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Australian sun and showers

24 February 2017

Nicholas Cranfield on a revealing show at the National Gallery

© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1995

Burst of light: Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889, by Arthur Streeton

Burst of light: Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889, by Arthur Streeton

TO WALK into the Sunley Room of the National Gallery (tickets are available there: do not waste time queuing at the information desk in the Sainsbury Wing, as there is no sign to direct you) on a cold, grey, damp afternoon is to be transported to a land beneath skies of crushed sapphire.

This is the first exhibition of art from Down Under to be held here, and brings together paintings from the great collections of Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales, as well as Canberra. We see much of those states in the first two sections of the show, with seascapes and rural, urban, and industrial landscapes.

It showcases four 19th-century artists working before Federation (1901). This concentration works well in a way that the hapless exhibi­tion at the RA in the winter of 2013 singularly failed as it meandered through art over two centuries.

It also asks provocative questions about national identity and what it means to be international at a time when Australians sound more secure in that understanding than the British.

Three of the artists were at the heart of what was dubbed “The Heidelberg School”, the name taken from a town ten miles outside Melbourne on the River Yarra, where they worked en plein air together, although they painted elsewhere. It is the landscape, and a blazing palette of gold and of blue, that unites them, since two of the three were recent immigrants.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931) was born in Hardy country, at Dorchester in Dorset, and moved to Melbourne with his widowed mother as a teen­ager, while Charles Conder (1868-1909), from Tottenham, spent only six years of his life in Australia and died in a sanatorium at Virginia Water. Arthur Streeton, the only one to be knighted, was born in Victoria in 1867 and moved into Melbourne, aged seven.

Streeton’s largest canvases (Golden Summer, Eaglemount, originally entitled Pastoral, a prizewinner at the Paris Salon of 1892, and his tragic Fires On, in which a 20-year-old navvy, Edward Brown, with whom he had talked the day before, is carried out dead after a tunnel accident) are played out in a burst of light.

We can almost smell the billabong to which thirsty sheep stampede downhill in the iconic painting A Break Away! (Roberts, 1891). The same artist provides a colour swatch of olives, ochres, purples, and blues in his 1889 Saplings.

But it does also rain: the average annual rainfall in Sydney is 130.4cm. London manages less than two feet (58.7cm).

Streeton paints the funeral of a fireman in front of Sydney Town Hall after a storm has passed (1894) and a single, elegant commuter walks up from Redfern station, caught out without an umbrella (1893). Circular Quay, where the Sydney Opera House now stands, can look, in the rain, like Liverpool docks (Conder, in 1888) or, in high sum­mer, like Venice (captured by the 25-year-old Streeton).

The exhibition opens with seven little pictures shown in the first ever Impressionist show held in Australia in 1889, enigmatically entitled 9 X 5. They were painted on the back of cigar-box lids of that rough dimen­sion, measured in inches, and were first shown wrapped about with swaths of Liberty fabric, red, yellow, and blue. Sadly, no one from the National Gallery has thought to pop round the corner to fetch some silk from Regent Street.

It ends with perhaps the biggest coup that the Gallery has staged in years. Ten paintings by the fourth artist, the Sydneysider John Russell (1858-1930), are tucked out of view. They offer a revelation that is as unexpected as it is welcome: an exhilarating, expressionist coda. Go, see them.


“Australian Impressionists” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 26 March. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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