In the fiery furnace: Streeton's Fire’s On, 1891

Arthur Streeton, Fire’s On, 1891, oil on canvas. Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Nationalism and Impressionism were the big ideas for artists in Melbourne when Arthur Streeton was a young student. In 1888 Australia celebrated the nation's centenary of its colonisation by Britain. New painting, not yet seen in the original, was understood to be Frenchified, loosely-handled landscape executed en plein air (outdoors); although today we prefer to categorise such middle-of-the road work as Naturalism, the young Australians sometimes then called themselves Impressionists. Streeton, in 1891, aged 24, produced what remains his most important work, a subject of strong masculine labour in which the figures have shrunk to ant-like accents in a peculiarly heat-baked Australian landscape where the land itself has become a violent animist force, and murderous.

In 1887 a somewhat older student, John Longstaff, won the first Travelling Scholarship offered in Melbourne by the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. Painted in the art school studio, his substantial canvas (Collection: Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, bought 1933) was an academic, carefully-rendered figure composition titled Breaking the News. It shows the interior of a workman’s home: a fireplace clock tells the time is 5 am and an early-morning breakfast and a young wife await a miner returning from nightshift. But her husband’s body, born on a rough litter by his mates, waits outside the open door while their senior foreman tenderly breaks news of the miner’s death.

Longstaff’s subject is from Melbourne’s hinterland goldfields, characterised by a glimpse of a poppet head on the skyline beyond the cortège. He had been inspired by Australia's worst below-ground gold-mining tragedy, the New Australasian Gold Mine Disaster, which occurred in December 1882 at Creswick, very close to his own hometown of Clunes. When first exhibited, the papers praised “... the greatest picture of the year … something to tell us that the artist is getting into our Australian life and illustrating it … a vivid and accurate presentment of a familiar incident in Australian life.”[1] Soon reproduced as a print, Breaking the News was familiar in mining townships throughout Australia. As well as fame, it gave Longstaff good money: £150 annually for three years of study in Europe.

Streeton never sought or achieved academic mastery of figure drawing or composition. Instead, he would express his nationalism through intense physical and visual immersion in the colour, light, texture, temperature, sound and movement of Australian nature.

He loved romantic poetry and music as much as painting, and became great friends from early 1891 with the new Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne, George Marshall-Hall, a wild Bohemian Wagnerite, socialist and atheist. The year previously, Streeton’s tranquil twilight landscape Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide – a suburban Melbourne view of River Yarra flats at Heidelberg, titled with a line from Wordsworth – had been bought for the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. The 22-year-old Melburnian artist was thenceforth a celebrity. Marshall-Hall later dedicated a poem to Streeton, and from the beginning of their close friendship nudged the artist’s tastes towards the newest French Symbolism, a wilder art and literary movement than English Romanticism, and extremely anti-naturalist.

While testing a move from Melbourne to the more sympathetic art patronage of Sydney, Streeton in 1891 was also hoping somehow to emulate Tom Roberts, his most important artist friend and mentor. Roberts had just completed Shearing the rams, 1888–90 (Collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, bought 1932), an academically-proficient figure subject painted on-site in an inland woolshed. The six-foot (184 cm) canvas, with its imposing size as well as its thoroughly Australian subject of strong masculine labour creating Australia’s “Golden Fleece” wealth, was targeted at a broad public audience and eventually, as intended by Roberts, achieved iconic status.

Streeton wrote to Roberts early in 1891:

… I must produce bigger more serious things [than lyrical views at suburban Heidelberg] …the Murray at its source up toward Kosciusko … the great gold plains … I love the thought of walking into all this & trying to expand & express it in my way. I fancy large canvases all glowing and moving … & others bright decorative & chalky & expressive of the hot trying winds and the slow immense summer … drought & cracks in the earth & creeks all baked mud.[2]

The recent success of Longstaff’s Breaking the News reinforced mining as a suitably iconic subject for Australian art, equal to wool-growing. Streeton had gone to the Blue Mountains foothills to paint a panoramic view of the plain looking back to Sydney, for a watercolour landscape competition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (Valley of the Nepean, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia failed to win a prize.) Then, nearby on the same escarpment, heading west towards the mountains, he came across a tent city and tunnelling site, a kind of mining subject.

Streeton had moved further into the hills when he wrote to another artist mate in Melbourne, Frederick McCubbin, about rising to bathe with the rising sun:

… he [the sun] goes with me through the dewy forest, and is very intimate with me as I step through wondrous wild flowers … bloodwood, grey gum, turpentine tree, wattle … I bare my white limbs…as my skin is gently warmed all over with the flood of sun. … Below me runs a crystal virgin brook [which] rushes tickling me … dry myself on a sunny rock … back to breakfast … pack lunch, stacks of passionfruit … off at 9.30 to my work … through a canyon where big brown men are toiling all the hot day excavating and making a [railway] tunnel … I’ve past the west mouth and arrived at my subject, the other mouth, which gapes like a great dragon’s mouth at the perfect flood of hot sunlight. … a vast hill of bright sandstone … deep blue azure heaven … below me the men work, some with shovels, others drilling for a blast. 

I work on a W.Color drying too quickly and the ganger cries “Fire!”, “Fire’s on!”; all the men drop their tools and scatter … and I skip off my perch and hide behind a safe rock. A deep hush – then, “Holy Smoke”, a boom of thunder shakes the rock and me. It echoes ’mid the crashing of tons of rock … lumps fall and fly among the trees; then a thick cloud laden with the fumes of blasting powder… All at work once more – more drills; the rock a blazing glory of white, orange, cream and blue streaks… At 12 all knock off … I crawl under a shady rock and have lunch and inspect my arms … bronzed with the flood of palpitating summer sunlight. Prop up my work … I’ll soon begin a big canvas oilcolor of this. I think it looks stunning. ’Tis like painting in the “Burning Fiery Furnace.”[3]

The big canvas version, started outdoors by 6 November “on a rock like an eagle’s eyrie,” was a supremely ambitious six-footer, the same size as Roberts’s Shearing the Rams, but its format was unusual for a landscape: it was upright. The land into which Streeton had immersed himself – and walked through daily and observed “glowing and moving” – had risen to become a kind of mythic figure, a fiery earth dragon aroused by human interference. Fire’s On, Streeton’s greatest work, is a rare image of nature killing humankind.

A letter to Roberts tells of hearing that a few days before starting the big canvas:

…a man [was] blown to awful death here … and next morning another had lit two mines & was retreating for safety & a rock fell & pinned him to the earth & there he lay with burning fuse on each side, his legs crushed & two ribs broken… He may live yet.[4]

Another letter to Roberts, mid-December, tells what suddenly inspired the final treatment of the subject. No longer a descriptive account – as in the small watercolour version (Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales) – of men at work shovelling earth into wheelbarrows and horse- and railway-wagons, the figures in the big canvas are distanced into insect size. And a hard diagonal of spillage from a cart directs our gaze to a bloodstained corpse emerging from the earth-dragon’s mouth:

This morning hot, windy & warm as I travel down the line & the mirage sizzling and jiggering over the railway track. I arrive at my cutting “The fatal cutting”. … 12 o’clock. The next shift comes toddling down the hot track… I commence my lunch & tea … and now I hear “Fire! Fire’s on!” … & BOOM & then rumbling of rock. The navvy with me & watching says “man killed”… we peep over & he lies all hidden bar his legs – and now men, nippers & 2 women hurry down, a woman with a bottle and rags … they raise the rock & lift him onto a stretcher, fold his arms over his chest & slowly 6 of ’em carry him past me – Oh how full of dread is the grey expression of death –‘tis like a whirlpool for the eyes… as a navvy said ’twas “Anorrible sight”– By jove, a passing corpse does chain your eyes & indeed all your senses just as strongly as love… The men didn’t go back to work – this sort of thing skeers them a bit.[5]

The painting made its first appearance, in Melbourne, in May 1892. Marshall-Hall reported to Roberts in Sydney:

Streeton’s “Mine”[Fire’s on] is a wonder of colour and force …such a poetical conception of this last hole in the world! And the damned souls flitting in this purgatory don’t like it! It makes one gnash one’s teeth![6]

Marshall-Hall’s reference is both Biblical and Dantean, and Streeton’s own “Burning Fiery Furnace” was an Old Testament miracle story of men surviving in Babylon immersed in the alien element of fire. Streeton’s feeling for the “sizzling and jiggering” mirage that fatal midsummer day in Australia, and for echoing sounds of explosions and flying rockfalls, must have suggested the assertive angularities of rocks and inserted trees and shadows in the oil painting, and the mid-day timing of the tragedy must have suggested the intense zenith-blue sky – very different from the rounded rocks and morning sky of the more realistic watercolour.

As soon as it was exhibited in Sydney, in 1893, the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought Fire’s On, and for the first Sydney audience its title received the appended topographical identification “(Lapstone Tunnel)”. But it is a Symbolist emotion, true to Australian mining in general, and not a topography. So when lent to Melbourne in 1896 for “Streeton’s Sydney Sunshine Exhibition” and to London in 1898 for an ‘Exhibition of Australian Art’ at the Grafton Galleries, it regained its generalised title, signifying imminent danger, and fright.

Now Fire’s On is in London again, at the Royal Academy, in an exhibition, simply titled Australia, which surveys land and landscape from 1800 to 2013. Australia the exhibition includes a few other mining and earth-conscious subjects.

Joseph Lycett’s 1818 canvas Inner view of Newcastle depicts a settlement named after England’s great coal-mining city, and today claimed to be the world’s largest coal-export port. Augustus Earle’s Blue Mountains 1826 watercolour View from the summit of Mount York, looking towards Bathurst Plains, convicts breaking stones is a road-making precursor to the railway-tunnelling of Fire’s on. Another watercolour, S.T. Gill’s Diggings in the Mount Alexander District of Victoria in 1852, executed in 1874, is one of his many illustrations of the great gold-rush period that were still in demand years after the rush had peaked.

More intense than Gill’s are watercolour songs of the earth by the colonial surveyor E.C. Frome exploring salt-desert country towards Broken Hill in 1843, and by the Burke & Wills expedition artist Ludwig Becker of Sand cliffs on the Darling River and a Mud desert near Desolation Camp in 1860–61. In 1863 Eugene von Guérard’s canvases relish the rocky summit of Kosciusko, Australia’s highest mountain, and in 1858 the fertile volcanic Western District of Victoria in a pair of Purrumbete homestead views. Tom Roberts’s Slumbering Sea, Mentone (1887), contains a story of holiday bayside exploration, instructive for children, of a fossil site near Melbourne.

Hans Heysen’s 1932 watercolour The Land of the Oratunga, in the arid Flinders Ranges, is of country where many small copper and gold mines once briefly operated – and where the nearby Ediacara Hills and their world’s-oldest fossils have recently (2004) given a name to the pre-Cambrian Ediacaran geological period of 600 million years ago. Sidney Nolan’s Inland Australia, 1950, is from his extensive series of rapidly painted, photo-based, ancient red-desert eroded geology in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, seen from the air and heaving like the ocean. His Pretty Polly Mine, 1948, also photo-based, is a subject found at Mount Isa in Queensland during the artist’s first extended campaign through outback Australia, one of several that indulged in the pleasures of old-fashionedness, obsolescence, and abandonment: settlers’ traces melt back into warm Australian earth.

Finally note that the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy includes Arthur Boyd’s The Mining Town (Casting the money-lenders from the Temple), 1946. The poppet head is an image from gold-mining Bendigo, where Boyd worked for a while, but has reached the shoreline of financial-hub Melbourne. A turbulent Bruegelian crowd of cripples and animals, farmers and city-dwelling financiers, is of course in no way a visual record: Boyd’s paintings are ambiguous moralities. Here he suggests that wealth-creation by financial manipulation, or by exhaustion of non-renewable minerals, could be as un-Christian as using sacred ground in Jerusalem for an animal market: Jesus, angered, cleansed the Temple. Boyd expresses doubt about the consequences of mining, and fear, more explicitly than Streeton.

Footnotes

  1. ^ The Argus, April 1887, quoted in Jane Clark & Bridget Whitelaw, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond, exh cat, Melbourne, NGV, 1986, p. 47.
  2. ^ Ann Galbally & Anne Gray, Letters from Smike, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, p. 30.
  3. ^ R. H. Croll (ed.), Smike to Bulldog: Letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, Ure Smith Ltd, Sydney, 1946, pp.20–22.
  4. ^ Galbally & Gray, op. cit. p. 41, but there dated to “late December” whereas R.H. Croll, Tom Roberts: Father of Australian landscape painting, Melbourne, 1935 more plausibly dates the letter to 6 November 1891.
  5. ^ Galbally & Gray, pp. 39–40.
  6. ^ Croll, Tom Roberts, 1935, p. 59.

Daniel Thomas, once chief curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; founding head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, is now retired and living in Tasmania but writes on occasion, most recently for the exhibition Australia at the Royal Academy, London, September–December 2013.

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