A Sunday afternoon picnic at Box Hill, Tom Roberts
While at the National Gallery of Victoria a few months ago, I shamefully found myself almost more interested in the annotations than the paintings themselves, so much so that I took notes.
I read about the artists camp at Box Hill in the 1880s where Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin had guests like Arthur Streeton come and stay. The Victorian Gallery holds a number of works painted at the site. The letters the artists wrote to each other are so vivid and heartfelt.
Take this, written by Tom Roberts while he was in France, to McCubbin.
"I feel more than sorry that these days are over, because nothing can exceed the pleasures of that last summer, when I fancy all of us lost the ego somewhat of our natures, in looking at what was nature's best art and ideality. Give me one summer again with yourself and Streeton - the same long evenings - songs - and dirty plates - and the last pink skies. But these things don't happen, do they, and what's gone is gone."
It's bizarre to think Box Hill is now complete suburbanised and is comparable to somewhere like Eastwood in Sydney, with its Asian influence.
But what truly blew me away was this description of the Australian bush by Marcus Clarke in 1896.
"The Australian mountain forests are funeral, secret and stern. The solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle in their black gorges a story of sullen despair."
I just looked up the entire quote. It goes on, quite relentlessly. Enjoy.
"No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is mourned, the fall leaves drop lightly on his bier. In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gum strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that when night comes, from out the bottomless depths of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like a monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. … All is fear-inspiring and gloomy. No bright fancies are linked with the memories of the mountains. Hopeless explorers have named them out of their sufferings—Mount Misery, Mount Dreadful, Mount Despair. .... In Australia alone is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and our beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours. But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hierogylphs of haggard gum-trees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue. The phantasmagoria of that wild dreamland termed the Bush interprets itself, and the Poet of our desolation begins to comprehend why free Esau loved his heritage of desert sand better than all the bountiful richness of Egypt."