7. A brief history of Australian Impressionism: how Curlew Camp came about

7. A very brief history of Australian Impressionism: how Curlew Camp came about

Tom Roberts, ‘The artists’ camp,’ 1886. NGV. Box Hill, where Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams pitched camp late in 1885 to paint in plein air.

Tom Roberts arrived from England in his early teens and began studying art at the National Gallery of Victoria schools. He returned to Europe and encountered Impressionism and plein air painting in Spain, and then in Paris. he visited Whistler’s successful 1884 exhibition in Bond Street, London which was very successful. Oscar Wilde was a big fan. Whistler had appended an anti-Ruskin prologue of 7 aphorisms to the catalogue: The works must show no effort, and a masterpiece needed no explanation being, ‘a joy to the artist – a delusion to the philanthropist – a puzzle to the botanist – and accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man.’[i] The show influenced Roberts who returned to Melbourne the following year and initiated plein air painting in Australia. He established painting camps at Box Hill and Heidelberg with artists including Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. Australian impressionism became known as the Heidelberg School.

[i] Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake, Yale UP, 2014, p200

Late in 1885, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams camped in a paddock in the bush at Box Hill just east of Melbourne and they initiated plein air painting in Australia. McCubbin learnt from Roberts who’d been at art school in Melbourne and had studied ‘impressionist’ methods as a student in London and Paris.

The group used a loose brushwork, which gives their pictures an ‘impressionistic’ appearance, but were closer to naturalism and the more realistic Barbizon School than the Impressionism of Monet. See Camille Corot and Theodore Rousseau in previous post 6.)

In that same period, Roberts met Arthur Streeton out sketching and they became friends.

Louis Buvelot, Summer afternoon, Templestowe, 1866. NGV

In the summer of 1888, Arthur Streeton took a train to the drought affected farming area of Heidelberg, just north of Melbourne. He walked a pilgrimage to where Louis Buvelot had painted Streeton’s favourite painting, ‘Summer afternoon near Templestowe’ (1866, NGV). Near there, he bumped into Charles Davies, brother-in-law of a friend, the painter David Davies, who lent him an abandoned homestead ‘Eaglemont’ on the summit of Mount Eagle estate with views across the Yarra Valley to the Dandenongs.

Charles Conder, Impressionists Camp, (Eaglemont) 1889, NGA

Conder’s ‘Impressionists’ Camp’ shows Streeton and Roberts inside the Eagleton homestead. Streeton later recalled: ‘Our beds were made of cornsacks nailed to two saplings, and supported by upright pieces to raise them from the floor. Our seats were old boxes, our dining table was a box with boards placed across it . . . Surrounded by the loveliness of the new landscape, with heat, drought, and flies, and hard pressed for the necessaries of life, we worked hard, and were a happy trio.’ [1]

Streeton was heavily influenced by the teachings and works of his close friend, Louis Buvelot, and was fascinated by the French Impressionist movement. He was also interested in the works of Corot and Millet, and like Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts, developed a great admiration for the works of J.M.W.Turner.[2]

They were all passionate about Australia, its environment, landscape, heat and luminous light. A self-conscious nationalistic sentiment was rampant leading up to the centenary of settlement/invasion with debates on federation. Australian Impressionism was the first important non-indigenous art movement in Australia. (Australian impressionism is also known as the Heidelberg School.)

These artists wanted to create ‘Australian art’ and experimented with composition and fast, expressive brushwork. It also meant they mythologised the otherness of the bush, the Wallaby Track and bushrangers, but sidelined the indigenous population and their stories and histories.

[1] Arthur Streeton, ‘Eaglemont in the Eighties: Beginnings of Art in Australia’, The Argus, 16 Oct 1934.


The Streeton sketch, ‘Impression for Golden Summer’ is hanging on the wall in Conder’s painting.

Arthur Streeton, ‘Golden Summer, Eaglemont’, 1889, NGA

The finished painting, ‘Golden Summer, Eaglemont’ painted by the 21-year-old Streeton was exhibited at the Royal Academy London the following year and then at then at the Paris Salon, gaining an award. The colours are hot, the golden grasses dry, the sky saturated. Blue and gold were Streeton’s idea of ‘nature’s scheme of colour in Australia’. In 1995 The National Gallery of Australia bought the work for $3.5 million, a record price for an Australian painting at the time.

Arthur Streeton, ‘Near Heidelberg’, 1890, NGV

In 1890 Conder left for London and became best known of the three in Europe. Streeton moved up to Curlew Camp at Sirius Cove in the middle of Sydney Harbour, which had begun as a weekender for the Brasch brothers whose family owned a department store. Tom Roberts and other artists came to stay and paint.

Tom Roberts, ‘The artists’ camp,’ 1886. NGV

Julian Ashton worked at an artists’ camp at Balmoral Beach. He was a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW and insisted the gallery purchase a painting by the previously unknown Streeton. The recognition (and money) prompted Streeton to move from Melbourne to Sydney and Sirius Cove in 1891. Streeton was 24 years old and his friend Tom Roberts joined him (sources differ on who was here first). They taught art in a Sydney studio to make money. Tom Roberts was very different, being older, always well dressed and with an entrée to the upper echelons of Sydney society, as he made money from painting portraits. When Roberts married in 1896 he left the camp to live in Balmain, but the last painting he completed before dying in 1931, ‘Ring a Ring a Roses’, is a version of a landscape from his time at Sirius Cove.

Tom Roberts, The Camp, Sirius Cove, AGNSW, 1899

Critic Sandra McMahon observes, ‘These works (by Curlew Camp artists] have been beautifully crafted and observed. They capture a moment in Australian art history when artists were actively seeking out new ideas and inspiration to seize a moment in time and create a sense of place. These artists wanted to exert their influence on recent cultural developments and establish a fresh approach to the genre of landscape painting. Artists today still endeavour to seek inspiration through new approaches and dialogues in contemporary issues and cultural developments.’[i]

[i] Sandra McMahon, Bush to Bay: Hinton and the Artists’ Camps is a collaborative exhibition developed in partnership between the New England Regional Art Museum and Mosman Art Gallery. Brochure, 2016-2017

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