State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 50 Spring 1992


Family Ties: The Creation of Frederick McCubbin's Reputation 1920-60

A Small Industry has emerged around the artist Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) in the last twenty years. Reproductions of his highly-priced paintings decorate stamps, calendars, tea-towels and note-cards, and the Kit-Kat television commercial which feature Down on his Luck secured for his work a place in the popular imagination. A recent publication1 and exhibition2 have re-confirmed his place in the pantheon of Australian painting as a member of the Heidelberg School, which despite revisionism remains a tenacious cultural myth as the ‘birthplace’ of Australian painting.3 Such status, however, was not always assured. McCubbin's reputation was remarkably slight for a period of thirty years from the 1920s until the mid 1950s. Acknowledgement of his contribution to late nineteenth-century Australian art was eclipsed by the reputations of Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, a situation which McCubbin's family actively sought to redress. Drawing primarily upon the McCubbin family papers housed in the La Trobe Library, this article charts the role his family placed in developing, promoting and securing a public profile for his work. Their involvement included the organisation of commercial sales and the 1955 Retrospective Exhibition, and in the 1960s extended to an intervention into popular conceptions of Australian art history.
Insufficient attention is paid in much art-historical writing to the manner in which reputations are created. Reputation does not rest on the ‘quality’ of the art alone but relies on a complex interaction of personal networks, promotional tactics, sales, exhibitions, publications, grants and scholarly attention. Frederick McCubbin's art was first codified in the lavish tome The Art of Frederick McCubbin, published in Melbourne in 1916.4 This text is described by bibliophiles as one of the first luxury products of Australian art publishing, and the nationalist and mythologising tenor of the text has been acknowledged by several historians.5 Leigh Astbury first identified McCubbin's son, Alexander, as the unspecified editor of the monograph.6 The publication, with its glowing passages by J.S. MacDonald and Alexander McCubbin, received positive press and created a buoyant and receptive atmosphere for a sale of the artist's work.7 This is an early and typical example of the involvement of McCubbin's family in promotion which perhaps was not the artist's forte.
Other family members were involved with the promotion of McCubbin's work in the gallery context. As early as 1904, for instance, Frederick McCubbin wrote to Tom Roberts:
Mrs. McCubbin got up a one man show at the Athenaeum. The papers gave me splendid notices and we did our best to run it well …8
A similar reference occurs in correspondence dated 1907,9 and Andrew Mackenzie has noted that Fanny Withers and Annie McCubbin (the artist's wife) organised a large and successful showing of Frederick McCubbin's work in 1921.10 Such examples suggest a greater role for women in institutional structures of the late nineteenth-century Australian art world than has been presumed.
In 1919 son Alexander published Frederick McCubbin: A Consideration, the first in a series
of ‘Australian Art Books’.11 This was the last text to be devoted to McCubbin's art for sixty years, until the appearance of Ann Galbally's Frederick McCubbin in 1981,12 Similarly, nearly forty years would pass upon the artist's death in 1917 before a restrospective exhibition was mounted. When ii eventuated in 1955 it was a thoroughly McCubbin-family enterprise. Louis McCubbin, recently retired as Head of the National Gallery of South Australia, prodded National Gallery of Victoria Director Daryl Lindsay's memory of an earlier undertaking, in 1951. Noting that he had already drafted a list of pictures and proposed loans, Louis wrote:
You will recall that some time ago I was invited by the National Galleries Association to organise an exhibition of pictures by the late Frederick McCubbin. Ii was proposed to hold the Exhibition in 1952 and the arrangements were to be similar to those of the Streeton, Roberts Shows.
It is interesting to observe that in contrast Roberts had received the accolade of a retrospective in 1932 only one year after his death; similarly Streeton a large retrospective of 135 works in 1944, one year after his. Louis' proposal for his father's show included fifty-one paintings.14 Many works which are well known today - Portrait - Study in White, Portrait - J. Panton Esq., Portrait - “Blue and Gold” (Mrs. Kozminsky) and Shelling Peas were still in the family's collection.15 With Louis' death in 1952 arrangements for the exhibition passed to brother Hugh, a Melbourne businessman. For several years Hugh nudged Daryl Lindsay's memory, suggesting a plan which was smaller than Louis'.16 The new proposal was based on the outline of McCubbin's oeuvre set out in the 1916 monograph, in which McCubbin's development was seen in terms of place - Box Hill, Blackburn, Brighton and Macedon - the sites where he painted. Hugh conceded that ‘Louis was working on a much more ambitious project’ and added, ‘before I die I would like to see the two great paintings of his life - ‘The Bush Burial’ and ‘Down on His Luck’ exhibited in the City [sic] of his birth'.17
Coincidental with his lobbying for an exhibition, Hugh commenced a media campaign to achieve recognition for his father's achievements. From February 1955 letters were forwarded to newspapers and broadcasters in several Australian stales. A letter to the editor of the Sydney Bulletin was typical:
Centenary of Artist, Frederick McCubbin
As his last surviving son it is probably my last filial duly to make known … the fact that February 25th 1955 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frederick McCubbin … It will assist me to discharge an obligation to my father's memory if you make some mention of these facts in your columns.18
There followed a summary which declared McCubbin a ‘Pioneer of Australian Art and the first notable Artist to be born in Australia’.19 As described in The Art of Frederick McCubbin (1916) it became a virtue to refuse the lure of expatriate experience: ‘Frederick McCubbin was the only notable artist of his time to spend the whole of his life in Victoria’, Hugh claimed, ignoring his father's overseas journey of 1907.20 Hugh linked his father with Tom Roberts rather than Arthur Streeton, claiming that ‘In Association with Tom Roberts [he] was a founder of the Australian School of Landscape Painting’.21
That it was indeed necessary to provide a synopsis of McCubbin's achievements was borne out by an unfortunate but amusing incident in which ABC Radio Brisbane broadcast not a eulogy but a birthday call. The following apology was received from Russ Tyson:
I'm so sorry that I misunderstood your note, for as you made no mention of your father's demise, I naturally assumed that this was to be a call on his one-hundredth birthday.22
The McCubbin family fears that their father's
memory had been neglected were grounded in reality. Compared with Roberts and Streeton, the paucity of publishing about McCubbin was striking. Art in Australia often featured work by the former pair, publishing a Streeton Number in 1919; The Arthur Streeton Catalogue was published in 1935 and R.H. Croll had published two books concerning Streeton and Roberts by the 1940s.23 Despite Bernard Smith's measured comments concerning McCubbin in Place, Taste and Tradition (1945), even Daryl Lindsay requested ‘a few more facts about his life - other than when he was born and when he was at he National Gallery School - to give out to the press’.24
The Frederick McCubbin Centenary Show was opened by Prime Minister Robert Menzies at the National Gallery of Victora on 4 November 1955.25 Hugh was asked to provide the vote of thanks, and his speech ran:
For the first time we are given the opportunity to review…the life and work of Frederick McCubbin …you Sir! can stilt find the time to pay homage to the Arts - these great toys of the imagination and spirit of mankind.26
Menzies' presence was significant; McCubbin's painting was the type of art he wished to see enshrined in a pantheon of Australian art which revolved around landscape and rejected modernist practice.27 Hugh made several carefully chosen donations of McCubbin paintings and memorabilia at this time including the artist's easel (presented to the National Gallery)28 and a painting for the decoration of the Prime Minister's residence, The Lodge.29 The language of his correspondence with Menzies regarding this matter indicates a friendship; the Prime Minister selected the Sketch of Princes Bridge over three landscapes which Hugh described as ‘in the old Man's best manner’.30
Also in the centenary year, An Exhibition and Sale of a Small collection of paintings by Frederick Mccubbin (1859-1917) and Louis McCubbin (1889-1952) was held in mid 1955 at Joshua McClelland's rooms, Melbourne. Hugh provided the anonymous catalogue essay31 and sales receipts indicate that all works were from the collection of either Hugh or his sisters.32 of his father, Hugh wrote, perhaps prematurely:
He is regarded by many as Australia's first Old Master … few artists of any time have produced such outstanding work in so many department … we see the Australian scene recorded for the first time through the eyes of a native Australian.33
In appropriating the latter statement, which was generally appended to the work of Arthur Streeton, Hugh hinted at the bitterness the family may have felt regarding the ascendancy and attention accorded Streeton. A cult for McCubbin did not exist, and prices were relatively low. A 1949 sale realised an average of £22 per painting, and in 1950 a nude by Louis sold for more than one of his father's landscapes.34 The substantial work Williamstown Landscape was purchased from Louis by the National Gallery of South Australia in 1952 for the relatively low price of 175 guineas.35 Streeton's prices were considerably higher, reflecting the prestige accorded him. The Historic Memorials committee - of which Louis was a member - for instance, purchased Streeton's A Pastoral for £500 in 1952.36
By The 1960s the bitterness regarding the self-promotion of Arthur Streeton became oven. A ‘Symposium or Judicial Enquiry’ was organised by Hugh at the Melbourne Savage Club on 31 August 1962, ‘to determine’, as the reminders stated, ‘a Matter of the Utmost [sic] Importance in the History of Art in Australia’.37 The debate revolved around a spirited attack on Heidelberg as the birthplace of a purely Australian art and exposed the way in which Heidelberg and Streeton had
developed synonymous and privileged meanings. Hugh's motivation for the enterprise was clarified in a letter he wrote during the planning stages:
To put it briefly I have decided to attack a popular myth invented by the late Sir Arthur Streeton that the so-called ‘Heidelberg’ School was the genesis of Art in Australia and that it was founded and got its original impetus from this ‘great man’ himself - that this beginning was the direct result of his genius and his inspiration.38
It was unfair and simplistic to blame Streeton entirely for this situation. His supporter Lionel Lindsay had argued as early as 1917 that Streeton was the ‘discoverer’ of the Australian landscape39 later christening him ‘the greatest of the pioneers, and the first of the native born to paint a great and typical Australian picture’40 ‘a veritable priest of Apollo’.41
The Savage Club had a long connection with Frederick McCubbin. He had been a member and by 1951 the Club owned at least two paintings by the artist.42 The Club had commemorated McCubbin in March 1955, when ‘Savage’ E.C. Rigby delivered an address describing the artist's home as ‘the resort of artists, lawyers, musicians and other of the intelligencia [sic] of Melbourne’.43 The Enquiry hosted in 1962, however, was more complex; at once jovial and serious it is a fascinating document of contemporary conceptions of Australian art history. A mock trial was held, witnesses called, exhibits displayed and a team representing McCubbin and Box Hill battled one representing Streeton and Heidelberg. Hugh McCubbin briefed George Lush and Austin Asche, attorneys ‘acting’ for his father, and typescripts of the questions they fired at ‘witnesses’, including art historian Professor Joseph Burke, survive.44 Dominating the proceedings was a copy of Streeton's article published in the Argus, October 1934, in which he created the impression that he was barely acquainted with McCubbin; that McCubbin was peripheral to the group including Streeton, Roberts and Conder which had ‘created’ Australian art.45 McCubbin's brief to the Box Hill side claimed that the article ‘seems an inaccurate, gratuitous and unnecessary slight to a man who three or four years before was one of those who introduced Streeton to a new field of knowledge’.46 The aim of the enquiry was apparent; to revive McCubbin's reputation and to chastise Arthur Streeton, albeit in a jovial manner.
Witnesses were called in order to prove that Heidelberg was not the site of the first plein-air painting camp as Streeton had claimed, but that Box Hill deserved the honor.47 A botanist was shown a number of paintings and asked to identify the various eucalypts. The Box Hill Town Clerk was also present and was asked:
Do you believe the site of the camp where a type of Art of a purely Australian National character was established was at Box Hill? Is your Council conscious of this fact and is it a matter of Civic pride?48
His presence was probably an outcome of the efforts of McCubbin's daughter, Kathleen Mangan, who corresponded with the shire in an attempt to pinpoint the exact location of the Box Hill painting camp. Like her brother, she was keen to demote Heidelberg's pretensions and had written, ‘I, for one, would be most happy to see this historical fact cleared up, and see Box Hill given as the true, and original site’.49
The facts that were considered essential in displacing Streeton's version of events revolved around detailed discussions of the eucalypt, and it was never questioned that from landscape alone a quintessentially Australian school might emerge. The Savage Club trial failed to question both the concept of what ‘Australian art’ might be and the necessity to identify a point of genesis of Australian painting.
A typescript amongst the evening's papers, which may have been read to the Assembly, does, however, demonstrate a sharp understanding of the mythic proportions the ‘Heidelberg School’ had assumed in Australian culture. Unpublished to date, it is worth quoting at length as it indicates that the myth of the Heidelberg School had become sufficiently paradigmatic that by the early 1960s it could be successfully parodied:
In 1851 the Gold Rush brought many people to Victoria to make their fortunes. Many of them didn't, so a small group of them who were artists, S.T. Gill, Louis Buvelot, McCubbin and other convicts were dissatisfied and left for Germany where they formed the now famous Heidelberg. School under the leadership of Walter Gropius. Later on they returned with She gospel of Impressionism and camped in Melbourne. Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin influenced all the painting from that time, so did Max Meldrum, who was a sober painter.
(to the tune of old Black Joe)
Gone are the days
When art was young and gay
Gone are the days
When Heidelberg held sway
Gone to the Land
Which caused this bloody row
Historians are gradually swinging over
to Box Hill now. (chorus)
McCubbin, McCubbin
Streeton's Art is sinking low
Can't you hear his buyers softly moaning
We've done our dough.50
Hugh McCubbin had described it as his ‘filial duty’ to attack the hegemony of the Heidelberg School which positioned Arthur Streeton at its summit. The crusade on behalf of his father was marked by bitterness at Streeton's self-advertisement in the 1920s and subsequent ascendancy. At no time, however, was the noting of a ‘National School’ of Australian landscape challenged, for this was the very framework in which Louis and Hugh were to position their father as a pioneering figure. Their enterprise did not subvert the myth of the Heidelberg School; in arguing for a reassessment of it in which their father would be accorded new prominence, it was further consolidated.
Peter McNeil


I wish to thank the staff of La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, for their assistance. This paper was first written as an essay in the Department of Art History, University of Queensland, and I thank Nancy Underhill for her comments. I also wish to thank David McNeill of the Australian National University, in whose Australian Art course I first presented the paper, and to Erika Esau and Helen Topliss for their comments and encouragement.


A. Mackenzie, Frederick McCubbin 1855-1917: ‘The Proff’ and his art, Lilydale, 1990.


B. Whitelaw, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, National Gallery of Victoria, 1991.


See J. Hoorn, ‘Golden Summers. An unchallenged dream’, Art-Network, 19/20, Winter-Spring 1986, pp.51-3.


J.S. MacDonald et al., The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Melbourne, 1916.


L. Astbury, ‘The Art of Frederick McCubbin and the Impact of the First War’, La Trobe Library Journal, Vol.6, No.24, October 1979, pp.79-83; R. Holden, introductory essay, J.S. MacDonald et al., The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Brisbane, 1986 [reprint of 1916 ed.], unpaginated.


Astbury, op. cit.


For a review see McCubbin Papers, LT MS 8525, Box 988/2.


F. McCubbin to T. Roberts, 14 June 1904, p.2, Mitchell Library MSS A2479.


F. McCubbin to T. Roberts, 26 April 1907, loc. cit.


A. Mackenzie, Walter Withers: The Forgotten Manuscripts, Lilydale, 1987, p.6.


A. Colquhoun, Frederick McCubbin: A Consideration, Melbourne, n.d.[1919].


A. Galbally, Frederick McCubbin, Richmond, 1981.


L. McCubbin to D. Lindsay, 19 September 1951, LT MS 8325, Box 988/1.






H. McCubbin to D. Lindsay, 17 February 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.




H. McCubbin to Sydney Bulletin, 16 February 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.








R. Tyson to H. McCubbin, 25 February 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.


R.H. Croll, Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Melbourne, 1935; Smike to Bulldog, Sydney, 1946.


D. Lindsay to H. McCubbin, 15 February 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.


Frederick McCubbin Exhibition to mark the Centenary of the Artist's Birth in 1855, National Gallery of Victoria, 1955. The catalogue was prepared by Dr. Ursula Hoff, and the exhibition travelled to Adelaide and Sydney. Hoff's ‘The Phases of McCubbin's Art’ was published in Meanjin, Vol. XV, No.3, September 1956, pp.301-6.


Undated typescript, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.


For Menzies' role in the aborted establishment in the 1930s of an Australian Academy see R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors, Ringwood, 1981, pp.40-6.


D. Lindsay to H. McCubbin, 5 August 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3. In 1960 Hugh presented the paintings Blue and Gold (Mrs. Kozminsky), Melbourne in 1888, A Lady in Grey (Portrait of Mrs. McCubbin), J.A. Panton, Esq. and Miss Fleming (a study in white) to the National Gallery of Victoria.


H. McCubbin to R. Menzies, 25 August 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3. Mackenzie notes that Hugh hoped his donations would go on permanent display. Mackenzie, op.cit., 1990, p.76.


H. McCubbin to R. Menzies, 25 August 1955, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.


, Typescript, LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.


LT MS 8525, Box 987/4.


LT MS 8525, Box 988/3.


Sedon Galleries, receipt dated 22 September 1949; Joshua McClelland, receipt dated 23 October 1950, both LT MS 8525, Box 988/1.


R. Campbell to L. McCubbin, 21 October 1952, ibid.


Minutes of the Meeting of the Historic Memorials Committee, Canberra, 7 October 1952, ibid.


LT MS 8525, Box 988/4.


H. McCubbin to J.S. Bloomfield, 15 August 1962, ibid.


, See A. Galbally, Introduction, in J. Clark & B. Whitelaw, Golden Summers, Heidelberg and Beyond, Melbourne, 1985, p.9.


, L. Lindsay in Arthur Streeton Exhibition of Paintings at the Fine Art Society's Gallery Melbourne, 1924.


L. Lindsay in Arthur Streeton Memorial Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, 1944.


L. McCubbin to D. Lindsay, 19 September 1951, LT MS 8525, Box 988/1. See also Mackenzie, op. cit., pp.84, 160.


LT MS 8525, Box 988/2.


LT MS 8525, Box 988/4. The text of part of the proceedings is reproduced in Mackenzie, op.cit., 1990, pp.56-7, without commentary.


LT MS 8525, Box 988/4.




It should be noted that both R.H. Croll and Lionel Lindsay, in their essays for the catalogue accompanying the Arthur Streeton Memorial Exhibition, (National Gallery of Victoria, 1944) had conceded Box Hill was the first plein-air painting site. For analysis of the relative position of Box Hill and Heidelberg within late nineteenth-century Australian art sec H. Topliss, The Artiste’ Camps: plein air painting in Melbourne 1885-1898, Monash University Gallery, 1984.


LT MS 8525, Box 988/4.


K. Mangan to Town Clerk, Box Hill, 1962, ibid.


Unsigned typescript, ibid.