I stood surprised. Here was a painting by Arthur Streeton. How it had managed to stay on display in the Chau Chak Museum (more in another article) mystified me because, not that far away at the Streeton Exhibition at the N.S.W. Art Gallery, they had clearly sourced far and wide. This one had escaped their net.
I’d been exploring Balmain a few days earlier, loving the 19th century architecture that abounds in the once “workers suburb”. Its proximity to central Sydney, yet with a water barrier between, meant that land was cheaper so it rapidly became an urban centre that today has mostly been preserved, fueled by politicians such as the late Tom Uren who had an appreciation of history. It was on a walk named after Tom that I found myself on a narrow lane, lined on one side with mature trees, some so big they reach across and stroked the houses. It was here, on this pathway, that I was shocked to see a sign “Art Gallery” beside an open door to a plain 19th C residence, because only foot traffic went past here.
I entered, the male occupant seemed surprised. I explained the open door and the sign and he calmed down. Apparently he was moving to the South Coast and his daughter had advertised his artistic works on the internet. It had been quite successful and he made a half-hearted attempt to sell me some but I was merely a looker. However, at some stage he waxed lyrical about the Arthur Streeton exhibition. Clearly a fan, he had been heartened to see a broad range of his works, unlike the Monet exhibition that left a lot to be desired.
Somewhere in the back of my mind it registered that I had read about the Streeton display but had put it to one side. Now I decided that tomorrow’s exercise would be a trip to the State Gallery.
At $20 for pensioners it wasn’t too much to part with but the convivial male receptionist put in a wonderful effort to try and convince me to become a country member and part with $90 for an annual subscription. I felt a tad guilty declining but the math didn’t work out.
That it was well attended was immediately apparent. A lot of old farts like myself but many younger people as well. I could see what the Balmain artist meant. They had, indeed, amassed a fine collection across the board because Streeton (1867-1843) lived in a time of burgeoning art, when Paris hosted an art scene like none before, though London was where Aussies generally went.
Streeton, at times, painted subjects I find fascinating. Not for him the glorious landscape; no, the reality of life in the country, exemplified by three works: Gorse in Bloom, The Creek and The Digger and His Log. Here are works of what it really looks like. The simplicity, the starkness, the contrast of a human on the landscape and the seemingly unattractive dead trees create a feeling of “being there”.
He abhorred the destruction of old growth forest and campaigned against it. No doubt his early days outside of Melbourne with other notable artists like Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin fueled this love. In fact, one of his works, Settlers Camp, has McCubbin’s influence stamped all over it. It was the sale of this and one other that allowed him to paint full time.
At one stage in 1891 he did a tour of inland N.S.W. endeavouring to capture the ‘great, gold plains’, the ‘hot, trying winds’ and the ‘slow, immense summer’. Another later session around the Hawkesbury was also prolific and includes one of my favourites, Travellers Rest. One painting entitled “Fire’s on” is of railway tunnelling efforts in the lower Blue Mountains and shows the body of a fatally injured miner being brought out. Interestingly, it actually contains dirt from the explosions mixed with the paint.
His move to Sydney in 1892 saw him gravitate to “Curlew Camp”, at Sirius Cove on Sydney Harbour that, today, is a place where artists and admirers pay homage to the group that painted a wealth of harbourside scenes around the turn of the century.
To further his career he went to London, intending to stop for a week in Cairo but that stretched out to over 2 months. His years in London were difficult, with limited critical success.
He went back to Australia and spent a successful year, in 1906-1907, before returning to London, where he married and then went to Venice where he spent his honeymoon with Canadian born violinist Leonora Clench mid-1908. Apart from another year in Australia immediately prior to WWI, his time was spent in England and the well-connected Leonora was able to assist in marketing his works.
He joined the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1915 for a couple of years at Wandsworth before being commissioned honorary lieutenant and going to the Somme to paint in 1917 where his portrait was painted by fellow artist George Lambert.
Streeton’s works concerned the destruction of buildings and landscape rather than the human suffering and his scenes from Villers Bretoneux are of particular relevance to Australians. His stark renditions of ruined buildings are something few others ever painted. Perhaps a poignant reminder that there’s little to savour in war, something mankind is still waiting to learn.
He visited Australia again after the war before returning in 1922, via Canada and Leonora’s relatives, to London. The following year he was back in Australia and buying a home in Toorak and building a cottage at Olinda in the Dandenongs. His roots were down and, in 1928, he won Australia’s most prestigious landscape award, the Wynn Prize, for a painting that sadly hasn’t made this exhibition.
He was knighted in 1937, the year before his wife died, and then spent much of his life in his beloved garden at Olinda until his death in 1943.
In 1940 he had emotionally painted “Sylvan Dam and Donna Buangs” as testimony to what future our landscapes face if we fail to care for them, arguably his greatest legacy.