wealth of original material and they set out to create an independent, nationalistic art style. They became known for their use of colour and light to reflect the harshness and dryness of the Australian bush, the enormous, lonely spaces and the particular beauty of the landscape. Frederick McCubbin was inspired to paint and capture forever the Australian bush as in The Pioneer (below), depicting a courageous young couple making a new start in a harsh land.
“A number of McCubbins paintings were of the Australian bush. He preferred melancholy or even tragic themes, and settings which emphasize the tones of the landscape. He was more interested in creating a certain kind of mood than in making a detailed analysis of a particular atmospheric effect.”
“He was intensely devoted to his wife, Annie Moriarty, who was a noble and beautiful woman. She posed for nearly all McCubbin’s pictures, and she was the model for the centre picture of McCubbin’s great triptich, “The Pioneers,” which now hangs in the National Gallery.” (L.T.Luxton, Argus Camera Supplement, 10 Aug 1920). Penny McColm, grandaughter of Frederick McCubbin, says “The Pioneers” is so huge, I believe Fred dug a ditch to stand in, in order to paint the lower area”. McCubbin did many portraits of his family including himself, with one scene including the family business “The Bakery”.
McCubbin’s painting titled “Lost” displaying a young child surrounded by the bushland may have been inspired by a report in May 1885 when a 12 year old young girl was found alive after 3 weeks lost in the bush near Lilydale country, Victoria.
On leave in 1907, McCubbin travelled to Europe and he found himself enthralled with the French impressionists. This marked a great shift in compositions, his paintings becoming smaller light-filled pure landscapes, with a strong reference to the works of the Englishman, Turner.
Frederick McCubbin taught drawing at the Melbourne National Gallery School from 1886 until his death in 1917.
*(Images temporary until copyright approval from The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)