Frederick MCCUBBIN | Winter sunlight

Frederick MCCUBBIN
Australia 1855 – 1917

Winter sunlight 1908
oil on canvas
50.8 (h) x 76.2 (w) cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide gift of T.C. Lothian, 1960


This enchanting homely scene shows the garden of the artist’s house ‘Carlesberg’, at 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra, in Melbourne. The property comprised approximately three acres (1.2 hectares) of garden, extending down to the banks of the Yarra River, prior to the construction of Alexandra Avenue. It included a peppercorn tree, fruit trees and areas of natural bush in which acacias and gum trees grew, with daffodils and jonquils in spring. The painting shows a section of the overgrown garden, with hens, and a water tub for the family cow. A fence recedes diagonally into the distance where the view extends beyond the neighbouring estate of ‘Como’, to distant Burnley.

One of the first important works that McCubbin painted at South Yarra, Winter sunlight was one of a series of brilliant impressionistic landscapes painted on his return from overseas in 1907. Free of narrative, it is painted with vigour and exudes new energy—no doubt the result of his recent viewing of European art. McCubbin employed a range of techniques to apply the paint rapidly, using brush and palette knife to produce rich and lively effects. This tranquil scene is a lyrical evocation of the soft light of winter, the time of year McCubbin described as ‘that season of broken sunlight’ with its ‘dreamy soft atmosphere’ (MacDonald 1916, p 87).

Winter sunlight was highly regarded by the artist. It was one of group of paintings, including the major work Moonrise (cat 20) first exhibited in 1909 at the Victorian Artists’ Society winter exhibition in Melbourne. McCubbin selected it as the only work of his for reproduction in the catalogue, and marked it ‘not for sale’. A reviewer of the exhibition noted that ‘Winter Sunshine is replete with the tender greens of early winter’ (Age, 15 July 1909, p 8).

Later, in 1916, when a monograph on his art was produced, the publishers decided that the majority of the colour plates should illustrate his later period, after 1906, and this painting was again selected, as one of 20 reproduced in colour. In the publication it was noted that:

you at once realise that the Artist has reached his most successful stage—his golden age. There is a subtle charm about the canvas that immediately impresses you, for the painter’s sense of color and arrangement has never been more convincingly felt than in this execution. Its completeness and harmony render it undoubtedly one of his very best pictures (MacDonald 1916, pp 77–8).

McCubbin later produced another, larger version of his garden in 1916, titled Autumn morning, South Yarra (cat 72).

The Art Gallery of South Australia attempted to acquire the 1908 painting as early as 1942, on the recommendation of Hans Heysen, then a Gallery board member. By that stage it was owned by Thomas C Lothian, of the Lothian Book Publishing Company. Asked whether he was willing to sell the painting, Lothian said he was not, but that he would be glad to lend it at any time. Winter sunlight entered the collection on long term loan in 1942, and was donated to the Gallery by Lothian nearly 20 years later, in 1960.

Rebecca Andrews

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