Famous Australian Impressionist Tom Roberts’s painting The Artists’ Camp (1886) depicts his fellow painters Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams next to a pitched tent on a farm in Box Hill. From 1885-1888, these artists – along with Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton, Theo Brooke Hansen and Jane Sutherland – travelled to Box Hill and Blackburn by steam train to capture the native bushland and the distinctive Australian light.
Painting en plein air (in the open), the artists transformed the Australian art scene. Iconic paintings such as McCubbin’s Lost (1886) and A Bush Burial (1890) and Jane Sutherland’s Obstruction, Box Hill (1887) were painted in the area. The artists later relocated to the hillier Eaglemont-Heidelberg area with its views of the Yarra River. In 1891, critic Sidney Dickinson dubbed the artists The Heidelberg School.
Although much of the bushland has been replaced by development, there are still areas in Whitehorse City Council that evoke the landscape that inspired the artists. Whitehorse has created The Artists’ Trail and erected interpretative panels in the vicinity of where the artists worked.
The Artists’ Trail begins in Main Street, near Box Hill Station, and finishes at Blackburn Lake. The trail is best undertaken by car, although there are sections – Gardiners Creek and Blackburn Lake in particular – that are pleasant to walk. Download the Whitehorse Artists Trails Brochure (1.22MB) for a map and descriptions of paintings.
For detailed information about the Australian Impressionists who painted at The Artists’ Camp, please read below.
En Plein Air (In The Open)
During the late nineteenth century, a small number of European master painters were teaching new painting techniques to young artists in Melbourne. Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) were students of the Swiss painter Louis Buvelot (1814-1888), at the Carlton School of Design, in 1869.
Roberts and McCubbin later studied together at the National Gallery Art School. The Swiss artist, who had arrived in Australia in 1865, is probably the unidentified painter remembered by McCubbin, in an unpublished memoir, for having taught him and his peers to ‘see the paintable qualities of that which lay immediately around us’.
Painting en plein air (in the open) – rather than making paintings in the studio, working from sketches or studies made out of doors – was a novel way of capturing the landscape. The young Tom Roberts sought to discover plein air painting for himself and travelled throughout Britain, Spain, Italy and France between 1881 and 1885. After returning home, Roberts was brimming with enthusiasm for what he had seen. During the week, Roberts worked for Barrie and Brown Photographers, then, restless to paint outdoors, he would camp on weekends at Box Hill. The small bush settlement had become accessible to city dwellers via a railway station, which opened in 1882.
Joining Roberts, at the camp he established in 1885, were his friends Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams (1852-1903). Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) also became a member of the group, following a chance encounter with McCubbin on the beach at Beaumaris or Mentone. Charles Conder (1868-1909) first stayed at the artists’ camp in 1888, after meeting Roberts in Sydney. Among casual visitors to the camp were Jane Sutherland (1855-1928) and local artist Theo Brooke Hansen (1870-1945).
At the camp, the friends explored the possibilities of painting en plein air, rendering nature quite differently from the way in which it had been represented by their predecessors. Instead of painting proud mansions, sitting amid tamed landscapes, this new generation of artists captured the bush in intimate studies. The ‘broken brushstrokes’, intense colour and a generally lighter palette in these works clearly reflected the practices associated with French Impressionism. Nevertheless, the artists working at Box Hill and Blackburn produced paintings that differed in one fundamental respect from the landscapes of the European Impressionists.
The Australian artists took popular local narratives, such as ‘the prospector down on his luck’ or ‘lost children’, as subject matter and celebrated native flora, such as silver-leaved stringybarks and other local tree species.
The Artists’ Camp
Almost every Saturday, for some four years (1885-1888), a group of Melbourne artists raced to the Lilydale line to catch a steam train, leaving behind the bustling metropolis for an idyllic weekend of camping and painting. Alighting at Box Hill, now part of the City of Whitehorse, the artists tramped south, for two kilometres, to their camp at the farm of local resident David Houston.
There, they offloaded their luggage and sat down for a pipe or cigar and a chat about the subject matter each would tackle. Wasting no time, they then secured their blank canvases against trees or on portable easels and set to work making paintings that were rendered spontaneously, capturing the changing effects of light on the landscape.
Native trees and grasses thrived on the banks of Gardiners Creek (known at the time as Damper Creek). The artists took full advantage of their bushland surroundings, painting the appealing scenes available to them. Many of the compositions included local settlers or itinerant workers clearing the land, farm animals and rudimentary settler huts, or children on their way to school.
At the end of a busy day’s painting, the artists would return to their camp, on the rise above the creek, and would boil a billy for tea and cook local farm produce for dinner.
Around the campfire, the artists drank with pipes or cigars in hand, chatting and singing late into the night. Each of the four core members of the group had a nickname conferred upon him at the campfire. Roberts, ‘Bulldog’, was active in local art politics and a natural leader of the group. McCubbin,‘the Prof’, was a much-loved and respected art teacher who was also a fine tenor. Streeton was renamed ‘Smike’ at the camp and Abrahams became known as ‘the Don’. These nicknames were never forgotten and for years were used affectionately among the friends, especially when they reminisced about their camp at Box Hill, and its environs.
At the camp, the artists slept, not uncomfortably, on makeshift bedding. In the morning, they prepared for another busy day of painting. Then, at dusk, they would grudgingly pack their belongings and run to the station to catch the last train back to their digs in the city and to their weekday jobs and other commitments.
Heidelberg and Beyond
A country house at Eaglemont was an attractive alternative to a tent at Box Hill, and by early 1889 the artists’ camp had been disbanded. The property to which the artist friends relocated belonged to the brother-in-law of the painter David Davies (1864-1939) and was sited on Eaglemont’s Mount Eagle Estate, close to the township of Heidelberg. The undulating landscape of the Eaglemont-Heidelberg area, and the magnificent Yarra River, provided a host of new creative opportunities and challenges.
Streeton and Conder took up residence at the Eaglemont property, and began to offer painting lessons. These would have been stimulating ‘outdoor painting experiences’ for students of the Gallery School who travelled to Eaglemont for tuition.
The year 1889 was a climactic one for the artist friends.Tom Roberts organized an exhibition of their work – the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition – at Buxton’s Gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne. All of the works in this exhibition, which opened to the public on 17 August, were painted on cedar cigar-box lids and measured 9 x 5 inches. Louis Abrahams was the son of a cigar importer, so the artists had ready access to cigar boxes, and it made good sense to paint on the economical lids, so as to save on costs. The lids were also easy to carry on walks through the Heidelberg area – where the majority of the 9 by 5 paintings were created. On the day of the exhibition’s opening, James Smith, an influential critic writing for the Argus newspaper, labelled the works ‘too ephemeral for consideration’ but the public eagerly snapped up the inexpensive art, and the paintings were all sold.
During 1890, the artists who had been working at Eaglemont went their own way. Sidney Dickinson, in a review for the Australasian Critic, dubbed them ‘the Heidelberg School’ in 1891 – negating the fact the artists had painted in the Box Hill area for some four years and in the Heidelberg area for just eighteen months. The artists who first camped at Box Hill in 1885, and who had forged a unique and historic alliance well before moving to the Heidelberg area, are still referred to by this name.
Even though much of the native bush has long since vanished from Box Hill and Blackburn, there are still pockets of native foliage that enable us to envisage the area as it was during the years of the thriving artists’ camp. In addition, the Artists’ Park and Roberts McCubbin Primary School in Box Hill South honour this significant group of artists who painted in the area so long ago.