While Streeton made his name through painting, this current exhibition provides a rare opportunity to consider his work in the graphic arts. Etching is a completely different beast to the slippery medium of oil paint on canvas, and in these prints we see the artist translate his ongoing explorations of light, space, atmosphere and composition into printed form. Streeton didn’t start making his own lithographs and etchings until after about 1910,1 yet his forays in printmaking date back to the beginning of his artistic training.
Sir Arthur Streeton (1867 – 1943) forged his artistic legacy as a painter of the Australian landscape, creating light-filled impressions of nature. A member of the Heidelberg School that also included Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), and Charles Conder (1868-1909), these now celebrated figures were once young artists creating rebellious artistic statements in the face of the prevailing academic style. This culminated in their 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition staged in Melbourne in 1889. Here the artists famously exhibited works painted on 9 x 5 inch cigar box lids with a new aesthetic that reflected international trends of painting en plein air. The sketch-like immediacy and freshness that characterised these works caused a sensation, and cemented their place in the story of Australian art.
While Streeton made his name through painting, this current exhibition provides a rare opportunity to consider his work in the graphic arts. Etching is a completely different beast to the slippery medium of oil paint on canvas, and in these prints we see the artist translate his ongoing explorations of light, space, atmosphere and composition into printed form. Streeton didn’t start making his own lithographs and etchings until after about 1910,1 yet his forays in printmaking date back to the beginning of his artistic training. At the tender age of 19 Streeton’s skill in sketching led him to commence an apprenticeship as a lithographer with George Troedel & Co., in Collins Street, Melbourne. While cartoonist Livingston Hopkins is credited with introducing the young artist to etching some years later,2 it was not until after Streeton had moved back to London for the second time in 1908 that we can tentatively place the creation of these current plates.
The present etchings of French, Italian and English scenes reflect the artist’s time living abroad. At the turn of the century the cultural epicentres of London and Paris were viewed as the only destinations for Australian artists to truly complete their professional training, and receive the exposure and success that inclusion in the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, or the Salon in Paris could bring.3 Yet while he eventually achieved recognition in London and was admitted into the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, acceptance by the art establishment was not easily won and Streeton experienced hardship and poverty during his first years in the British capital. Despite this difficulty he nonetheless refined his craft and absorbed the work of the masters such as Rembrandt, Claude, Turner, Constable, and Whistler, who all spoke to his artistic imagination.
After coming home to Australia for two years in 1906, Streeton returned to the mother country in 1908, marrying his sweetheart the talented violinist Nora Clench in January of that year in London. Streeton was on honeymoon with his bride when he visited Venice in 1908. He worked prolifically to capture this magical city, creating numerous paintings, watercolours, pencil and wash sketches.4 The influence of JMW Turner’s glowing renditions of Venice, who in the first half of the nineteenth century had painted the city like no other, can be detected in Streeton’s paintings of this period. As he exclaimed in an 1899 letter to Tom Roberts upon first viewing Turner, “Oh the truth, the beauty. As great as Rembrandt or as any I think – he is simply gorgeous… I think that it will help me immensely.” As it transpired the pale hued buildings of Venice mirrored upon watery canals created opalescent light and atmospheric effects that Streeton’s manner of painting was perfectly attuned to capture.
Five of the 11 etchings in this current exhibition are of Venetian scenes, and at least two reproduce known paintings that Streeton created during this honeymoon period. The print San Marco, Venice relates directly to the oil on canvas Domes of St. Mark viewed from the Palace Courtyard (1908).6 Similarly the etching Doge’s Palace, Venice is a fairly direct rendition of the painting of the same name created in 1908.7 The zinc plate etchings of Venice in particular reveal Streeton’s command of the drawn line. He densely hatched and cross-hatched areas to create tonal variation, giving weight and volume to the delineated forms. In some works the plates appear bitten to different degrees to create variation between the softer lines in the background and the heavier lines in the foreground thus generating spatial distance in the image. The Lagoon and Barges, Venice exemplifies this approach, where the dark shape of boats appear closer to the viewer, while across the lagoon faint phantasmal architectural shapes rise up on the distant shore, including the just perceptible outline of Palladio’s sixteenth century Il Redentore church. Quivering lines denote the ripples of water interrupting the otherwise negative space.
Other works in this suite capture English scenes. It is important to note that Streeton lived in England in the midst of an etching revival that saw a boom in modern prints. One particular artist that he admired, James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903), was at the centre of this movement and established a reputation for his prints as well as his paintings in London.8 Like Streeton the American born artist found rich subjects in Venice and the Thames, with his First Venice Set of 12 etchings published by the Fine Art Society in 1880, and The Thames Set of 16 etchings issued in 1871.9 Many other less established artists were also making prints to supply a healthy market for them. Streeton was aware of this, and like many before him had marveled at the etchings of Rembrandt at the British Museum.10 Thus it is likely that his foray into the medium of etching had both creative and commercial intent.
Reflecting his London environs, the etching Victoria Tower, Westminster reproduces the painting The Victoria Tower, Westminster (1912) now in the collection of Art Gallery of South Australia.11 Another version of the scene depicted in the etching The Concert (Ballroom, Bamburgh Castle) appears in the lithograph The rehearsal (c. 1913), an impression of which is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This scene features the elaborate ballroom of Bamburgh Castle in North East England where the artist also visited in 1908. The arched portal frames a glimpse into this stately room adorned with a typical nineteenth century salon style hang of paintings, and ladies and gentlemen dressed in their finery. A perfect vision of genteel society.
The third identifiable British scene is from a copper plate, The Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral. This appears as a simple line etching, closer to a quick study in comparison to the more densely rendered works in the exhibition made on zinc plates. Like the other copper etchings in this suite, Doge’s Palace, Venice and Study – Basilico San Giorgio Maggiore – Venice, this print is characterised by the brevity and simplicity of line-work which appears direct and deeply bitten. In all three copper etchings the architecture is outlined rather than heavily modeled.
Only one definitely French image graces the exhibition, French Cathedral (Rouen), which may have been inspired by the artist’s visit to France in 1912. In this ethereal print, the intricate gothic detailing of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen emerges from the centre of the image, the facade of which Streeton’s contemporary Claude Monet famously painted more than 30 times in the 1890s. The etching Wheat Sheaves may also be French, but we cannot locate the origins of this image and Magpie for certain. Both simple studies of nature provide a counterpoint to the architectural and urban views seen in the other etchings. Some prints in this exhibition follow the long established history of printmaking as a means to reproduce and disseminate imagery that already exists in another form, such as painting. Along with these images are those which have no known associated works and follow modern trends to create original prints in their own right. Both reflect the movements in taste and tradition that prevailed during Streeton’s time, and the effect of the cultural milieu in which he lived.
Call it a quirk of fate, but there is an unexpected poetry to the fact that these images of foreign locales make their debut exhibition in the place where Streeton spent his early childhood, Queenscliff, some 150 years later. Many questions remain unanswered about these etchings and there is much they will continue to reveal. Such treasures are rarely unearthed and elucidate an otherwise unknown moment in Streeton’s career – a stop made upon his journey from the romantic young artist dreaming through the hills of Eaglemont and Box Hill, to the celebrated icon he was to become.
Catalogue essay for Streeton Prints exhibition at Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop March 3 to April 30, 2017
1 R oger Butler, Printed Images by Australian Artists 1885 – 1955, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2007, p. 42
2 Art Gallery of NSW website, URL: https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/ works/352.1997/
3 Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788 – 1970, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962, p. 128
4 Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton, Painter of Light, Jacaranda, Sydney, 1993, p. 115
5 Letter A. Streeton to T. Roberts, 22 June 1899 quoted in Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton, Painter of Light, Jacaranda, Sydney, 1993, p. 93
6 Ann Galbally, Arthur Streeton, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, Illus. 21A, p. 74
7 Arthur Streeton, The Arthur Streeton Catalogue, Melbourne, 1935, p. 122
8 Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton, Painter of Light, Jacaranda, Sydney, 1993, p. 101
9 Arthur Hind, A History of Engraving & Etching from the 15th Century to the Year 1914, Dover Publications, New York, 1963, p. 325
10 R oger Butler, Printed Images by Australian Artists 1885 – 1955, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2007, p. 42
11 Geoffrey Smith, Arthur Streeton 1867 – 1943, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, Cat. No. 65, illus. p. 153