The Artists

Arthur Streeton

Letter from Arthur Streeton to Frederick McCubbin
from Glenbrook, New South Wales. Late 1891.

Arthur Streeton
Private Collection

In 1891, Arthur Streeton left his painting ground of Eaglemont, and sailed with Tom Roberts to Sydney, arriving on the 10th September. From the 18th September until the 30th December he lived in the Blue Mountains, and it was during this time that he painted 'Fire's On'. He wrote a similar illustrated letter to this one, on the same type of pre-printed writing paper to Theodore Fink on the 14th October 1891, and another to Tom Roberts, detailing the fatal accident at Glenbrook, on the 17th December 1891. Both of these letters are reproduced in 'Letters from Smike'. This letter from Arthur Streeton to Frederick McCubbin is in a private collection.

Frederick McCubbin
Private Collection

View the letter from Arthur Streeton to Frederick McCubbin from Glenbrook, New South Wales. Late 1891. Page 1
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Click here to view Arthur Streeton's painting of Fire's On, 1891

Read the transcript of the letter from Arthur Streeton to Frederick McCubbin

Saturday Eve

Dear Old Prof.

Hope you keep well Old Chap and Mrs. Prof and the family - How are things popping? How all the merry damsels studying under your directorship. How the serious bunch. How the more perky ones? and the noisy ones and the boys? How's Sonny Pole? Tell the little varmint to work hard - "to pull up his socks and show his quality" - and your gems old man how are they coming? and now having said all this about you, the egotist of the impressionist order will proceed to hold forth and discuss his own beautiful self, coupled with the "Blue Mountains" ...... Whew? "By the Blue Alsation Mountains - dwelt a maiden young and fair (drawing of notes of music) Sing it Prof ....

Well I'm in the Blue Mountains boarding in a wee little cot for 1 a week. The sun is beautiful in the morning. He rises with me - he goes with me - through the dewy forest and is very intimate with me as I step through all the wondrous wild flowers. Birds chirp and whistle as I bare my white limbs to the first pure morning sunlight and standing on a mossy sandstone rock gaze around and contemplate as my skin is gently warmed all over with the flood of sun - All around and above fine tall red gums, smooth of trunk as though cast in iron - The Bloodwood, Grey Gum, Turpentine tree, Wattle and all sorts of flowers in their best summer array.

Below me runs a crystal virgin brook with a rocky bottom and rushes flourishing and tickling me and having great fun as I step gently into the cold clear water, one foot then the other. I splash the water high over my head, it descends in hundreds of gems - dry myself with nice towel on the sunny rock, shake my hair about in the sun, dry and into my bright striped pyjamas and back to breakfast. After the meal, boil a billy of tea, pack lunch, stacks of passion fruit, Ruby twist, water colors and picture - light up and march off at 8.30 to my work.

I follow the railway line for 3/4 of a mile through a canyon or gully where big brown men are toiling all the hot day excavating and making a tunnel which will cost thousands (about 1/2 mile long) but will save (apparently) wearing out a great number of Engines on the first Zig Zag. I've passed the crest mouth and now am arrived at my subject, the other mouth which gapes like a great dragon's mouth at the perfect flood in hot sunlight.

There is a cutting through the vast hill of bright sandstone - the walls of rock run high up and are crowned by gums bronze green and they look quite small being so high up and behind is the deep blue azure heaven, where a crow sails along like a dot with its melancholy hopeless cry - long drawn, like the breath of a dying sheep. Yes right below me the men work, some with shovels, others drilling for a blast. I work on the W.Color drying too quickly and the head ganger cries "Fire! Fire's On" - All the men drop their tools and scatter and I nimbly skip off my perch and hide behind a big safe rock - A deep hush is everywhere then - "Holy Smoke" what a boom of thunder shakes the rock and me - It echoes through the hills and dies away mid the crashing of tons of rock. Some lumps fly hundreds of feet (sometimes) and fall and fly everywhere among the trees and then a thick cloud laden with fumes of the blasting powder - all at work once more - more drills.

The rock is a perfect blazing glory of white orange cream and blue streaks here and there where the blast has worked its force - work a while -then again "Fire! Fire's on" - and off we go, and then work again.

At 12 all knock off and the "Fish" has just gone over the hill top from Sydney with its passengers and mails for Katoomba and Bourke. I crawl under a shady rock and have lunch and inspect my arms which are getting bronzed more and more with the flood of palpitating summer sunlight. Prop up my work and I think its coming on but just fairly. I'll soon begin a big canvas (oil color) of this. I think it looks stunning. Tis like painting in the "burning Fiery Furnace" - so beautiful and bright and yet so difficult to attain. Proff if you ever come here beware - beware of the Tick. They are hellish little insects shaped like a tick or flat like a wedge - this size. They get under the skin and make straight for any vital part and then I understand its simply hell you know with the top off. Well the bush here's full of 'em and I got one brute in the back of my immortal head even the invisible halo didn't frighten him (I begin to believe that halo is only a myth). Well I felt him boring into my nut like a bradall and asked the country wife to look and see what was up - she said "tick" and as I sat like a rock on a chair. I got a detailed description of the powers given (Lord knows why) to this little brute. His head and half his gentle body were embedded in my head and they applied kerosene and with tweesers drew him as you draw a tooth, sir. Well I must admit I felt a little relieved after that and indulged in a partickularly lengthy smoke.

Sunday night
and "Oh such - a night"

To-day opens with the bright sun and my bath as usual. After breakfast pack up, without coat and vest - just a strap to keep my pants up and off I go - how jolly in the glowing morn. Tis very hot and the air is rather thundery and rarefied like that of a baloon. I don't settle for a while. Soon a darkness fills my soul as the black demon approaches me and grins as he tightens his beastly grip on my poor stomach. He is called "Diarrhoea". Oh cripes I was bad all the Hot hours of the morning. Crawling weakly about the high hill with my billy of tea and basket containing lunch and about a doz passion on which I looked and sighed audibly. - Even my dear pipe did I relinquish.

I came up to the scratch again and looking down over the vast Emu Plains behold all the sweeping grandeur of a thunder cloud suspended over the plain - the different air currents play round its edges - but the bulk is the same and grows angry and purple in its vast strength which measures miles. - I contemplate - and ejaculate "Glory, Glory, Glory" -what a sight. Tis like the human race, its crown is beautiful snowy happy like a damsels ivory bosom and all peace and smiles as it curls and rolls gently reclining against the deep azure dome of heaven. Then the other side - underneath, it is a lowering sullen color and lightning like a death - agony leaps downward from its heart, and it moans and thunders and then despairingly sweeps the earth with tears.

I seize my paints and try - But no, - it cannot be to-day - my stomach fails again and so my head must stop. I bundle them together my W.Color box is almost too hot to touch - and with a long loving look behind at the spectacle so sublime, I pull together and tramp the Rails toward home. - Reviving a bit I sit down, drink tea and eat a bit, rest and then yarn all the afternoon with my friends - the big stalwart men sitting on a gun powder keg at the tent door, I hand around the Ruby twist, we smoke and I listen to long yarns and adventures - diggers, prospectors and one old chap bit energetic tales of coal, gold and discussions on the present hard "Bullocking" they have to do in the boiling sun. I like these men. They're like a "roaring camp" - big and bronzed. Well I say Goodbye to my big friends and move off. My path lies toward the west which is a flood of deep gold.

I felt near the gates of Paradise -- The gates of the west -Well I'd done nothing all day and the diarrhoea was off for a while so made a sketch of a row of tents glowing in the last golden light. The men came round and you'd be surprised how they are interested. I'll undertake to say that the love of nature and appreciation of the beautiful is stronger and more apparent in these men - 10 times more so -than in the average wealthy man of the city - who boasts a taste. Then Proff - The night is exquisite - a mellow liquid full flood of twilight is veiling all nature and the soft radiance of the stars getting stronger.

Oh it is a lovely, lovely night.
Well fond night old man.
Remember me kindly to all my friends, and the students at the Gallery, and Mrs. McCubbin and write to your poor old Smike. Such a deal of eloquence lies hidden in a maid's Heigh Ho. Heigh Ho!

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

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