The Artists

Frederick McCubbin


Frederick McCubbin c. 1913
Sepia tined gelatin silver photograph
20.3 x 13.7 cm
Private Collection

Frederick McCubbin, artist and Drawing Master, was born at 165 King Street, Melbourne on 25 February 1855. He was the third of eight children, having three brothers and four younger sisters, and was the third son of Alexander McCubbin, baker and Annie McCubbin, nee McWilliams.

During the 1860's, he was educated at William Willmott's West Melbourne Common School, and St. Paul's School, Swanston Street, Melbourne. This formal education ceased around 1869 when his father secured for him a position in a solicitor's office, where he worked as a solicitor's clerk.

Around 1870, he enrolled in evening classes at the Artisan's School of Design, Lygon Street, Carlton and from 1871, he was apprenticed for five years as a coach painter with Stevenson and Elliott. Prior to this, he had helped his family with running their bakery business, by driving one of the bakers' carts.

In 1872, he enrolled in the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, and studied drawing under Thomas Clark. He continued his studies there under Oswald Rose Campbell, who was appointed Drawing Master of the National Gallery School in 1876. In 1874, Tom Roberts also enrolled in the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, and McCubbin and Roberts became close friends. McCubbin's fellow students gave him the nickname 'The Proff', because of his philosophizing and strong views, while Roberts was nicknamed 'Bulldog'.

McCubbin also studied at the Victorian Academy of Arts and exhibited in their Annual Exhibitions of 1876 and 1879-1882. He sold his first painting 'View near Fisherman's Bend' from their 1880 exhibition, and in 1882, was awarded a Silver Medal in the Academy life-class and was elected an Associate of the Academy.

In 1877, McCubbin joined the School of Painting, National Gallery of Victoria under the instruction of Eugene von Guerard. Fellow students receiving instruction included Tom Roberts and C.D.Richardson.

On 2 May 1877, Frederick McCubbin's father, Alexander died from severe apoplexy accelerated by accidentally falling down a flight of stairs. Frederick McCubbin took on the responsibility of running the family business, which remained listed under Mrs McCubbin's name in King Street, until 1888.

During the late 1870's and early 1880's, McCubbin produced a number of black and white illustrations for the Australasian Sketcher and Illustrated Australian News.

In 1879, he produced one of his earliest narrative works, 'An Old Politician', which was exhibited at the ninth exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Arts.

In 1880, McCubbin became an active member of the newly formed Buonarotti Society.

In 1881, his eldest brother, William John, died on 9 June from injuries received when he was accidentally entangled in the machinery of a flour- mill.

With the retirement, at the close of 1881, of Eugene von Guerard, due to ill health, George Frederick Folingsby took over as the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria and Master of the School of Art. Frederick McCubbin remained under Folingsby's instruction until 1885. One of his student works, produced in 1882, under Folingsby's influence was 'Falls Bridge, Melbourne'. McCubbin was also influenced at this time by the works of Julian and George Rossi Ashton.

Even as a student, his work was being highly acclaimed, and in 1883 he received first prize of 30 pounds from the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria in the First Annual Exhibition Of Paintings, By The Students Of The National Gallery. In the following year, 1884, McCubbin again won a prize, this time second prize of 20 pounds for his work 'Home Again' in the Second Annual Exhibition Of Paintings, By The Students Of The National Gallery. Also in 1884, McCubbin produced 'The Letter', one of his earliest narrative works, where he has placed the figure within the Australian landscape. He has moved away from painting various scenes of the city and nostalgic works of the bakery, and has begun to paint plein air, in the bushland close to Melbourne. During 1884, he was introduced to Annie Moriarty, who was later to become his wife, at an Artists' Picnic in Blackburn. Tom Roberts returned in 1885, after a four-year overseas trip to Europe, and on his return was quick to renew his friendship with McCubbin. During the summer of 1885/1886 they established the Box Hill Artists' Camp in Houston's paddock 'on the rise above the bark hut of the owners' and were joined by Louis Abrahams and Arthur Streeton. In the vicinity of the Camp, McCubbin painted his work 'Gathering Mistletoe', 1886 and his much loved work 'Lost', 1886.

1886, was an important year for McCubbin. He was appointed Acting Master and Instructor of the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, and during the year, he and Tom Roberts and several other artists, broke away from the Victorian Academy of Arts, and formed the Australian Artists' Association. McCubbin became an active member of its Committee.

In the summer of 1886/1887, McCubbin rented a small cottage near Mentone, with Tom Roberts and Louis Abrahams, and during this summer, produced his important work 'Moyes Bay, Beaumaris', 1887. Arthur Streeton, a pupil of McCubbin's at the National Gallery School of Design in 1886, 1887, and in the first half of 1888, met with the artists during this summer and was invited to join them painting in Mentone, and at their Artists' Camp in Box Hill. Charles Conder was also a student of Frederick McCubbin, and was enrolled in the National Gallery School of Design under Frederick McCubbin in 1889.

In 1888, Frederick McCubbin exhibited four works in The Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888, and was appointed Master of the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria at a salary of 300 pounds a year. He held this position for the rest of his life. Another important event in 1888, was the amalgamation of the Australian Artists' Association with the Victorian Academy of Arts to form the Victorian Artists' Society. McCubbin acted as a Councillor of the Victorian Artists' Society from its inception, and was elected President of the Society, 1903-1904 and 1909. He contributed regularly to their Annual Exhibitions until 1912, when he resigned to become one of the founding members of the Australian Art Association. On 5 March 1889, Frederick McCubbin married Annie Lucie Moriarty at St. Ignatius Church, Richmond, Victoria, and Tom Roberts was his best man. During this year, McCubbin painted the work 'Down on his Luck', with the model for the unsuccessful prospector being his close friend, Louis Abrahams. Tragically, Louis Abrahams was to take his own life in 1903.

On 17 August 1889, McCubbin exhibited five works in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition held at Buxton's Rooms, in Swanston Street, Melbourne.

His first child, Louis Frederick was born on 18 March 1890, at 86 Rathmines Road, Hawthorn. He was named after Louis Abrahams, and was later to become the Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

With the death of George Frederick Folingsby on 4 January 1891, Frederick McCubbin was appointed Acting Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. He held this position until March 1892, at which time the new Director, Lindsay Bernard Hall was appointed. On Hall's appointment, McCubbin resumed his previous position and duties.

His second child, Mary, was born on 4 November 1891, and his third child, Alexander, was born on 3 April 1893.

Late in 1893, McCubbin and his family left Hawthorn to live at Lot 52, Wolseley Crescent, Blackburn. Here he painted his works 'Bush Idyll', 1893 and 'Feeding Time', 1893. 'Feeding Time', was his first work to be acquired by a public gallery, and was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. Later, in 1901, the National Gallery exchanged the work for his work 'A Winter Evening', 1897.

His fourth child, Hugh Montgomery, was born at Blackburn on 24 August 1894. Two months later, on 30 October 1894, Annie and Frederick McCubbin were devastated when their daughter, Mary, died after accidentally falling from her pusher and striking her head on cobblestones. Soon after the death, the family moved from Blackburn, to a property on the corner of New Street-West Side and Kinane Street, Brighton. Here, McCubbin's fifth child, John (Sydney) was born on 13 June 1896.

'On the Wallaby Track', 1896 was painted close to his home in Brighton, and in this work, McCubbin has painted his wife, Annie, holding young Sydney in her arms. His sixth child, Nora Sheila, was born at Brighton, on 11 March 1898, and in this year McCubbin was represented in the Exhibition of Australian Art held in Grafton Galleries, London.

In 1899, McCubbin briefly visited Tasmania with his family, and on their return to Melbourne, the family left Brighton and moved to 46 Drummond Street, Carlton. On 24 September 1901, McCubbin purchased a four-acre property, with cottage on Mount Macedon, which he named 'Fontainebleau'. This became his family home and his major painting ground on weekends and during the National Gallery School vacations. During the week, McCubbin resided briefly with his sisters, Whilhelmina and Helen, and his mother, at the Rose of Australia Hotel, which his sisters managed. The Hotel was located on the corner of Bourke and King Streets, Melbourne.

On 22 April 1904, he held an important one-man show 'Mr Fred McCubbin's Exhibition of Australian Paintings' in the Athenaeum Upper Hall, Collins Street, Melbourne. In this show, he exhibited his triptych 'The Pioneer', 1904 which was painted close to his home on Mount Macedon.

In 1905, he rented 'Daneida' in Shipley Street, South Yarra, and in November held a 'Private Exhibition of Pictures' managed by his wife, Annie, in his studio and three of the rooms of the house. Artists exhibiting included Walter Withers, and the women artists, Clara Southern, Jane Price, May Vale and Jane Sutherland. McCubbin in a letter to Tom Roberts of 8 January 1906 notes the success of this exhibition, which he acknowledges was 'Mrs Mc's idea'.

In 1906, 'The Pioneer', was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria under the terms of the Felton Bequest.

On 4 November 1906, his seventh child, Kathleen, was born at Shipley Street, South Yarra, and on 21 May 1907, McCubbin left Australia, aboard the Prinz Heinrich on a trip to England and Europe. He arrived in England on 3 July 1907, and visited France in Augist. He also visited his brother James, and Tom Roberts who took him to many of the galleries around London. Of the works that he saw, he was very impressed with the landscapes of J.M.W.Turner, and the influence of Turner was to manifest itself in many of his later works. He departed England aboard the Bremen on 6 October 1907, and was to arrive in Melbourne on 18 November, He broke his journey and disembarked in Adelaide, and travelled the remainder of his journey by train.

Late in 1907, he moved from 'Daneida', Shipley Street, South Yarra, and rented 'Carlesberg', 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra. 'Carlesberg' was described as a 'Charming old colonial house of stone…with three acres of garden' which ran down to the Yarra River, and was bordered on one side by the Como Estate.

For the remaining ten years of his life, McCubbin spent his time painting close to his home in South Yarra, with its views across the Yarra River to the old Burnley Quarries, or painting in the vicinity of his home 'Fontainebleau' on Mount Macedon. He also occasionally painted coastal and dockland scenes in the vicinity of Williamstown, and Melbourne City street scenes, which he often executed in a very impressionistic style, thickly applying his paint on prepared canvas boards with his palette knife.

His work 'Rain and Sunshine', 1910 captures a view of the Gardener's cottage on the Como Estate, as does his work 'The Old Cottage, South Yarra', c. 1910.

Like Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin was considered by many to be a fine portrait painter and produced a number of portraits on commission. He produced at least six self-portraits, four of which he painted late in his life. He also painted a number of intimate interior works of his home in Kensington Road, South Yarra, and one of these 'Interior', c. 1911, depicts his daughter, Kathleen, seated at the the family piano in their music room.

In 1912, he exhibited his works in a joint exhibition with his son, Louis. The catalogue for this exhibition was titled 'Catalogue of Pictures by Fred and Louis McCubbin', Athenaeum Art Gallery, Collins Street, Melbourne, 14 August-1 September 1912.

In October 1914, his close friend and artist colleague, Walter Withers died, and in 1915, McCubbin was notified by telegram that his brother, James, who was the purser on the Lusitania, was lost at sea, with the sinking of his ship on 7 May. McCubbin, received a telegram on the same day, that informed him that his son, Hugh, was wounded at Gallipoli. These two items of news affected McCubbin greatly, and he suffered what he referred to as 'A bit of a breakdown'. He produced few large works after this time, and lost much of his inspiration for painting. His wife, Annie, was heavily involved with organizing fund raising events for the returning servicemen, as well as being active on a number of major committees related to the War effort. To help his wife in her endeavors to raise money for Remembrance Day, Friday 17 December 1915, McCubbin produced a number of small works in oils and watercolours on cardboard fans for sale in the city streets of Melbourne. He also produced a number of oils on gum leaves, such as the work 'South Yarra Landscape', 1915.

During 1915, McCubbin was also kept busy, helping James MacDonald with information for a book, which was published in 1916, by Lothian, under the title 'The Art of Frederick McCubbin'. Also, in 1916, Fanny Withers, wife of the late Walter Withers managed a joint exhibition of the works of Frederick McCubbin and his son, Louis in the Athenaeum Art Gallery, noting that the exhibition 'closes 11th July'.

Late in 1916, McCubbin was given six months, leave of absence from his National Gallery position, due to ill health. Apart from his short trip to Europe in 1907, this was the only time that McCubbin had leave from his position as Drawing Master, in a career that had spanned thirty years. It is important to realize the significant contribution that McCubbin made in developing drawing skills in several thousand students, including such students as David Davies, who was enrolled under McCubbin in 1886, and Max Meldrum, who was enrolled under McCubbin in the School of Design, between 1892 and 1895. The official diagnosis of McCubbin's ill health was that of suffering from severe attacks of asthma.

At this stage of his life, he travelled little, and often sat on his verandah in South Yarra, wearing two coats to keep his chest warm and a French beret, and would look out across the Yarra River. His daughter, Kathleen, remembered her father in the last months of his life, working from his verandah on his last major painting 'Yarra River from Kensington Road', 1917, or as Kathleen remembered the title 'The Lime Tree'.

It is considered that his asthma, and a bout of pneumonia late in 1917, weakened his heart, and he died aged 62, from a heart attack on 20 December 1917, at his home at 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra. He was buried privately on 21 December 1917 in the Brighton Cemetery, and his time of burial was recorded as 4.15 pm.

Many of his works are narrative, and this may account to some degree for their popularity. Many works also show the strong influence of the French 'Naturalists'. A major exhibition of his works was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1955, entitled 'A Frederick McCubbin Exhibition to Mark the Centenary of the Artist's Birth in 1855.

On 22 June 1989, the centre upstairs gallery at the Victorian Artists' Society's Rooms was renamed the 'McCubbin Gallery' in honour of Frederick McCubbin, and was officially opened by his daughter, Kathleen Mangan, nee McCubbin. Two years later, in 1991/1992, two major touring exhibitions of the artworks of Frederick McCubbin were organized, with the larger major works exhibited as 'The Art of Frederick McCubbin', and the smaller works as 'A Happy Life': Frederick McCubbin's Small Paintings & Oil Sketches'.

Andrew Mackenzie

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Copyright © Pty Ltd 2000. All Rights Reserved.
ABN 69 067 524 921
Tel: +61 3 98185700 Fax: +61 3 98185044