Australia 1855 – 1917
A frosty morning (Winter morning)
oil on canvas
49.5 (h) x 74.8 (w) cm
The University of Melbourne art collection gift of Dr Samuel Arthur Ewing, 1938
Looking from the elevated garden at ‘Carlesberg’ in South Yarra, across the Yarra River towards the more industrial areas of Burnley and Richmond, A frosty morning shimmers with cold, early light. McCubbin and his wife rented the property at the top of Kensington Road after his return from Europe in 1907, and its three acres (1.2 hectares) of garden were a source of great pleasure and adventure for their six children. One young visitor remembered: ‘The garden wasn’t actually a garden, it was wild country but it was very lovely—it went right down to the river … full of wild things, natural things, gums and all the things that grow out in the bush’ (‘Recollections of Elizabeth Colquhoun’, Mackenzie 1990, p 341). Hugh and Sydney McCubbin are probably depicted here, investigating something with their dog, Paddy with the early morning sun on their backs and the white strip of the river below them reflecting a pale winter sky. They were in their mid-teens by 1910. McCubbin dearly loved his children and very often included them in his paintings.
The cottage to the right was the gardener’s cottage on the neighbouring ‘Como’ estate, and appears in a number of the artist’s South Yarra paintings. Here he lends it a cosy, rustic air, consciously contrasting its gently smoking chimney with the billowing factory smokestacks in the distance, so that the innocence of children and the natural simplicity of pre-industrial Melbourne are juxtaposed with the city’s rapid urban and commercial development. McCubbin would have seen numerous European paintings on the popular nineteenth-century theme of childhood innocence: in reproduction, at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and during his 1907 trip. Visiting the Royal Academy in London, he particularly admired EA Hornel’s The music of the woods 1906 (now at the National Galleries of Scotland), depicting a group of three young children seated in a flowery woodland. Hornel was born in Australia of Scottish parents, but grew up in Scotland (McCubbin’s father was also Scottish), and the two artists met briefly in Colombo in June 1907. Writing to his wife, McCubbin reported, ‘His ideas about Art are the same as ours’ (Mackenzie 1990, p 250); and, after seeing the Royal Academy exhibition he declared, ‘[the] Hornel is one of the most brilliant and charming masses of colour in the show—he is one of the big men here—a very fine Artist’ (Mackenzie 1990, p 257).
McCubbin was able to absorb themes and stylistic influences from other artists without ever compromising his own vision. Thus, while the subject matter and thick application of paint in A frosty morning are not dissimilar to Hornel’s, the technique, the mood and the overall effect are quite different. McCubbin looked to JMW Turner for ‘visions of light and air’, describing the ‘dazzling brilliancy of morning or evening’ in the British master’s landscapes (Mackenzie 1990, p 259); and then, in his own way, drenched his Australian views in carefully observed antipodean light.
In A frosty morning, the figures and landscape are almost dissolved in a silvery winter haze. Shimmering veils of layered colour—gold and rose, pastel blue, mauve and pale green—are boldly worked with brush and palette knife over a light-coloured ground. (McCubbin appears to have selectively primed the canvas with white—under the buildings, for instance—in addition to the commercial pre-priming, perhaps with Turner and the French Impressionists in mind.) The sky is a smooth opal expanse; the trees and bushes half-bare, dark and twiggy. Could the large stones in the foreground, flecked with bright blue shadows, possibly be the toppled pioneers’ headstones that Kathleen remembered finding in long grass near the path to the gardener’s cottage (Mangan 1984, p 17)? Specific details were clearly now less important to McCubbin than atmosphere evoked through bold technique; his ongoing quest, as Arthur Streeton put it, for ‘freedom and fresh knowledge’ (McCubbin 1921, foreword).