Australian Impressionist Frederick McCubbin was born on 25 February 1855, the third son of eight siblings. These comprised two older brothers, William John, and James Alexander and one younger brother, Robert, as well as four younger sisters in Mary-Anne, Harriet, Wilhelmina, and Helen.
Frederick’s Scottish father Alexander, a baker from Ayrshire, and English mother Anne (née McWilliams) emigrated to Australia in 1852 and settled in Melbourne, where they established a bakery. Many of Alexander’s family also emigrated to Australia and New Zealand, going on to become successful in various enterprises.
Frederick’s schooling at William Millmett’s West Melbourne School and St. Paul’s School was completed at age 13. His father secured him a job as a lawyer’s clerk with a Mr. Withers of Eldon Chambers. He was mostly left to his own devices and entertained himself by creating theatres out of paper. Another boy showed one of these to a manager, who recognised it for what it was. Frederick’s law career came to a rapid end, when his father, on enquiring as to his son’s progress, was shown his artistic creations instead.
For the next three years, Alexander employed his son as a baker’s carter, responsible for a daily round of bread deliveries. Harry Lynot, also employed by Alexander, accompanied Frederick as a driver. Harry was intent on learning, teaching himself French and attending the local library after a long day’s work. He lent Frederick the Iliad and the Odyssey and exposed him to Napoleon’s philosophies. In his autobiographical Notes by Frederick McCubbin, Frederick comments “How much genuine instruction I owed him that I can never repay.” Frederick was then apprenticed to wheelwrights Stevenson Elliot as a coach and herald painter. He qualified in 1875 but remained determined to become an artist.
In 1859, Melbourne Trades Hall was launched with the establishment of Trades and Labour Councils and Trades Halls in many cities and towns. Frederick’s drawing had been encouraged by a local pastor who lent him lithographs of landscapes by English painters to copy, but which failed to inspire him. He had always been attracted to figure drawing and on a whim, signed up for evening classes at the Trades Hall School of Design in Lygon Street, Carlton.
He attended these classes from 1867-1870. His first project was to copy a study of two angels, which he discovered in later years was a fragment of work by the 17th-century French artist Eustache le Seuer. Walking to the school on Friday nights, Frederick had to pass Rigby’s Council Club. Highlighted in a window was a copy of Titian’s Flora, which immediately excited and inspired Frederick.
On leaving the school, Frederick enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Design. Frederick had never been to an art gallery; his first visit prior to beginning classes at the Gallery was with a fellow pupil from the School of Design. His only previous exposure to art had been through seeing the occasional painting, but he was mostly inspired by the scene-work at the Theatre Royal. At the School of Design, he studied painting under Eugene von Guérard and portrait painter George Folingsby. McCubbin describes his years at the School with fond memories of his tutors, especially Mr. Thomas Clark. Frederick recalled that Clark had a copy of a painting that he illustrated “a stampede of Horses from the Trojan Camp at the siege of Troy”, which all the pupils admired. When Clark retired due to his failing health, Oswald Rose Campbell, McCubbin’s design teacher, was appointed as drawing master with effect from 1 December 1876.
Campbell’s tenure was not popular. In his ‘Notes’, McCubbin states “Well under the new regime which lasted about six or seven years began the most dreary and hopeless period of our student days. We all got at loggerheads with our new instructor, we tried all sorts of ways to study, I remember making careful outlines of antique figures, drawing outlines in the most laboured way of hands and feet so as not to waste our time in stippling up badly constructed drawings…we were far removed from any practical tradition of Art and Method of Study.”
McCubbin and a group of fellow students established a life drawing class, which they held on Saturday afternoons. The group addressed a petition to the trustees of the National Gallery School requesting tuition for their endeavours. However, Campbell was strongly opposed to this. His rebuttal letter to the trustees dated 20 June 1879 stated that the students were only equipped for “drawing, anatomy, perspective, and modelling”. The students, led by McCubbin, Tom Roberts, and Charles Richardson were threatened with dismissal but on appeal, were allowed to remain. Other students supported Campbell but in the end, he lost to the maverick group, to whom he was then expected to teach life-drawing classes.
Alexander McCubbin’s death in 1877 following an epileptic seizure after a fall down a set of stairs, meant Frederick had to put his artistic ambitions on hold as he had to assist with running the family business. His friends and fellow students Tom Roberts, Charles Richardson, and Edgar MacKennal all left to work in London around the same time. This unhappy period in Frederick’s life was salvaged by his decision to recommence life classes on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons.
He managed to return to full-time studies in 1878 at the Victorian Academy of the Arts and in 1880 sold his first painting View Near Fisherman’s Bend. He had previously exhibited in the 1876 and 1879 annual exhibitions. In 1880, he exhibited an oil entitled Sketch from Antony and Cleopatra for eight guineas. In 1881, his work Thebes – a Sketch, also in oils, was shown for ten guineas. His first award came in 1882 when he won a silver medal for figure drawing, awarded by the Academy, and to which he was also elected as an associate. In 1883, he was awarded the first prize of £30 for ‘best studies in colour and drawing’ in the National Gallery’s first student exhibition, which would become an annual event. The following year, he was awarded the second prize of £20 for Home Again. He was also submitting monochrome work to magazines and newspapers during this period.
In 1879, McCubbin painted An Old Politician, exhibited the same year and sold to a collector in the 1880’s who apparently then deposited the work into a private vault. The painting was not seen again for 137 years. On 22 March 2016, David McCubbin, Frederick’s grandson, unveiled the piece which was displayed for a single day to help raise funds for the restoration of the listed Victorian Artists’ Society building.
McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Condor founded the Heidelberg School of Australian Impressionism in 1885, with the establishment of an artists’ camp at Housten’s Farm, Box Hill in Victoria. The group recognised that Australian émigré artists or those of newly emigrated parentage were stamping English landscape characteristics on their art, and sought to encourage artists to identify with their new culture by encouraging Australian Impressionism. Most of the artwork created under this umbrella depicted the Yarra and Gipsland regions in the south-east of Victoria in Melbourne.
One of Frederick’s examples of the genre, Gathering Mistletoe (1886) was auctioned for A$550 000 on 20 April 1993. Frederick’s sister Mary Anne (Dolly) was the model for this piece and its companion work Lost (1886).
That same year, McCubbin replaced O R Campbell as drawing master at the School of Design, which position he would hold until his death. Campbell and the painting master George Folingsby had arranged that tutoring fees would be paid directly to themselves and not through the School, causing much controversy. The status of Campbell’s health had deteriorated to the extent that the Trustees advised him that he would no longer be employed. McCubbin’s Self Portrait (1886) was a public nod to his pleasure in being awarded the position.
A year later, he, Tom Roberts and John Ford Patterson amongst others, split from the Victoria Art Academy to form the Australian Artists’ Association. This was then integrated with the Academy and became the Victorian Artists’ Society in 1888. Frederick was appointed President in 1903-1904 and again in 1909-1910. In 1912, he resigned and he and seven of his peers formed the Australian Art Association, with himself as President.
George Folingsby had been the Director of the NGV from September 1882 but on his death in 1891, McCubbin was appointed Acting Director until Lindsay Bernard Hall took up the position permanently in 1892.
The 5th March 1889 had seen Frederick marrying Annie Lucy Moriarty to whom he had been introduced at an artists’ picnic in 1884. They had seven children; four sons and three daughters. Their second child Mary was born in November 1891 but died tragically in October 1894 after falling from her pram and hitting her head on the cobblestones. Their eldest son Louis went on to become a noted artist in his own right. Annie often sat for her husband’s paintings.
Frederick’s work Bush Idyll (1893) was auctioned by Christie’s for the record price of A$2 100 000 in August 1998. Feeding Time (1893) was his first piece to be purchased by a gallery, the NGV in 1894. In July 1992, this was auctioned for almost three hundred thousand euros.
Various other galleries including the Western Australian and New South galleries as well as the Art Gallery of South Australia began buying McCubbin’s work; a public subscription allowed the Geelong Art Gallery to acquire A Bush Burial in 1900.
McCubbin joined the Melbourne Savage Club, founded in 1894 and named after English poet Richard Savage. Aimed exclusively at men associated with the arts, literature, sports, and science, the club continues to operate today, its members bound by a code of silence.
In 1904, McCubbin painted the triptych The Pioneer, which today still hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria. It was purchased by them in 1905 for £367/10. The size of the work, 225cm x 225.0 cm × 295.7 cm, apparently saw McCubbin completing the lower parts of the painting while standing in a specially dug trench. The inspiration for the work came from the McCubbin’s new home Fontainebleau, an English-style pre-fabricated structure which had been transported up the northern slopes of Mt. Macedon in 1900.
Frederick held a number of local solo exhibitions between 1904-1907. The family had rented the house Daneida in South Yarra in 1905. That November, Annie was the driving force behind an exhibition of her husband’s work hosted in their home and including fellow artists Walter Withers, Clara Southern, Jane Price, and others.
On 21 May 1907, McCubbin sailed for England. There his brother James (who lost his life on the Lusitania on 7th October 1915) and Tom Roberts escorted him to many London galleries, but he was especially impressed with J.M.W. Turner’s work at the Tate Gallery in London. He also visited France where he was exposed to the French Impressionists. He returned to Melbourne in November 1907.
On his return, the family moved once again, to Carlesburg, also in South Yarra. McCubbin’s art concentrated mostly on this area for the rest of his life. Rain and Sunshine (1910) sold for a little over €200 000 in April 1998 and The Mountain Cottage grossed €568 680 in September 2012.
Between 14th August – 1st September 1912, he and his son Louis held a joint exhibition entitled Catalogue of Pictures by Fred and Louis McCubbin. Artist and art critic James MacDonald was instrumental in getting a book of McCubbin’s art published, The Art of Frederick McCubbin (Lothian, 1916).
Frederick’s last major work Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra (1917), painted of the view from his verandah, sold for A$800 000 in May 2005.
Other than his sojourn to Europe, he had not taken leave in his more than thirty years at the NGV. However, in 1916, Frederick was granted six months absence from his duties due to his worsening health. He suffered from asthma and after a spell of pneumonia, he died at home of heart failure on 20 December 1917, aged 62.