The Artists

Frederick McCubbin

The Macedon Years

Photograph of Fontainebleau, Mount Macedon, Frederick McCubbin's home.
This photograph shows the later chalet-like additions at the rear and laundry on the far left.
The bush in the background is where the Frederick McCubbin work 'The Pioneer' was painted.
Kathleen Mangan Collection

24 September this year marks the Centenary of the purchase of 'Fontainebleau', the McCubbin family property on Mount Macedon.

This was a significant event in the life of Frederick McCubbin, for not only was it the first and only home that his family ever owned, but the surrounding Macedon bushland provided McCubbin with the inspiration for some of his most memorable and best loved works.

His discovery of 'Fontainebleau' took place during the summer of 1900, while on holiday to the Mount with his wife and family.

1900 had been a busy and traumatic year for the McCubbin family. They had moved from the house they were renting in New Street, Brighton to another rental property, this time at 46 Drummond Street, Carlton, and it was around this time that Frederick McCubbin's wife, Annie contracted a severe case of bronchitis, which led to pneumonia. Her doctor was greatly concerned and suggested that a holiday in the clean mountain air of Mount Macedon would help her in her re-cooperation. So in the summer of 1900, over the Christmas holiday break, the McCubbin family headed for Mount Macedon, and rented a small cottage in Woodend for a few weeks.

It was during this time that they discovered 'their cottage', then known as 'Dillon's Summer Residence', in a valley near the summit of the north side of Mount Macedon. McCubbin's daughter, Kathleen recalled her parents telling her that the old fashioned English cottage had been brought from Melbourne by bullock wagon and had a red gabled roof and attic windows.

'Fontainebleau' as the property was affectionately called by the McCubbin's was purchased for five hundred pounds under the name of Annie McCubbin and the Transfer of Land document was dated 24 September 1901. It was described in this document as
'All that piece of land containing 4 acres or thereabouts together with all improvements thereon'.

'Fontainebleau' was too far for Frederick McCubbin to travel daily to his work at the National Gallery of Victoria, so when the family moved from Carlton to 'Fontainebleau', Frederick McCubbin took up residence with his sisters Wilhelmina and Helen and his mother at The Rose of Australia Hotel. The hotel was situated on the corner of Bourke and King Streets, Melbourne. His sisters managed the hotel, and Frederick McCubbin lived with them during the week, and spent the weekends and School vacations from the National Gallery of Victoria at 'Fontainebleau'.

Frederick McCubbin would catch the train from Melbourne to Woodend, and from the Woodend Station was taken up to the Braemar House turnoff, on the Braemar Road in Mr Manson's wagonette. The turnoff was approximately three quarters of a kilometre from 'Fontainebleau' and his children would often run down to greet him and to discover what presents he had hidden in his Gladstone bag.

'Fontainebleau', the garden and the surrounding bushland became one of the major painting grounds for McCubbin and it was here that he produced works such as 'The Pioneer', 1904.

'The Pioneer' is considered one of our great Australian paintings and is one of the icon works of the Heidelberg School period. This narrative work is greatly loved by the public, and was painted in the bush on Mount Macedon, a little above McCubbin's cottage.

The work is a triptych, with the first panel depicting a free selector and his wife, selecting a small acreage of bushland.
The second panel depicts the settled landscape. The land has been tamed. Time has passed and the selector can now relax after his hard work of clearing the land, building a cottage, and providing the wood to warm the cottage. His wife is now shown with her baby in her arms, and is portrayed as far more content with her lot than she was in the first panel.
In the third panel, considerable time has passed, and a vibrant young city is now shown in the distance. A youth, representing the next generation, has discovered a grave in the bush, and as McCubbin often did in his works, he leaves the question as to whose grave or graves and who the youth is open to speculation.

There are many who have claimed their relatives were the models in this work, and today after years of research and checking of family records, the following are the most likely. Patrick Watson, who modelled for the first and third panels was a local gardener who died at the age of seventy-two on 9 August 1934. He would have therefore been around forty-two, when he modelled for this work.

Jimmy Watson, who modelled for the young child in the second panel, was the son of Patrick Watson's brother, Robert.

Annie McCubbin, Frederick McCubbin's wife, who was born 25 August 1865 and died 13 August 1928, was around thirty-nine years of age when she modelled as the free selector's wife in the first and second panels.

James Edward, who modelled for the second panel was a young sundowner, and among other pursuits a professional house painter.

In the second panel of the triptych, McCubbin has included a small cottage. This was on the neighbouring property, which had belonged to Mr William Peter McGregor, and had been home to the keeper of his bull farm.

Mr McGregor was born in 1853 and was Chairman of BHP from April 1886 to June 1891. At thirty-three, he was the youngest Chairman of BHP ever appointed. Here on Mount Macedon, in the bush above 'Fontainebleau' he established his country estate. It was built along the lines of a Scottish Estate, even to the extent of importing highland bulls. It included the erection of cottages for each of his keepers, the building of several lakes, the establishment of a trout hatchery, and the raising of deer, pigs and angora goats. There were also 'wild' areas on his property, where there were giant Mountain Ash and towering tree ferns.

McGregor, called his property 'Ard Choille', meaning 'Height of the woods', however his enjoyment of 'Ard Choille' was short lived, for he died at the age of forty-six on 24 February 1899.

When the McCubbin's purchased 'Fontainebleau', 'Ard Choille' was still in all its splendour, and for McCubbin the property provided him with a wonderful array of subject matter for his paintings.

McCubbin spent the last sixteen years of his life visiting 'Fontainebleau' at every opportunity, and as time went by his canvases showed the increased influence of the works of J.M.W. Turner. He became interested in capturing light in his landscapes and wrote to Tom Roberts in June 1904, that the book 'The Genius of J.M.W. Turner, R.A.', published by The Studio in 1903 was 'a great treat'.

Later in 1906, he again wrote to Roberts that on the Mount 'We have all Turner's skys up here - divine'.

In 1905, McCubbin provided his family with a rented city residence 'Daneida', situated in Shipley Street, South Yarra. The house was owned by the Stockdale family who ran a local bakery.

In May 1907, the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria granted McCubbin six months leave on full pay, and during this time he visited England and Europe. It also provided him with the opportunity of viewing a number of the original works by J.M.W. Turner on view at The Tate Gallery in London.

On his return, the family moved from 'Daneida' to another rental property 'Carlesberg', which was situated at 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra. With the outbreak of the First World War the house was renamed 'The Studio'.

It was described as a 'Charming old colonial house of stone…with three acres of garden' which ran down to the Yarra River. The property was bordered on one side by the well-planned garden of Como.

McCubbin loved the wild garden of 'The Studio' and the bordering almond grove that lead down to the old gardener's cottage in the gardens of Como.

The gardener's cottage appeared in many of McCubbin's works, including 'Rain and Sunshine', 1910 and 'The Old Cottage, South Yarra', c. 1910.

He also loved the view from 'The Studio', and he would sit on his verandah and look out past the old lime tree and across the Yarra River to the Burnley Quarries and Richmond in the distance.

These South Yarra views were captured by McCubbin in many of his later canvasses, and it was at 'The Studio' that he painted his final canvas 'Yarra River from Kensington Road' which the family knew as 'The Lime Tree', which depicted the view across his garden from his verandah.

Although much of their time was spent at South Yarra, the McCubbin's retained 'Fontainebleau' and made regular visits to their mountain retreat. Here McCubbin could paint at leisure and be inspired by the surrounding bush. Here were the blue green wattles that he loved to paint and here was the tangled undergrowth, highlighted by the suns rays filtering through the bush, which he depicted in many of his works

The Macedon Years were ones of great happiness for McCubbin and his family. His students would often visit him during their summer vacation and pitch their tent in the bush close to his cottage. Here they could sit with their Drawing Master, or 'The Proff' as he was affectionately called, and discuss their art and all matter of worldly subjects. The environment of Mount Macedon inspired the artist, and his output and the consistent high standard of his Macedon works, given that during the week he worked full-time as the Drawing Master at the National Gallery of Victoria, was exceptional.

In 1916, he was given six months leave of absence from his National Gallery position due to his ill health, and in particular his severe attacks of asthma. It is considered that his asthma and a bout of pneumonia late in 1917 weakened his heart and he died aged sixty-two from a heart attack on 20 December 1917 at his home 'The Studio', 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra.

The following day he was buried at 4.15 pm at a private ceremony at Brighton Cemetery.

Andrew Mackenzie

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

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