Traditions of the Heidelberg school of Painters
The Heidelberg school was the first significant art movement in Australia.
Dominating Australian art for about thirty years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the group was led by Thomas William Roberts (1856-1931), and included Charles Conder (1868-1909), Sir Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1943), and Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917).
Heavily influenced by French Impressionism, Roberts believed that it offered the direction for an authentically Australian painting style.
The group often met in the Australian bush near Heidelberg, Victoria, for a series of “camps” between 1887 and 1890. First gaining recognition at an exhibition in Melbourne in 1889, the Heidelberg school was viewed as a direct challenge to the prevailing trend in Australian art, which was characteristically very polished and dark in color. Although the group had virtually disbanded in 1900, its vision of the Australian landscape inspired many landscape and social realist painters in later decades.
The naming of the “Heidelberg School of Painters” in 1891 came from a critic, Sidney Dickinson. He named Walter Withers and Arthur Streeton as the leaders of ‘the Heidelberg School’. Dickinson said of Arthur Streeton’s work – “Mr Streeton’s pictures are very typical of the Australian scenery … boldly and vigorously painted, broad in effect and with striking contrasts and robust harmonious of colour …. Truth to local colour is one of Mr Streeton’s strong merits … he sees it readily and describes it with admirable positiveness”.
The connection for most of the artists of that era was the independent ‘Life-Club’, the Gallery School of Design, the Artisans School of Design, the Victorian Artists Society, the Buonarotti Society and their desire to paint plein air.
During the war, petrol was in short supply and painting expeditions were largely confined to the Heidelberg/Templestowe/Eltham area. The house in Cape Street proved a useful starting point for these excursions. On Saturday afternoons, a painting colleague or two would arrive and the group would sally forth, usually travelling in the car having the most petrol. Names from this period include, among others, Ernest Buckmaster, Max Casey, Alfred Coleman, Bertrand Fiven and, later, Hod. Kurban.
An anecdote from this period is worthy of inclusion, if only to illustrate the mood of the time. One afternoon, circa 1940, Salter and Bertrand Fiven had set up their easels somewhere along the Banyule Road, when a farmer, complete with shotgun and two large dogs arrived. He angrily demanded to know their business.
An explanation took some time to emerge. Both men were dressed similarly in Army disposals, slouch hats and blue boiler suits, while from a distance their easels looked rather like surveyors’ tripods. Only about 2 km. to the north, the Army had just taken over an area known as Simpson Barracks (Watsonia Army Camp), and the farmer feared that a survey, prior to annexation of his land, was in progress. The artists decided to call it a day, rather than annoy the farmer further.
Two of the pictures are early examples of his work, and show influence of the Meldrum style; in later work he adopted a “post-impressionist” approach similar to the original Heidelberg School. Both pictures were painted during World War II; the canvases are stretched on thick particle board, a technique used at a time when conventional canvas stretchers were unobtainable.
The first picture is titled simply “Heidelberg Gasworks”, and shows a typical working scene. It is interesting to compare the working conditions depicted in the painting with those of today. There were no Occupational Health and Safety Regulations then. Coal gas was extracted from coal, by the process of heating the coal in a coke-fired retort. Coal was simply dumped in heaps in front of the retorts, then shovelled in by hand. When the gas had all been driven off, the solid residue, now called coke, had to be removed either by a mechanical ram-rod or manually (shovels). The fire-box also had to be stoked with some of the coke, the remainder being sold for use as fuel in industry and homes. It was hard, hot, back-breaking work, with smoke billowing from every vent and fissure, while coal dust and the smell of the gas added to the discomfort. It was so hot under foot that the workers wore wooden-soled shoes.
It was particularly spectacular at night. Small boys would stand in awe as a retort or fire-box was charged. The door would wing open, followed by a belch of smoke, flames and sparks, then the stokers would be seen in stark silhouette against the hot interior.
At the time of painting, the original gasometer, the remains of which can be seen in the foreground, had been replaced by two gasometers on the opposite (south) side of Banksia Street. The two men on the right of the picture are throwing shovel fulls of coke against a large sieve. The larger coke pieces would be shipped in bulk to such users as the BHP furnaces in Newcastle, while the smaller pieces would be bagged for home deliveries. The function being performed by the man standing high up, left of centre, is uncertain, but he may be altering the retort temperature by controlling the flow of air through the fire-box.
The second picture was titled by the artist, “The Old Blockhouse, Banyule”. Several people familiar with the area during World War II have been asked to identify the building and have agreed that it was almost certainly in the Banyule/Viewbank area. The first possibility is that it was “mud brick stables on the river flats below Banyule”, as reported in the “Argus” newspaper in the early 1900s and strongly held by Ida Salter, Ern’s wife, who states that the building was definitely on the flats below Banyule. The second is that it shows a building which stood on the ridge of a hill about 1 km. west of Banyule in the vicinity of Hodgson Street and which is said to have been used as an overnight strongroom for gold shipments from the Caledonia fields (Diamond Creek/Panton Hills area). The third possibility is that it is one of the old buildings which once stood on or in the vicinity of Viewbank, the place of one of Ern’s close friends on the far side of the Plenty River opposite Viewbank.