Portrait of a young girl

Tom Roberts

Portrait of a young girl, 1909

Spanning more than 160 years, from the 1840s to early this century, the Cbus Collection forms an impressive holding of Australian art. Strategically optimising the number of artists included by limiting representation to a single work, certain selected practitioners have also been collected in greater depth, to offer a more substantial view of an individual’s oeuvre. From a functional perspective, the Collection fulfils a role as an investment, an asset designed for financial growth. The Cbus patronage is a remarkable gesture of faith in the cultural as well as the fiscal value of Australian art. The richness that lies within a collection of 320 works is impossible to consider in one brief overview. Instead, inspired by the simile of these holdings as a precious, many-sided gem, some of the numerous facets of the Cbus Collection are reviewed for the insights they offer.

A chronicle of Australian art

The earliest works in the Collection are by some of Australia’s first professional artists, notable practitioners schooled in Europe who subsequently settled in Australia over the 1830s to 1850s. Samuel Gill, Conrad Martens, Louis Buvelot and Eugene von Guérard establish the character of both this Collection and Australian art of the day, with oil paintings and watercolours of south-eastern Australia. Paintings by these four artists reveal the breadth of approaches employed by artists in the mid-nineteenth century to convey a country and its rapidly developing culture. The surveying eye of Gill presents a popular cartographic style of view, in contrast to the heightened drama of the low horizon lines and changing skies incorporated by Buvelot and von Guérard in their reworkings of the devices of the French Barbizon School of artists employed to define the structure of the landscape.

Australian born artists of this period devoted themselves to conveying the beauty and sublime grandeur of their local landscape. For W.C. Piguenit, this comprised the environs of Tasmania and New South Wales, depicted in his images Mt Wellington from Newtown Bay (1872) and Lane Cove from above the bridge (1893). Artists who were either born in Europe or travelled there, (predominantly residing in England and France), including Tudor St. George Tucker, Rupert Bunny and Emanuel Phillips Fox, incorporated in their art the principles of advanced painting occurring overseas. Their personalised adaptations of French impressionism and post-impressionism set the foundations for the avant-garde styles of Australian art occurring at the turn of the twentieth century.

The development of a distinctly Australian impressionism elevated the careers of Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, David Davies and William McInnes. Their sunlit, soft-focus landscapes or atmospheric city scenes were critically heralded, interpreted as conveying recognisably Australian scenery with sentiments that were truthful to the landscape yet nostalgic for colonial daily life.

As the twentieth century unrolled across two world wars, the atmospheric pictorialism of post-impressionism was gradually superseded by an increasing naturalism aligned with the preference for local subject matter. As romantic evocations of the fertile, ‘New World’ land and its workers, the two paintings by Elioth Gruner, Field (1917) and Rolling hills, Yass (1929), make interesting comparisons with Hans Heysen’s Summer afternoon, Ambleside (1936). Emma Minnie Boyd’s Landscape with wattle (1912) encapsulated the emotive engagement of an established female artist engaged in a lifelong enquiry into the state of nature.

These first decades of the century were momentous times for cultural change, as the new ideas and forms of modern life were absorbed. Bringing knowledge of art from eastern and western Europe to Australia in 1922, Danila Vassilieff contributed to the development of modernism in Melbourne and beyond. His expressionism, apparent in Street scene (c.1937), inspired others to move away from literal representations of reality to freer styles of painting.

Margaret Preston’s Coastal gums (1929) indicates this artist’s adoption of native flora as a device suited to stylistic exploration, subsequently attracting her to the iconography of Australian Indigenous art in her search for an identifiably Australian art. Works by female artists evidence the determination of women to forge independent practices. Emma Minnie Boyd was formative in establishing a public career, and the achievements of Eveline Syme, Nora Heysen, Vida Lahey; as well as Sybil Craig, Freda Robertshaw, Jean Bellette, Dorrit Black and Grace Cossington Smith are signalled in the Collection with works from the 1930s and 1940s.

By the 1940s, a confidence to pursue innovative practices is evident in the variety of creative attitudes, which in landscape paintings range from Lloyd Rees’ Spring afternoon, Werri Beach (c.1948) to Russell Drysdale’s The fossicker (1949). Subsequent to World War II, developments in travel and communications led to Australian artists being more conversant with the advances in international modernism. New interests are evident in the high colour, cubist inspiration of Weaver Hawkins’ Figures in a garden (1948) or Tony Tuckson’s engagement with Oceanic and contemporary art that informed his abstract Untitled drawing #3 (Multicoloured grid) (TD388) (c.1953-56).

Few artists in the 1950s and 1960s were as adventurous as the calligraphic Tuckson, or working as non-representationally as Ralph Balson, with his geometric and subsequent Matter series, from which Matter painting (painting No. 8) (1960) derives. John Passmore’s The seagull (1958) exquisitely reflects a distinctive mathematical style of abstraction by a Sydney artist. Stylistic experimentation was constant, even if retrospective compared to international precedents, and undertaken for its own value regardless of trends, as in the late cubist adventures of Frank Hinder, including Brown/green penetration (1968), images of philosophical voyages into natural realms. The surrealist conjunction of unlikely motifs, important for Melbourne artists such as Albert Tucker, Clifton Pugh and Danila Vassilieff in the 1940s was also a notable characteristic in the work of Sydney artists Adrian Feint and Herbert Badham, visible respectively in Summer at Pittwater (1951) and Study for The Expulsion (1956), and shared by Godfrey Miller early in his career, noticeable in his Space movement 1 (1936).

The signature styles of Australia’s most notable modern artists are written across the Collection. Joy Hester’s Faces (c.1948) from her Lovers series is a beautiful counterpoint to Charles Blackman’s painting of his wife Barbara (c.1960). Blackman’s muse, Barbara was the key to his subsequent Alice in Wonderland series, paintings of technical and stylistic innovation. By the period of Parrots in bush (c.1962), Albert Tucker had returned from residing in Europe to a fresh immersion in the Victorian bush, adding a new interest in the Australian landscape to his fascination with history and mythology. Sidney Nolan, having previously developed his Ned Kelly series and subsequently visited remote Australia and Europe, synthesised his individual vision of a metaphysical terrain with personal and historical associations in images such as River (1964). A generation later, Fred Williams offered an equally distinctive response to the forests and plains of Australia in paintings including Sherbrooke Forest (c.1960), Echuca landscape (1960–62) and Sapling forest (1960–62).

As this chronology proceeds, so too does the proportional representation within the Collection.1 The largest segment of the Collection comprises works made during the last four decades (1960s–90s), hence its ability to reprise many of the recent developments in Australian painting. Works by David Aspden, Alun Leach-Jones, Owen Piggott, Asher Bilu, Archibald F. Cuthbertson, John Firth-Smith, Roger Kemp, Leonard French, Michael Johnson, Gunter Christmann, Hilarie Mais, Robert Hunter, Robert Owen, Lesley Dumbrell and Stieg Persson convey the breadth of abstraction: from proto-cubist, lyrical and neo-expressionist, to the symbolic and non-objective. The continued relevance of figuration for John Brack, Peter Booth, Bernhard Sachs and Mandy Martin is evident, and the particular synthesis of abstraction and figuration developed in the practices of artists such as Tim Johnson and Jon Cattapan is recognised with noteworthy works. Richard Larter’s Well alright, so now (1970) acknowledges distinctive engagements with popular culture, and a passion for deliberate naïvety is cultivated by neo-expressionist David Larwill in Departure T (1985).

A period of significant change in art and culture is marked by Lindy Lee’s Black+black+black – at the close of this fierce vision (1990) and Jan Nelson’s La luna 1 – the long century (1991). With Stephen Bush’s Bluff (1990–91), these images reconsider history painting and rework the past, deploying classical and sublime tropes at a moment when painting’s endgame had been declared and Australia’s post-colonial condition was being critiqued.

Painting in Australia plays other roles in documenting and activating contemporary culture and experience. A major feature of the Collection is its range of paintings by Indigenous artists from remote communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Wally Mandarrk’s group of bark paintings express knowledge and stories of the land personally entrusted to the artist. Works on canvas by artists from various language groups are strong examples of individual art making and the unique development of painting in central desert communities. Works such as Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s Snake and witchetty grub (c.1990), Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Untitled (Alhalkere) (1994) and Argyle diamond mine (1997) by Queenie McKenzie bring together mythological, ancestral and seasonal stories of the artist’s country.

A nation album

A distinct feature of the Collection is the perspective it offers on two centuries of changing perceptions of the nation. The earliest works project the promise of terra nullius, a wide, brown land without owners. S.T. Gill’s View of Adelaide from Belair Road (c.1840s), Eugene von Guérard’s On the Americkan Creek near Woolongong (sic) (c.1861), and Louis Buvelot’s Pastoral (1871) together promote a romanticised, serene landscape, available as a resource for human industry.

Artists took time to overcome the perceptions formed by a European way of seeing, and often idealised working life, as can be seen in Jan Scheltema’s Horses and figure (c.1890s). Artistic conventions, such as composition and painting style, relied for some time on European precedents, which could range from seventeenth century Claudian landscape formats and Dutch landscape painting, to more contemporaneous nineteenth century British models such as the art of John Constable. After a century of settlement, the nostalgia of Henry Johnstone’s luminous Cottage near Dromana (1872) clearly faced supersession.

The aesthetics of impressionism that developed in Europe in the later part of the nineteenth century are felt in the colouration and ambience of David Davies’ Moonrise (c.1894), Elioth Gruner’s Field (1917) and Theodore Penleigh Boyd’s Jamieson Valley (1922), as well as John Peter Russell’s evocations of evening reverie. Frederick McCubbin’s Hillside, Macedon (1904) fuses antipodean and Old World imagery in what was celebrated at the time as a suitably local naturalism. Similarly, George Lambert’s The dead tree (1926) signals the centrality of the pastoral economy in Australian society and the struggles of land ownership, while instilling the values and rewards of labour. By the 1920s, when Hans Heysen painted Two horses grazing amongst the gums (1926), the land is intoned in poetry, writing and art as a grand, verdant bounty awaiting exploitation.

The cultural mythology of an agrarian oneness with nature bore little relation to the urban environments or the harsh realities of much of the continent. Having experienced central Australia and the treatment of its Indigenous inhabitants, Russell Drysdale sensitively conveys the idea of an immense and alien inland environment in The fossicker (1949), while Lawrence Daws’ Yam Creek (1961) evokes the dark and tragic history of Indigenous and European contact.

The arrival of modernism allowed artists such as William Frater, and subsequently Sidney Nolan, Clifton Pugh, Lloyd Rees, Fred Williams and John Olsen to name a few, the freedom to respond directly and symbolically to contemporary interests. Energised by the task of reflecting on nature, Leonard French, George Johnson, John Coburn and Jan Senbergs developed distinctly personal abstract vocabularies to convey visual and sensual associations and philosophical interpretations of the physical world. Tim Storrier and William Delafield Cook also established distinctive oeuvres with variations on naturalism and hyperrealism. In a more painterly manner, Peter Booth’s Winter (1988) re-invokes a European clime, with a sense of apocalyptic finality. Working with assemblage to evoke the connotations of found materials, Rosalie Gascoigne collaged discarded bullion-coloured reflective road signs to refer to apocryphal gold diggings in Lasseter’s reef (1996–97).

A theme of urban life under the unstoppable forces of economic growth is also discernable in the Collection. W.C. Piguenit’s Lane Cove from above the bridge (1893) and Arthur Streeton’s Balmain and Leichhardt (1921) contrast changing aesthetic responses to a cityscape and its developing industry. An engineering feat and symbol of a modern maturity, the new Sydney Harbour Bridge provided an iconic subject for artists ranging from Arthur Boxall in his Building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1930) to Grace Cossington Smith. Arthur Boyd observed the local industrialisation occurring in outer Melbourne in Northcote quarry (c.1940). Danila Vassilieff and Murray Griffin depict the gritty beauty of inner city spaces, while Michael Shannon’s painting delights in the atmosphere of suburban Melbourne. Evoking English artist J.M.W. Turner’s well-known painting of the Great Western Railway in 1844, and perhaps sharing his revolutionary sentiment of finding beauty in the sights and sounds of modernity, is Mandy Martin’s large scale APM rain, steam and speed (1990).

Howard Arkley’s Dull home (1998), a work that simultaneously denigrates and rejoices in the ugliness of Australian suburban culture, belongs to a society undergoing shifting attitudes to urban living. Contrastingly, images such as Jeffrey Smart’s Study for Man with bouquet (1981), Tim Maguire’s Orange column or Corinth (1987) and David Keeling’s Two girls in the city (1990) disconcertingly evoke associations of a past European classicism and surrealist disquiet reminiscent of the paintings of Italian modernist Giorgio de Chrico.

Our land is girt by sea

Within the many landscapes in the Collection are numerous sea and river views. From Conrad Martens’ Tahlee, Port Stephens, NSW (1841) to Andrew Browne’s optical image Seascape with outcrop, Sorrento (2002), a range of images reveal personal, historical and aesthetic responses to shorelines and waterways. Haughton Forrest’s River landscape (c.1880), Arthur Streeton’s Sydney coves in Balmain & Leichhardt (1921), Lawrence Daws’ Yam Creek (1961), George Lawrence’s Landscape at Minnamurra (1965), Frank Hodgkinson’s Darling Harbour I (1986), Thomas Garrett’s Lake scene (c.1946–48), Jeffrey Makin’s Cedar Creek Falls No. 2 (1988) and Hawkesbury River (1989) by Elizabeth Cuming document particular sites.

Brett Whiteley’s passion for Sydney Harbour and interest in its development is articulated in Preliminary notes for ‘Harry’s building’ (1976). Other paintings, such as Sidney Nolan’s River (1964) with its overtones of spiritual sacrifice and Ken Whisson’s sketch-like abstraction Water and light (1999) express personally inflected responses to nature.

Since the nineteenth century, the beach has been a perennial theme in Australian art. Tudor St. George Tucker depicts the continental coast as a traditional destination for recuperation in Our tent at Swanage, Dorsetshire (c.1903), a painting made after his return to England and the onset of bad health. Thea Proctor’s The seaside (c.1923) is a lively, imaginative work, full of joie de vivre conveyed in a swinging, art nouveau style. Living in Beaumaris, outer Melbourne, Clarice Beckett conveyed her local beaches with a style of impressionism that cast a sobriety over an atmosphere of calm and light. Kenneth MacQueen’s Receding tide, near Coolum, Queensland (c.1940–50), the cubist forms of Shay Docking’s Port Fairy image (1957), the ambience of Spring afternoon, Werri Beach (c.1948) by Lloyd Rees and John Firth-Smith’s hyperbolic Waves #1 (1987) span a raft of distinctive coastal environments.

River locations have also held significance for artists. Arthur Boyd frequented the Shoalhaven river area in New South Wales from the start of the 1970s. Taking up residence at Bundanon in 1979, Boyd painted many images in the manner of Shoalhaven riverbanks and large stones (1981). Enjoying the environment at Williamstown in Victoria, John Perceval returned to the waterfront locale in many expressive images, exemplified by Seagulls and sulphur smoke at Williamstown (1990). Mandy Martin’s Outer Harbour, Port Kembla (1989) presents a more sombre view of a working harbour. Growing up in Frankston, outer Melbourne, Rick Amor has enjoyed painting plein air but also creates surreal, mysterious coastal scenes, of which Threatening weather (1997) is indicative.

Portrait gallery

Amongst the many identifiable themes in the Collection is the depiction of the figure. Benjamin Minns’ etching Aboriginal man and woman (n.d.), a remarkable inclusion both historically and culturally, offers a powerful portrait. The genre of the nude in art, and the changes to convention with the shifting social and cultural place of women, can be considered through four images: Rupert Bunny’s Study for Endormies (c.1904), E. Phillips Fox’s Le repose (c.1909–11), Janet Cumbrae Stewart’s Portrait of Jean Shaw (1918) and Tom Roberts’ Portrait of a young girl (1909). Here the female is variously depicted as the artist’s muse, as beautiful, sensual and close to nature, as an idealised and metaphorical subject, as a social stereotype, and, finally, as an individual.

The female sitter’s role in Bernard Hall’s In the studio (c.1924) is reduced to symbolism, diminished to lesser importance than the creative life, civic values and family. This was the reality faced by women artists, who often sacrificed the experiences of family and security in the process of establishing professional careers. The diminutive figure in Dorrit Blacks’ Farmhouse, Mt Torrens (c.1945) sits alone in the shadow of her veranda. Jean Bellette’s women have, by contrast, a statuesque solidity and monumentality. Sybil Craig’s representation in the Collection includes the Victorian era Family group (n.d.) showing a mother figure taunted by her charges.

Motivated by a strong social conscience, Vic O’Connor and Noel Counihan respectively convey the tough lives of individual workers in Study for The Irish barmaid (n.d.) and The injured miner (1963). Observed as part of a life class exercise, Ballerina (1955) is an academic study by student Janet Dawson. Other images of the time range from the idiosyncratic in style, as in Edwin Tanner’s humorous Self portrait of artist stunting (1958), to formative works within an artist’s oeuvre, exemplified by Antipodean head (intruder) (1962), one of an ongoing body of works commenced in the 1950s in which Albert Tucker renewed the connection to his homeland.

Allegory, mythical and metaphysical portent remain a pretext for depictions of the female body, as evident in Arthur Murch’s Leda and the swan (c.1950) and Michael Kmit’s Cassandra (1979). Social and sexual representations of the gender also remain, despite and as part of increasing cultural critique. They include Ray Crooke’s Waiting (1982) depicting a woman who waits alongside a suggestively empty wooden bowl; George Baldessin’s seductive femme fatale, clearly articulated in Girl in striped dress with bouquet of flowers (c.1977) and John Brack’s series of uneasy nudes represented by the print Nude in profile (1978). Contrary to convention are the explorations of masculinity in Bernhard Sachs’ enormous drawing Nervous interior/During philosophy – Group portrait with head (1988), or Juan Davila’s untitled image from 1994 in which the historical roles of bodies, gender and cultural and social orthodoxies are troubled.

The female world contains both the domestic ennui of Cressida Campbell’s Reflection of mosquito coils (1980) to celebrity sexual adventure, imagined by Davida Allen in Rosie’s bedroom scene No. 2 (1986). In her image of happy families, Many a lovely picnic has been spoiled by one act of disobedience (1988), in which the central flag-waving figure from Delacroix’s Victory leading the people (1830) storms the horizon, Sarah Curtis sends a salutary reminder of the incomplete female struggle for personal and political freedom. Deborah Walker’s The tyranny II (1990) seems to suggest that Germaine Greer’s female eunuchs have not yet left the stage.

Local species

Looking at the Collection from a different perspective reveals a seam comprising the still life genre. As if her human sitter resembles life stilled, Vicky Varvaressos’s Portrait of Frank Watters (1980) comically equates the established Sydney dealer with the domestic plant arrangement at his side. Equally, the domestic interior provides a traditional framing device for Brian Dunlop’s Portrait of Dr Joseph Brown (1991).

Renowned for both portraits and still lives, Nora Heysen’s facility is evident in the realistic Still life of bottles (1926), the earliest work on this theme in the Collection. Many women, including Vida Lahey and Alice Bale, enjoyed the opportunities still life offered to work with an accessible and popular subject matter, and found within it creative challenges. Margaret Preston was noteworthy for combining her interest in developing a simplified, modern style with a passion for local flora in paintings as well as works on paper, such as Flowers in jug (c.1929). Sybil Craig and Freda Robertshaw’s pursuit of modernist developments is similarly visible in their still life paintings in the Collection.

Roy de Maistre demonstrates how still life fosters formal and conceptual exploration in Still life study in grey green (1952). The academic perfection of Margaret Olley’s Still life with marigolds and oranges (c.1973) contrasts the flattened perspective, exotic colour and suggestive fruits of Donald Friend’s Still life with a figure (n.d.). The variety of approaches within this one genre, including the tactile impasto of Varvaressos’ Still life – Hippiastrums (1986), gestalt forms in Kevin Lincoln’s Still life/Black pipe (1989) and tongue-in-cheek, celebratory renegotiation of the art of Picasso in Robert Jacks’ Guitar woman (1997) demonstrate the individual and creative verve found within this theme.

Collections are by nature compilations that reflect the connoisseurship and resources of their owners, and of the period. In this instance, the collecting has been shaped by the keen eye of Dr Joseph Brown, and his long-standing knowledge of recent and historical Australian art. A final fascinating quality of the Collection has been its dispersed location, with works currently housed across eastern Australia’s regional gallery network. The varied curatorial interpretation of Cbus Collection works in galleries since 1992 has fostered new dialogues within Australian art. This unique Collection bridges the eras of colonial and contemporary Australia, and its settler and Indigenous inhabitants, offering a viewfinder through which to enjoy and appreciate the human capacity to respond to our natural, social and cultural worlds.

Zara Stanhope
Curator and writer in the visual arts


1 There are almost twice as many paintings dating from the 1940s and 1950s as the number of works from all previous decades, and the number of works dated 1960s to 1980s in the Collection is double this number again. Most works date from the 1990s, the decade of the establishment of the Collection, signalling the economy of collecting works at their time of creation, and providing the Collection with a contemporary character.