Australian historical and contemporary paintings, drawings and sculpture also European paintings, tapestries and prints, Christie's, Melbourne, 14 March 1974, lot 321 (as 'The old railway siding')
Sir Tristan Antico, Sydney
Purchased from the above by private treaty in 1994
The first of the Australian Impressionists' bush camps was established towards the end of 1885 on the hill above the hut on David Houston's property at Box Hill. Tom Roberts, Fred McCubbin and Louis Abrahams were able to exercise their plein-air, colonial landscapery in 'a patch of wild bush, tall young saplings with the sun glistening on their leaves and streamers of bark swaying, groups of tea-tree, dogwood and tall dry grasses.'1
This was the bush which would produce Abrahams's Camp, Box Hill (1886, private collection, Melbourne), Roberts's The artists' camp (1886, National Gallery of Victoria), A summer morning tiff (1886, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery) and Reconciliation (1886-1887, Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum) and McCubbin's Lost (1886, National Gallery of Victoria), Gathering mistletoe (1886, private collection) and, eventually, A bush burial (1890, Geelong Gallery). Arthur Streeton joined them the following year; the Box Hill bush inspired his June evening, Box Hill (1887, Queensland Art Gallery) and Settler's camp (1888, collection Dr Peter Farrell AM), as well as works by other artists such as Tom Humphrey (Springtime, 1886, Warrnambool Art Gallery) and Jane Sutherland (Obstruction, Box Hill, 1887, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery).
However, while Houston's Farm may have seemed 'the land sylvan as it ever was,'2 it was really only a small, remnant piece of native scrub. The extension of the railway line from Camberwell to Lilydale at the end of 1882 had led directly to speculation and subdivision, to the rapid growth of the village of Box Hill (by 1887 there was even a school) and to an expansion of the district's orchards and farmlands.
Still, the passenger train was also what made the artists' weekend excursions possible; in a later, nostalgic letter from London, Streeton specifically recalled 'the run for trains on Sunday night and Prof. [McCubbin] far up ahead, mopping his brow...'3 Evidentally the artists occasionally stayed longer; this picture shows the 7.39 morning train to Melbourne.4
Fred McCubbin is perhaps the most industrially aware of the first generation of Australian Impressionists; his various images of Melbourne's docks and wharves and his numerous pictures of the Richmond stone crusher further testify to this interest.5 This view of the engine steaming out of the Box Hill station behind a small herd of cows and between two stands of gum trees presents a remarkable composite landscape: of ancient bush, pioneer livestock and modern transportation.
The present work is also a fine example of McCubbin's early plein-air tonal naturalism, before the increasing nationalist sentiment and the dynamic, encrusted surfaces of the 1890s and 1900s. The softly painted blur of the foreground grasses, the dance of light and shade amongst the trees on the left, the sparkle of the sun on town buildings and the rich, frothing paleness of steam mixing with pink sunrise clouds combine to create a memorable image of a bush paradise not quite lost, but certainly some way down the line.
We are most grateful to Albert Isaacs of the Australian Association of Timetable Collectors for his assistance in cataloguing this work.
1. Mme. Elmhurst Goode's recollection of the camp, quoted in R.H. Croll, Tom Roberts: father of Australian landscape painting, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1935, p. 23
2. Tom Roberts, quoted in William Moore, The story of Australian art (2 vols.), Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934, vol. I p. 70
3. Arthur Streeton, quoted in Jane Clark & Bridget Whitelaw, Golden summers: Heidelberg and beyond, Sydney: International Cultural Corporation of Australia, 1985, p. 55
4. Subsequent services departed at 8.25 and 9.33. See Bradshaw's guide to Victoria, Melbourne: Wilson, Mackinnon and Fairfax, January 1887
5. Mention should probably also be made of Roberts's Evening train to Hawthorn (1887, Art Gallery of New South Wales) and both his and Streeton's smoky Sydney ferries of the 1890s.
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